Columns 2007

Public Broadcasting in Alaska

Before I start talking about public broadcasting in Alaska, in the interests of full disclosure I should let everyone know that not only was I once a member and co-chair of the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission, but I was also, much more notoriously, a volunteer DJ at KBRW in Barrow. My show was called Discount Radio. Its motto was, “You get what you pay for and I’m a volunteer.” I think that pretty much completely describes the program. It was two hours of whatever came into my head on a Saturday morning and I viewed it as comic relief from the professional programming heard throughout the week.

I’m not sure when I first became aware of public broadcasting but if I had to guess, I’d say it was when it first arrived in Barrow in the mid 70s as public radio station KBRW.  It didn’t take long for KBRW to go from being a novelty to being a crucial lifeline on the North Slope. There were fun programs like the Birthday Show and there were programs that dealt with critical life and safety issues as well as coverage of civic concerns. When the North Slope Borough was still a concept we were all feeling our way through, KBRW aired the monthly Assembly meetings so everyone could hear the discussions on how to spend the vast quantities of money that were suddenly falling out of the sky. At a time when loss of the Inupiat language was becoming a major concern, KBRW offered bilingual programming so that the sound of the Inupiat language was as familiar as the rhythms of English on the air.

Public broadcasting is not a luxury in Alaska. It’s a necessity. Our congressional delegation, and Senator Ted Stevens in particular, has always recognized this and been strong and effective supporters of the need to keep our statewide system intact and functioning. As funding has declined over the years, many of our small local stations are often kept on the air through nothing more than the sheer grit, determination and dedication of the staff. Yet the declining funds have in no way diminished the quality of public broadcasting’s product.  In Alaska, both public radio and television have consistently held their own against all commercials ventures, frequently bringing home first place awards against stations with triple the budget and equipment.  The Alaska Public Radio Network, APRN, produces a weekly news magazine called AK that routinely takes home first place in national competitions.

So I have to wonder why, given how critical this system is to the state and how successful it is in meeting its mandate, the Alaska legislature finds it so hard to fund public broadcasting in any meaningful manner. While the annual state budget has gone up and up and up since the early 90s, the portion of the budget allocated to public broadcasting has gone down and down and down.  There are even some legislators who would be happy to zero the whole thing out and have it go away.  Of course, those legislators usually have a specific bone to pick with public broadcasting about its insistence on remaining immune to political pressure.  Most journalists do not take well to being told what to cover and how to cover it.  Public broadcasters are no different than their compatriots in commercial ventures when it comes to insisting on their obligation to report the news as they see it and not as some politicians want it to be seen.

Public broadcasting provides a network of stations from Barrow to Ketchikan and back that covers local stories of statewide importance. It gives voice to communities that would otherwise have none. It allows even the most remote Alaskans to participate in this state’s civic life through statewide call in shows, statewide news magazine shows and statewide news broadcasts that are as apt to cover Barrow football as Juneau legislators.

It’s been a long time since state funding has in any way reflected the amazing job done by so few to benefit so many.  Maybe this year, with oil at more than $90/barrel, legislators will finally realize what an astounding organization exists in this state and fund it accordingly.  And maybe next week my financial retirement planning will finally come to fruition and I’ll win the New Jersey lottery.  One can only hope.