Remote Alaskan Radio – Weathering Storms and Reaching People
By Alex Hills
The Arctic wind stung my face. The feeling was more pain than cold. I steered the snow machine into the early morning darkness and turned onto the snow-covered tundra, pointing the machine away from town.
The snow seemed brushed with a broom, piling up in the eddy behind every object that disturbed the wind’s path. Blowing snow hid the radio station’s transmitter building that perched near an invisible coastline. With the sea frozen, snow covered both sea ice and tundra, blending them and obscuring the boundary between land and sea. The Arctic in winter was a moonscape on earth.
The transmitter for our remote Alaskan radio sent out the signal of public radio station KOTZ, which served Inupiaq communities spread along the rivers and coasts of northwest Alaska. The station’s studios were tucked into the schoolhouse in Kotzebue, a small cluster of buildings huddled on a gravel spit jutting into the Chukchi Sea.
The little town was 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Its small, wood frame houses had replaced the traditional sod huts that once squatted on the gravel spit. I was headed away from Kotzebue toward the transmitter building, less than a mile from town but with no winter road. I needed to check that things were operating properly — part of my work as manager and engineer.
I wore multiple layers to blunt the wind’s chill. The layers were topped by insulated snow pants, Inupiaq-made boots of caribou hide, down-filled mittens, and a parka with a hood trimmed in wolf fur. A knitted balaclava covered my head and face except where my eyes peered through a narrow slit that was covered by goggles. Exposed flesh would freeze in less than a minute.
I opened the door to the small transmitter building, and warm, soothing air rushed over me. I shook the snow from my parka and, once inside, stood under the electric space heater. As my body thawed, I shed my parka and mittens and went to work.
My work was minor, but when more serious technical problems arose, I would peel off layers of warm clothes and settle in to do need repairs. I sometimes plugged in a soldering iron and used it to install new parts, with the smell of the solder’s rosin and a curl of smoke in my face.
KOTZ was officially a public radio station with no advertising support, but we really didn’t fit the public radio mold. In fact, a few of the nation’s mainstream public broadcasters were horrified to hear that there was a public radio station in Alaska that was playing Top 40 and country music.
But our listeners were happy, and I was happy. We were meeting an important need. There were no commercial stations serving northwest Alaska, and there was no prospect for advertiser-supported radio in such a remote part of the state. The same was true in other rural parts of Alaska. That’s why other Alaskan public radio stations, with music like ours and some unique local programs, were started — with state support — in the early 1970s.
Our signal was heard in villages all across northwest Alaska. Whether they listened on a portable, battery-operated radio while fishing for salmon in the summer, or huddled near a cabin’s wood stove late on a winter night, our regular listeners received steady, reliable signals.
But KOTZ also reached more distant listeners. Our nighttime signals skipped to Russia, Japan and other countries in Asia, and we sometimes received letters and postcards from listeners in these faraway places, our remote Alaskan radio reaching far and wide.
This is the beginning of just one of the stories in the new book, Finding Alaska’s Villages: And Connecting Them, which describes the adventures of Alex Hills taking modern communication services to Alaska’s villages.
This book on remote Alaskan radio is published by Dog Ear Publishing, and you can find it online from Amazon here. It’s also available from Fireside Books in Palmer and from Gulliver’s Books in Fairbanks.
After living and working in rural Alaska during the 1970s, Alex Hills became a university professor. He is now Distinguished Service Professor at Carnegie Mellon University and Affiliate Distinguished Professor at the University of Alaska. He has also held distinguished visiting professor positions in Singapore, New Zealand, and Chile.
Dr. Hills is well known in the fields of wireless, telecommunication, and networking technology, having lectured widely and published many papers and technical reports. He holds 18 patents, and his easy-to-understand articles in Scientific American and IEEE Spectrum have been enjoyed.