KNOM: Making It the Hard Way
     

KNOM staff with award
From left: Daynee Rosales, Margaret DeMaioribus, Joshua Cunningham, Lucus Keppel and Eva DeLappe.
credit: Courtesy KNOM
As cartoonist Bob Thaves famously said about Fred Astaire, “Sure he was great, but don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did, but backwards and in high heels.”

In a similar manner, one might compare most radio stations to KNOM, which simulcasts on AM and FM in Nome, Alaska. This is a station that has had to achieve success the hard way.

“I live two blocks from the station,” said General Manager Ric Schmidt. “I walked about a third of the distance to work one day, I tried to take a breath, and it hurt! The wind chill was 78 below. I jammed my face into my coat and eventually caught my breath, because I didn’t want to die. For every step that everyone else has to take in the ‘Lower 48,’ we have to take 17.” (To see these weather conditions, type “Nome webcam” into a search engine.)

The climate is not the only challenge in running a station on the western edge of Alaska.

“An avocado here costs $5.46,” he said. “Fuel prices are a couple dollars more a gallon then in the lower 48. Building materials are very high and even getting them here costs a lot. You have to bring in everything by plane or barge.”

PEOPLE WHO NEED PEOPLE

General Manager Ric Schmidt
KNOM in April will receive the NAB Crystal Heritage Award, which honors stations that have won five Crystal Radio Awards for community service. The oldest Catholic radio station in the United States, KNOM has a slogan that is repeated on the air every hour: “Yours for Western Alaska.”

That region comprises more than 100,000 square miles including dozens of small villages, some of which have no running water or electricity. The nearest large city is 500 miles away. Listeners use www.knom.org when the AM and FM signals can’t reach them.

“The bush Alaska is like a Third World country,” said Schmidt. “Travel is often restricted. There are no roads between some villages. My father came up here years ago and said that you can understand this region [is] on the periphery, but you have to physically be here to know what it’s like.”

Located on the shore of the Bering Sea, Nome is home to the Inupiat, Yup’ik, Aleut and Athabascan peoples.

“It’s quite a cross-section,” said Schmidt. “Our message is that we value all cultures.”

ARE YOU BEING SERVED?

News Director Laureli Kinneen
KNOM is a non-profit community station supported financially by about 10,000 people, only some of whom live in Nome.

The AM went on the air July 14, 1971, playing primarily country and Christian music; KNOM added FM in 1993. Over time it has broadened its offerings to include music from the 1930s to today, Christian programming, native northern fare and talk shows.

Another important component is information: community announcements, news, weather, fishing reports and a special kind of local sports. The news director, Laureli Kinneen, covers the Iditarod dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome.

“We try to be an ever-present friend,” said Schmidt, who joined in 1985 as a volunteer and became general manager in 2005. “I could put you on a plane and send you to a village up here. When you get off the plane, tell them you’re with KNOM, and you’d be welcomed like you were family. Which says as much about the great citizens of western Alaska as it does about KNOM.”

This image of KNOM’s building, modified in Photoshop, shows a planned addition. The station hopes to raise $1 million for the ‘Tom and Florence Busch Digital Studios’ and was nearing the halfway point in February. Tom Busch helped found KNOM. His mentor and Alaska broadcast pioneer Augie Hiebert also was a critical figure in the station’s planning.
What does it take to meet the community needs of such a huge geographical area, with multiple ethnic groups and a rough climate?

“We do it with an annual budget of about $1.5 million. We have seven paid staffers, five full-time volunteers who are mostly kids out of college donating a year or two, and eight part-time community volunteers,” said Schmidt.

KNOM has a history of volunteerism. According to its website, much of its income in the early years came from registered nurses at the Nome hospital, who lived as volunteers and donated their entire income to the radio mission. The last of those nurses left in 1994.

Today, Schmidt says, “Part of how we serve the community is our talk shows, where the people actually get to talk and no one cuts them off. There are a lot of deep-seated feelings here about how the white culture has sliced into the native culture. We have brought in experts that help people who want to shake the addictions of cigarettes and booze. We also work to help listeners improve their diet by eating healthier traditional foods.”

Radio can play an important part in the lives of listeners, and notably so in a state with one of the highest suicide rates.

“We work overtime to make people feel they are cared for, and our listeners know there are friends on the other end of the radio,” said Schmidt. “Of course, we don’t see most of the people we serve, and they usually don’t see us, but we are connected. And I think we end up getting back so much more than we put out.”

A Tradition of Support

A few excerpts from the KNOM timeline, found at www.knom.org:

1966 — Volunteers begin soliciting for the radio mission. The first volunteer, a worker at a local “greasy spoon,” contributes income to purchase broadcast equipment.

1971 — Bishop Robert Whelan, shown, pushes the “play” button for the station’s first program.

1972 — The station suffers 69 power outages in the first year of operation; one lasts 28 hours.

1973 — KNOM covers the first Iditarod Sled-Dog Race, in part using 1950s-era taxicab radios. Also covered: One man’s attempt to cross the Bering Strait in a bathtub.

1989 — Nome hits an all-time low temperature of –54 degrees F. “The volunteers discover that if you toss a cup of boiling water into the air when the temperature is below –50, the water disappears into a cloud of vapor.”

1996 — Because of the eruption of Mount Pavlof, a volcano 600 miles south, KNOM broadcasts volcanic ash advisories, in addition to blizzard warnings.

2004 — A storm raises ocean level by 10 feet. Nome loses electricity as water floods homes and “tosses immense logs and rocks the size of watermelons across Front Street.” KNOM serves the community with standby diesel generators. Another storm in 2005 rips siding off the west studio wall.

2006 — A radio hobbyist in Oregon is the first person in KNOM’s 35-year history to hear the station from the Lower 48.

2008 — Local police ask KNOM to air a request that residents avoid the north side of the city’s hospital, where a moose and her calf have taken up residence.

2010 — Founder Tom Busch dies. The station formalizes plans to separate itself from the Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks and form KNOM Radio Mission Inc., a non-profit corporation established to continue its broadcast traditions; the transfer was completed last year.

Read more and see historic KNOM photos at www.knom.org.

It is this kind of dedication that earned KNOM the Crystal Heritage Award, which only three other stations have won. The presentation will occur April 9 in Las Vegas during the NAB Show. “If you split up this award among all the people who deserve it, I’d get one molecule,” said Schmidt.

KNOM leaves its mark on people. For instance, John Kreilkamp was a volunteer at KNOM in 1978.

“I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corp and asked to be sent someplace far off and romantic,” he said. “The Jesuits always did have a great sense of humor. But my time at the station stamped an indelible impression on my life. Today, many of those who served with me for $10 a week are still some of my closest friends.” (Both Schmidt and Kreilkamp met their future wives in Nome while volunteering for KNOM. Love is in the frigid air.)

Another fan of KNOM is Amber Miller, administrative assistant at the Nome Visitors Center.

“KNOM is inviting to everyone,” she said. “They have a breakfast every week for the community, and they house volunteers there in a big building where people can go. KNOM says on the air, ‘If you have questions, or you want to hang out with us, you’re always welcome.’”

The station had been licensed to the Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks, which in 2008 filed for reorganization in the wake of numerous lawsuits accusing priests and volunteers of sexual abuse. In 2010, KNOM formalized plans to separate itself from the diocese as a result of that bankruptcy, to help guarantee the station’s future. It formed KNOM Radio Mission Inc., and the transfer was completed last year.

Schmidt summarized the station’s persistence: “Having survived repeated power outages, gale force winds, restricted travel due to volcanic dust, a severed AM tower guy wire, blinding blizzards, ice storms, floods and high seas, lightning strikes, a firebombing, the diocesan sex abuse scandal, polar bears and musk ox roaming the AM transmitter site and all kinds of communications failures, KNOM remains committed to serve the people of western Alaska.”

Ken Deutsch has written for Radio World since 1985 and can be reached at ken@kendeutsch.com.


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