AD Main Menu

On the air in Northwest Alaska: Remembering early days of KOTZ

Dr. Alex Hills
Alex Hills at the controls of KOTZ radio, 720 AM, serving Northwest Alaska, and points beyond, circa 1973. Courtesy Dr. Alex Hills

Editor's note: The following commentary is an excerpt from the book “Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio.”

Kotzebue, Alaska: November 1973: The Arctic wind stung my face. The feeling was more pain than cold. I steered the snowmachine into the early morning darkness and turned onto snow-covered tundra, heading in the direction of the radio station’s transmitter building. There I would check that things were operating properly – part of my work as the station’s manager and engineer.

The snow seemed brushed with a broom, piling in an eddy behind every object that disturbed the wind’s path. Blowing snow hid the small building perched near an invisible coastline. Snow-blanketed ice and frozen tundra blended together, obscuring the boundary between land and sea. The Arctic in winter is a moonscape on earth.

Public radio station KOTZ served Eskimo communities spread along the rivers and coasts of northwest Alaska. Its studios were tucked into the schoolhouse in the village of Kotzebue, a small cluster of buildings huddled on a gravel spit jutting into the Chukchi Sea. For centuries Kotzebue’s people had subsisted on the beluga whale, bearded seal and ring seal they took from the sea and the caribou and moose they hunted on land, but now they were beginning to participate in the modern economy.

Covered in multiple layers to blunt the wind’s chill, I opened the door to the small transmitter building, and warm, soothing air rushed over me. My work on this morning was minor. I needed only to read a few meters and turn a few knobs to make adjustments.

Unlike other public radio stations of the day – mostly FM stations – KOTZ was on the usually commercial AM band because of its better coverage. We were only a 5,000-watt station, but our listening area was huge, covering more than 100,000 square miles. The AM frequency allowed our signal to be picked up in villages spread all across northwest Alaska. Even in the village of Kobuk, about 250 miles from Kotzebue, reception was good.

Whether they listened on a portable, battery-operated radio while fishing for summer salmon, or huddled near a cabin’s wood stove late on a winter night, our regular listeners received steady, reliable signals day and night. But KOTZ’s nighttime signal spread over a bigger area. Our signals reached Russia, Japan and other countries across Asia, and we received letters and postcards from listeners in these faraway places.

After making adjustments to the transmitter, I locked the small building, remounted the snowmachine, and pulled its starter cord. With the engine running, I turned toward the KOTZ studio to get ready for morning sign-on. It was 5:30 AM, still long before the winter sunrise. The village’s narrow streets were quiet.

Leaving the cold again, I entered the warmth of Kotzebue’s only school, loping down the stairs to our basement studios to begin preparations for the broadcast day. A year earlier, because no other space was available, the studios and office had been built in the basement of the school. Yet, even with heating pipes crisscrossing overhead, the station was functional and comfortable.

We had two studios, an office, and a central area we used to receive visitors and socialize. There were no outside windows, but the interior windows were many. It was, after all, a radio station. Later in the day these interior windows would reveal frenetic activity in the studios. A visitor’s eyes would be drawn to announcers spinning records, twirling dials, and doing on-air interviews.

Most public radio stations were intended to be alternatives to commercial radio, playing classical music, folk music and jazz, music genres not usually associated with a mass audience. We were different. KOTZ, officially a public radio station with no advertising support, didn’t fit the pattern. We served all the listeners in Northwest Alaska, and we sounded more like a commercial station with our 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 parts of Alaska, and other public radio stations with music like ours soon began to appear across rural parts of the state.

My first task was to make coffee. Next came our teletype machine, the electromechanical contraption that was our source of news. It was a technological relic. Sitting on the floor in the corner of our reception area and standing waist high, the machine clackety-clacked as it typed out the day’s news relayed from distant cities of Alaska, the nation and the world. The wire service “copy” would later be ready for our announcers to “rip and read” the day’s news to KOTZ listeners.

My second task was to change the teletype machine’s paper and ribbon. We kept rolls of teletype paper to satisfy the machine’s voracious appetite. And the ink-laden ribbon – similar to the typewriter ribbon of the day – had to be changed often. In the 1970s and before, these were familiar chores to radio station engineers and announcers everywhere.

With the coffee pot perking and the teletype machine resupplied, it was time for sign-on. I pushed a button that brought to life our transmitter, a mile away in its small building on the snow-swept tundra. Pushing another button started our recorded sign-on, beginning the broadcast day.

Sign-on began with Alaska’s “national anthem,” the Alaska Flag Song. The words and music were well-known to every schoolchild and many adult Alaskans from Arctic villages to the far away cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks. The song and its namesake flag bound Alaska’s people together. Alaskans knew well the flag’s “eight stars of gold on a field of blue.” The eight stars are the most prominent ones in the northern sky, the Big Dipper – also called the Great Bear – and the North Star. Next came the recorded voice of announcer Joe Hill and the sign-on announcement.

With the sign-on complete, it was time for the “Alex in the Morning” radio show. I was, by this time, wide awake, and my job was to help listeners start the day. The show began with my upbeat banjo theme music, followed by a voice-over: “Good morning Northwest Alaska! Hello, Kiana! How ya doin’, Shungnak!” I said, naming two of the villages in the listening area. Our top 40 and country music, the morning news, and weather forecasts weren’t far behind.

At 720 on the AM dial, KOTZ’s signal carried the voices of young announcers Joe Hill, Carolyn Fields, Nellie Ward and her brother Delbert. All recent graduates of Kotzebue’s high school, the four announcers spread energy to the distant villages. Their voices projected pride in the new station and the service they were providing.

Nellie happily sent out an invitation from a villager: “My cousin in Noorvik wants to let all the village people know that she made lots of agutaq (Eskimo ice cream), and she wants to share it tonight. Come on over if you want some.”

Carolyn had an important announcement for another village: “Health aide Lucy up in Kiana has flu shots available for all the kids, but umuk the babies (carry them on your back inside a warm parka) because it’s cold out there!”

At night, when listeners moved close to the radio, we had “Eskimo Stories.” Kotzebue’s elders took turns telling traditional stories in the Inupiaq Eskimo language. Old-timers – some could remember the introduction of reindeer to Western Alaska in the early twentieth century – were regulars. Through their stories, they helped to preserve the vanishing oral legends of the Inupiaq of Northwest Alaska. After they passed on, other elders followed, and the program continues today, renamed “Inupiaq Stories.”

The telephone never stopped ringing at KOTZ. Listeners called to send the messages we called “Tundra Telegrams,” personal messages directed to family and friends in other villages.

Delbert intoned, “Uncle Willie, my plane arrives in your village at 6:30. Please meet me at the runway,” followed by “Sister Rachel, Granny left her medicine on the dresser. Send it as soon as possible.”

Tundra Telegrams informed extended families in the outlying villages of the passing of a loved one. Or they told the happy news of the birth of a new family member. In harsh weather the messages were a rallying call for volunteers to search for a missing snowmachiner or dog musher. The messages were an essential service because KOTZ was often the only available means of communication.

The station was in the 1970s – and is today – a source of news, information, entertainment, and sometimes inspiration to the people of Northwest Alaska.

Dr. Alex Hills is Distinguished Service Professor at Carnegie Mellon University and Affiliate Distinguished Professor at UAA. His book “Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio” is available at Fireside Books in Palmer and from Amazon and other online retailers.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.