Thursday July 15, 1999, Talkeetna, Alaska -
It's twenty minutes past noon, and people up and down the Susitna Valley are turning their radios on to hear the "Echoes" which, for many, is curious entertainment, but for some, is a very important part of their lives. 32 year old A.J. Sullivan is in a log cabin on 2nd street in the small town of Talkeetna. She sits, barefooted in the KTNA studio, as Garrison Keillor saunters through "The Writer's Almanac." After he purges his last line, the room is quiet, the "air is dead" briefly and the valley waits for Sullivan.
After several days of work on the river as a rafting guide, Sullivan barely has a voice left - let alone a radio voice - but she will read the local news today, and then announcements of local events, and finally, the Danali Echoes. She is the only source for this news today, in this remote Alaskan town. ("Remote" is relative; Talkeetna is a hundred miles north of Anchorage, at the end of a lonely, 15-mile long, back road. But that road is paved, so, no Alaskan would call it remote.)
Eleven years ago, several Talkeetnans decided that the town, close enough to Mount Mckinley to be far away from everything, needed its own radio station, and they applied for permits, licenses and grants to establish a public one, choosing against going commercial. "The founders wanted a non-commercial sound and no advertisers trying to control the news content," says Julianne McGuinness, the station's manager. Even with a decent newspaper, the area was in need of more local news media, if for nothing else, than its unique group of Alaskans who live in the bush.
There are still many Alaskans who live "off the grid" or "up the trapline" in the Alaskan bush country, and who don't have electricity or telephones. Some rely on DC-powered, ham radios for communication, and, historically, many would communicate by giving messages to traveling fur trappers and traders.
After reading the news, Sullivan jumps from her chair at the control board, and reaches for a digital audio tape, on which most public service announcements and patron spots are recorded. She handles the "board" and other equipment with ease - not a great challenge after earning a commercial pilot's license. She pulls a D.A.T. from the player and loads another, she loads C.D.s, sorts through news scripts and answers the telephone in a smooth rhythm that is nearly a dance.
Sullivan works on a ski patrol during the winter, guides on the river in the summer, has been flying since 1992 and recently bought an airplane - a 1946 Taylor Craft. "I haven't met anyone who can keep up with me," she says. Raised in Nevada, she spent 15 years in Colorado before coming to Alaska last summer, to "learn flying from the masters."
Sullivan explains why she gives up three hours of her busy schedule each week for this unusual volunteer job. "It's such a great little town and people are so helpful," she says. "I like giving back to this community that's given so much to me." But Chari Scott, who is half of the Sunday evening "Girls' Night Out" show, explains something at the heart of this position. "So many people have met me and they already know me - they recognize me because of my voice," she says. "It's great!"
This little radio station in this little town may indeed be providing 15 minutes of fame for some of its residents, but it even does more than that. "We have everything from carpenters, to dog mushers here," says McGuinness. "Volunteering at KTNA is definitely a training ground and a confidence builder - I think people learn about themselves."
McGuinness is one of only four salaried employees at KTNA; Sarah Birdsall covers the news - especially local government proceedings - and writes the scripts for the volunteer announcers. Diane Ziegner is the fund raiser, and Deborah Brocke is the volunteer coordinator. The station's budget is only $165,000 - which includes salaries, utilities and subscriptions to the National Public Radio programs - so the employees work only 3/4 time, and the equipment is repaired, adjusted and updated by a volunteer engineer.
Sullivan is one of about 30 volunteers who provide all the local content for KTNA. The station airs music, news and commentary 24 hours a day. Roughly, about half of those hours are filled with national or statewide programs - received with the satellite dish out front - the other 12 hours each day must be worked by a volunteer.
Michael McCann, owner of the Talkeetna Deli, has been reading the morning news for the past 3 years. Most every day, he will serve a customer who had listened to his voice earlier in the morning. Many will not even know it's him, but his friends do. "I've probably met the entire population of Talkeetna through the radio," he says. Like most of the volunteers at KTNA, McCann had no desire to be an announcer before he sat in front of the microphone in the little log cabin, but now he even hosts a popular cooking show. "After I did it, I loved it," he says. "And I never had anything in my life that I loved so much."
The red light comes on, and Sullivan is on the air again. Her voice is nearly gone, and she really has to push the words out. But her audience won't mind - indeed, many will wish her well throughout the day, and many will thank her for the news, and maybe give her some more to tell. She crashes through the announcements of local events, and then she gets to the Denali Echoes, which are one-to-one messages, from people who either have telephones or a way to get a note to the station, to those people who don't. She reads the list of about a dozen messages, usually for people to contact or meet somebody, and then she reads them all again, because the recipient can't just call and ask her to.
Alaska is a place where sole people will spend days - even years - by themselves, but thanks to volunteers like Sullivan, McCann and the Scotts, they can always hear a friendly voice when they need one. It is from this log cabin, where members of the community and the bush can stay in touch with the rumblings and ramblings of their lives.
Sometimes, on cold, winter days, and the long, long nights, the log cabin on the edge of town is bound in snow, its plate window frosted and driveway plowed over, but inside, it can be warm and cozy. No matter the harsh, Alaskan weather outside, it is a place where fond memories are created, where mere ordinary people become entertainers. It is where they learn more about themselves, and tune into what we outsiders enviously call "our other selves;" that part of our souls - that character - which we would really like to be.
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