There are nearly 12,000 radio stations in the United States. Most are low power AM and FM stations serving small, rural communities. Providing local news, sports and weather, these stations are an important part of small town American life.
Nowhere is that more true than in the State of Alaska, where community radio stations tie together isolated listeners scattered over a truly vast land area. In Haines, Alaska is radio station KHNS.
Haines is unusual by southeast Alaska standards. It's actually connected to the rest of North America by road. Most communities in the Alaska panhandle, tucked along the coastline of Canada, can be reached only by sea or air. Still, when winter storms close the highway and shut down the airport, Haines, Alaska is a long way from anywhere.
Surrounded by steep mountains on all sides, the town is also cut off from the regional radio and television broadcasts most Americans take for granted. To complicate matters further, many residents live outside town in remote, primitive cabins without basic utilities.
Michelle Glass, a Haines resident and a regular KHNS listener, says "it is a basic service in our community - especially for those people without telephones. It is important in getting out community information and specific information. We have listener personals. If you can't find your friend, you've tried to reach them on the phone. You can't find them anywhere around town. You call up the radio station and you leave a listener personal, 'Joe call Michelle,' and that's all you have to say. Joe knows where to find you. Or for people who live out of town where there isn't phone service."
Personal messages aren't the station's only unique feature. Most American radio stations adhere to a narrowly defined format - a specific type of music, for example, or the station might broadcast only news.
But Program Director Burn Power has to meet the needs of a diverse community with a single station. "It's not like in the lower 48 where if you don't like this station you switch to another station," he says. "There are a couple of other signals picked up here, not very well, but ours is the primary radio signal. We have to have something for the people who are 80-years-old, the people in their teens and something for the people in their forties, and something for everyone. We try too. Of course, it's hard."
KHNS is a genuine community radio station. The funding and labor required to operate the facility are donated for the most part by local residents. Mr. Power is especially proud of a partially paralyzed volunteer announcer. "It was actually quite challenging at first for him to just work the equipment," he says. "And now he's just a pro. He does it, you know, just as well as anybody. But he also does these kind of quirky country shows where he spent a lot of time just looking for country artists that no one else had ever heard of. We weren't all sure that we wanted to hear them, but…"
Haines resident Michelle Glass is sure she does not like country music - but she points out that you don't have to listen to KHNS long to hear something that you do like. "Jazz, soul, funk, to blues to the Reggae Hour [are all on KHNS]," she says. "There's a Grateful Dead show on the weekends. Then the Folk Show and the Rock Show. You know, once a week you can definitely find something that you absolutely love. But most of the time throughout the week it's very palatable to someone who might not listen to a certain genre of music."
Beyond the music, community volunteers routinely prepare spoken word programs that range from discussion groups, to instructional programs, to avant guard poetry readings.
KHNS News Director Doug Fine hosts a weekly discussion forum dealing with issues important to the community. He notes that one of the perennially divisive issues is land management. Should Alaska remain a pristine wilderness, or should it be commercially developed?
Mr. Fine says "the issues that we're talking about are issues that every other place in the world is either dealing with now, if they're lucky, or wish they could have dealt with 50 or 100 years ago, because now, for instance, they're deforested or over populated or their water quality is bad or they've given too much to tourism so that their community doesn't have its own face anymore."
Even more so than most Americans, Alaskans tend to hold strong opinions and express them passionately. Doug Fine believes the community radio station provides a healthy outlet for those feelings. "There's a role in it of allowing steam to escape, a venting role for people to express their opinions so that we all recognize that we are a community," he says. "Cause you get really strong opinions when people are worked up and then you see them, they're on the same dance floor Saturday night or something like that. But, very, very fundamentally different opinions about how folks would like to see society here."
But they all agree on the importance of community radio in America's last frontier.