General manager Tom Busch puts in some studio time.
Photo by John Roscoe
On a flight from
Anchorage, Alaska, northwest to Nome, it becomes clear within minutes of takeoff
that nourishing the faith in this part of the world requires innovation.
Seen from above in winter, western Alaska is a brutal white world
of magnificent mountains, vast frozen flatlands and a handful of tiny human
communities huddled along ribbon rivers of ice. No road system connects these
communities of 25 to 1,000 people. Villagers—mostly Yup’ik—may be 40 miles or
more from their nearest neighbors.
The aerial scene brings up an obvious question: Without an army
of personnel living among the people, how does the Church here respond to Jesus’
call to “bring the Good News to the ends of the earth”?
Part of the answer comes into view as the flight approaches Nome:
On the outskirts of town, topped with a blinking red light, stands the 230-foot
antenna tower of KNOM, radio station of the Diocese of Fairbanks.
That blinking antenna on the treeless edge of the Bering Sea beams
music, news, spiritual inspiration and public service announcements over 100,000
square miles of western Alaska. It brings a message of hope and companionship
to some of the poorest, most isolated and culturally devastated people in America.
“How else are we going to do it if we don’t use the media?” asks
Fairbanks Bishop Donald Kettler. He has 41 parishes spread over 410,000 square
miles, a diocese nearly the size of Texas and California combined. Only seven
of his 37 rural parishes have resident pastors.
Bishop Kettler considers KNOM a valuable supplement to the diocese’s
efforts in the western part of his diocese, not a substitute for priests. “You
have to have a variety of ways of offering your message,” he says.
KNOM, the oldest Catholic radio station in the
United States, has helped carry Christ’s message into people’s homes
for almost 33 years. It has evolved into one of the best community
radio stations in the country, perennially contending for top honors
from both secular and religious peers.
More important than the awards, staff members say, is
KNOM’s status as the station of choice for roughly 90 percent of
the listeners in its broadcast area.
The KNOM team, a mix of young adult volunteers and paid
professional staff, has found a winning formula or, rather, perfected
the formula first articulated by the station’s founder, Jesuit missionary
Father Jim Poole.
As pastor of three Yup’ik villages in the 1950s, Father
Poole saw firsthand the problem of too few priests and way too much
country to minister effectively to the scattered people. He also
became aware of the often wretched living conditions in the area
and determined to address people’s temporal as well as spiritual
Radio could help achieve those goals, he decided.
Father Poole wired the houses in the village of St.
Marys with a public address system, but he was soon thinking bigger,
according to The KNOM/ Father Jim Poole Story, a book by
fellow Jesuit Father Louis Renner.
“Instead of reaching only 30 homes in one village, why
not...bring the good news of Christ, his peace, joy, hope to the
thousands of Eskimos and Indians living for the most part in relative
isolation and cut off from the mainstream of 20th-century realities,
and yet affected—often quite adversely—by outside influences?” Father
Renner wrote. “He [Father Poole] felt strongly that those people
could be reached through radio, and through radio be given the ultimate
help—the help to help themselves come to grips with the new ways
of life and cultural conflict.”
Tom Busch, KNOM’s general manager since 1975, says
the message remains much as it was in the beginning: “Play a lot
of music, be interesting, be a strong positive companion, and bring
inspiration and education in short bursts that people aren’t going
to tune away from.”
KNOM plays popular music (filtering out songs that don’t
have a positive or, at least, an inoffensive message); has its own
news reporters and taps into the Associated Press wire; runs weather
reports; and to a lesser extent airs purely religious programming
such as a nightly rosary hour and weekly live Mass celebration.
The station regularly features native music and language
programs, continuing Father Poole’s original goal of “affirming
the native culture,” Busch says. One of Busch’s trademarks on the
air is to greet listeners in Russian (KNOM can be heard along Russia’s
east coast) and five Alaska native languages: Yup’ik, Siberian Yup’ik,
Inupiaq, Athabascan and Aleut.
The KNOM broadcast is liberally sprinkled with educational and
inspirational spots aimed at uplifting and enlightening a population
that is still enduring a painful cultural clash. The inspirational
spots are simple and brief. One recent spot said God expects people
to be construction workers, not members of a wrecking crew.
Practical, useful information is shared through the
thousands of annual educational spots, which have evolved as the
culture has changed, Busch says. “In the early days it meant, ‘Wash
your hands after you use the honey bucket’; ‘Brush your teeth.’”
Now these blurbs are more likely to be about the dangers
of alcohol and substance abuse, the importance of education or how
to apply for a job.
Busch says the station’s efforts at curbing domestic
violence, drug abuse and other social ills rampant in western Alaska
have not eradicated such problems but have made progress. “I think
every adult in the area at least knows that those things are wrong,”
he says. “Would that we could stop it all, but our power is limited
to informing people, educating them. On the other hand, that is
“Those messages are very important,” agrees Steve Alexie,
a high school teacher and basketball coach in Mountain Village.
Although most of the 850 people of Mountain Village
are Catholic, Alexie is not. But he listens to KNOM and appreciates
its uplifting, community-service theme.
“I see it helping people,” he says. “It’s like daily
reminders of how life is and what we have to go through, and if
you do this or that, life won’t be so tough.”
No doubt life is tough in this part of the world.
Unemployment ranges from 17 to 26 percent throughout the KNOM listener
area. Some villages still lack running water and use “honey buckets”
in place of toilets. The poorest families live in small plywood
shacks clustered together against the elements. In the dead of winter,
temperatures can dip to 60 degrees below zero and daylight dwindles
to a faint four-hour glow.
People live off the land to survive—hunting, fishing
and gathering as they have for 10,000 years. But today the people
of western Alaska face more than Mother Nature’s cold indifference.
“Suicide, domestic violence, accidental death, alcohol abuse,
inhalant abuse: If it’s bad, we have the highest instances of it up here,” Busch
At the core of the problem, say people from the area, is the clash
of two ways of life. Like tectonic plates slowly colliding miles under the surface
of the earth, western European culture has been running up against the ancient
lifestyle of Alaska’s original peoples. The internal cultural upheaval manifests
itself in people who haven’t been raised in the old ways but feel inadequate
in the new.
For decades, indigenous Alaskans spoke their native tongues at home
but learned English in boarding schools. A generation of people in their 50s,
60s and 70s know both languages and value the good in both cultures.
But most younger parents and children today know only English. And
their elders attribute the growing social ills of rural Alaska to the loss of
culture that follows loss of the language.
“There never used to be break-ins,” says 70-year-old RoseAnna Dan
Waghiyi of Stebbins, a village of 550 people a few hundred miles southeast of
Nome. “Our doors, we used to tie them with a string so the wind wouldn’t open
them. Now if you go hunting, you have to lock the door with a padlock.”
She sees a direct link between the fading language and the confusion
and depression that result in substance abuse, theft and violent crime in Stebbins.
“Nowadays they [young people] don’t know who they are,” she says.
“There aren’t any stories anymore. Nobody tells stories; nobody tells them what
is right and what is wrong.”
Waghiyi doesn’t have a sociology or linguistics degree, but she
is a keen observer in both fields. As a young girl she began tape-recording
stories told by an old man in her village. She says his tales contained teaching
morals, do’s and don’ts of life. He also sang ancient songs about hunting and
companionship and weather.
Waghiyi later went to work for the Bering Sea School District, developing
and implementing a bilingual/bicultural program. She worked for 14 years to
build up a small library of books and other resources to teach traditional singing
and dancing as well as weaving, sewing and carving.
In the spring of 2001, at her village’s annual dance festival, Waghiyi
heard that a KNOM reporter wanted to speak with an elder about the village’s
KNOM volunteer Andrew McDonnell wrote in the May 2001 KNOM newsletter,
The Nome Static, about meeting Waghiyi and playing a tape of songs that
a KNOM staffer had recorded 20 years earlier: “It was amazing. When I played
this tape for her, she closed her eyes and it seemed like she was actually seeing
the music. She started moving her hands rhythmically, and moving her head, and
a minute into the first song, she began to sing the words softly.”
Waghiyi told McDonnell that she hadn’t heard the song in years.
“All of the elders who had known it had passed away,” McDonnell wrote. When
he offered her the tape, she “was ecstatic.” She told him if he came back the
next year he could watch the villagers perform it.
KNOM recordings have preserved or resurrected songs in this way
more than once. The station has collected and digitally recorded hundreds of
traditional songs that are inserted into the music mix about once an hour.
KNOM’s popular “Eskimo Stories and Legends” series has won numerous
awards, and staff members have aired countless other programs and reports to
promote cultural and historical education.
Every little bit of knowledge and affirmation helps, Waghiyi recently
told St. Anthony Messenger, especially for the children and young adults.
“The elders are becoming really few,” she says. “If we lose our language we
will lose our culture; we’ll lose everything.”
Radio associations have noted that KNOM’s attention
and response to the needs of its listeners have made it one of the
best community radio stations in America.
Competing against all 12,000 stations nationwide—not
just Catholic or religious or comparably small ones—KNOM has won
the secular National Association of Broadcasters’ top honor, the
Crystal Radio Award, three times, most recently in 2003. No other
small-market station has won three Crystals, and only two large-market
stations, Seattle’s KIRO-AM and Philadelphia’s WUSL-FM, have won
four. Plaques, trophies and medals crowd two large bookcases in
the studio entryway.
KNOM has 11 Gabriel Awards for “Radio Station of the
Year” from the Catholic Academy of Communications Arts Professionals
(the organization formerly known as Unda-USA), winning the past
eight years in a row. Secular and public stations across the United
States and Canada vie for the Gabriel, alongside a handful of religious
stations like KNOM.
According to KNOM program director Ric Schmidt, the
station is so decorated because it is extraordinarily devoted to
its listeners and stands with them against the immense challenges
they face. “We’re basically handing out water to people in a desert,”
he says. “Our listeners know we’re community-oriented, we’re accurate
and we’ll get them the best information we can as quickly as we
But getting KNOM to this level of success hasn’t been
an easy skate.
Radio equipment is expensive to purchase and operate,
especially in the harsh climate here just below the Arctic Circle.
The wind rips through this flat region on the south side of the
Seward Peninsula, and so much snow falls some winters that people
have to dig tunnels to their front doors.
Another big challenge is staffing. A station with high-quality
programming needs high-quality people to produce it, and Nome, despite
its twice-famous status as former gold-rush town and finish line
for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, has some serious downsides.
It has more bars than churches and schools, and more winter than
the other seasons combined. The three roads out of town end in villages
less than 100 miles away, and fresh produce is as expensive as it
So the Holy Spirit must be involved with this project.
Staff members say that over the years, time after time, whenever
a seemingly insurmountable obstacle presented itself, the right
Call to Service
Among the first in this litany of saints was Tom Busch, the
current general manager. Station founder Father Poole had no money to staff
his radio station, so he seized upon the use of volunteers, appealing to the
mystique of Alaska and the commitment to serving the needy that was ingrained
in so many young Catholic college students.
Busch was one of the very first to volunteer. The Boston College
grad had been working in the late 1960s as a radio engineer in Atlantic City,
New Jersey, since his graduation.
Searching for adventure and meaning, Busch happened to meet a Jesuit
scholastic during a spontaneous weekend visit to an old haunt, the Boston College
campus radio station. The scholastic told Busch about Father Poole’s dream of
starting a radio station, and Busch was on his way to Nome shortly thereafter.
“He told me stories about polar bears and northern lights and 60
below,” Busch told St. Anthony Messenger. “Later I realized I was being
guided, probably because people were praying for me.”
Father Poole’s call for volunteers got an amazing response. Not only did people
interested in radio come to work, but young nurses also answered
the Jesuit’s invitation by donating their salaries from the Nome
hospital to KNOM and receiving room and board at the station’s recycled
More than 300 volunteers have given a year or more of service to
KNOM, and today, each of the station’s 11 paid staff members is a former volunteer.
The station gets dozens of applications from potential volunteers every year
and conducts rigorous interviews to get top-quality people who will take their
responsibilities seriously and will be able to handle living in community in
Nome. Only about 15 percent of applicants are accepted for renewable one-year
When volunteer Busch arrived in 1970, he found a small community
of like-minded people: youthful and interested in service, living in community
and working toward a common goal. That still describes the KNOM volunteer crew,
made up currently of four women and one man, all in their early 20s, who share
a comfortable house next door to the studio.
Busch used a pick and shovel to help dig through the permafrost
to set the foundation for the radio tower, and he was there when KNOM’s first
broadcast aired in the summer of 1971. He volunteered for three and a half years
before moving to Fairbanks to take a paying radio job. But in 1975 KNOM brought
him back as the station’s first paid employee, and he has been general manager
of KNOM ever since.
His early days at KNOM marked the beginning of another lifelong
relationship: For a young woman living in the village of St. Marys, hearing
Busch over the airwaves was love at first sound.
“When I first heard Tom’s voice on the radio, I said to my friends,
‘That’s the man I’m going to marry,’” Florence Busch recalls. She was only kidding
at the time, but later, when she went to serve as a volunteer at KNOM, the two
fell in love and married.
Florence is now the station’s business manager and development specialist.
She maintains financial records, pays bills and takes care of donations. And
that is no small task.
In the 1980s the support nurse program began to fade as the needs
of the Nome hospital changed. KNOM adjusted gradually to the revenue
loss by focusing more and more on soliciting donations from people
supportive of the mission.
Today the station’s popular newsletter, The Nome Static, goes to 17,000
homes per month and is also available online (www.knom.org/static.htm).
Each edition of the Static includes an update on KNOM and
asks for prayers and financial assistance.
In fiscal year 2002, KNOM received $762,463 in the mail and another
$14,095 in stock gifts. Donors contributed another $226,807 in bequests. The
station gets zero dollars from the Diocese of Fairbanks and it doesn’t run paid
advertisements on the air.
“I think the reason that our contributors remain faithful to our
work is that we present them the needs of this area, and honestly and fully
report to them how we are using their gifts to meet those needs,” Tom Busch
says. “It would be a challenge to see where we’d cut back and still be who we
are,” he adds. “We squeeze the nickel pretty hard here.”
Busch earns $60,000 as general manager of KNOM, but the cost of
living in Nome is about twice that of most cities in the lower 48 states.
KNOM has indeed become skilled at pinching nickels. It originally
operated in leftover temporary military units. When enough money had been raised
to build a new volunteer residence and studio with 15-inch-thick insulated walls,
the staff was astonished to find a fuel bill savings of more than $40,000 per
They have also found that sky-high shipping and maintenance costs
make it foolish to buy cheaply made equipment. Les Brown, the station’s full-time
engineer for the last six years, says KNOM has gradually acquired top-quality,
minimally featured equipment worth every penny spent.
He notes that the station’s 50-watt FM transmitter has operated
without interruption for 10 years, and the main transmitter, the 25,000-watt
AM unit, has had “zero downtime” since Brown and Busch installed it six years
Voice of Companionship
The quality and reliability of KNOM’s equipment mirrors one
of the station’s primary goals: being a consistent companion to people who may
be virtually cut off from all but their immediate surroundings.
Peter Elachik heard the very first KNOM broadcast on July 14, 1971,
and has been an avid listener ever since. Like many rural villagers, he and
his family take portable radios to their summer “fish camps,” where they live
on the banks of rivers, catching and processing salmon to last through the winter.
KNOM’s listenership soars in the summer months because of the fish-camp audience,
which relies on the station for news and entertainment during these weeks- or
Julia Dunlap, one of the three volunteers currently in their second
year at KNOM, says she decided to stay the extra year, much to the chagrin of
her family back in Lakeview, North Carolina, in part because of the opportunity
to play such a vital role in people’s lives.
She shipped up huge boxes of sweaters and coats and “almost cried”
when she saw how expensive and wilted Nome’s “fresh” produce was. But the chance
to help people in such an unusual and meaningful way trumped the comforts and
familiarities of home, she says.
“It’s all about the chance to be uplifting and to be a companion
with someone who might be all alone out there,” says Dunlap, who plans to study
theology at Yale Divinity School and become a Lutheran minister when she leaves
She recently dug out a tape for a reporter that she says illustrates
the point better than she can. It’s a comment submitted to KNOM during the station’s
regular call-in show, “Sounding Board.” The deejays had invited listeners to
share what they were thankful for.
A man who identified himself as “George in Stebbins” called in to
say, “Thank you, KNOM, for making ‘Sounding Board’ possible, and being there
for me. Whenever I turned on the radio and nobody else was there with me, you
were there for me. Thank you, KNOM.”
Dunlap tears up hearing George’s words again. “That’s why you work
here,” she says.
John Roscoe has been a member of the Catholic press
since 1994 and is now editor of the Catholic Anchor, newspaper
of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska.