Long after dark one midwinter evening, I arrived at a trapping cabin concerned that I might have missed my 7 p.m. ham radio contact with my sister. Rather than fumble for the watch buried deep in my pocket under many layers of frosty clothes, I hurried inside and punched the FM radio’s power button. It was already tuned to KSKA FM 91.1, the Anchorage public radio station, and despite the below-zero cold inside, the cheerfully sardonic tones of “Market Place” filled the dark cabin.
Good news indeed! That show didn’t end until 7 p.m., meaning I had time to build a fire and secure my sled dogs before making the call.
When you listen to public radio as much as we do, it doesn’t just provide news and entertainment. Out in the Bush, I rely on it as a rough time piece. I use it to drown the pestering hum of mosquitoes. I often fall asleep to it, and always listen to the news before rising in the morning. If I can’t sleep, one night a week I tune in the last moments of “Blues Before Sunrise” to catch the haunting dulcet tones of the closing song “Albatross.”
Although we usually listen to KSKA because of the superior signal out here, KUAC FM 89.9 gives better COVID numbers in the mornings, so we switch frequencies to head Dan Bross’ smooth, confident voice report recent cases.
So long has public radio mingled with our lives that we’re on a first-name basis with many hosts, from Ira’s “Science Friday” (a favorite) to Scott on Saturday, Lulu on Sunday, Mary Louise on Monday. “Who’s Terry talking to today?” we wonder about the “Fresh Air” interviews with guests ranging from dominant politicians to acclaimed authors and famous entertainers.
Without broadcast TV or the Internet, and since our Sunday newspaper subscription arrives by mail 10 to 15 days after publication, the radio serves as our sole source of current news. That’s where we learned the details of 9/11, wars, assassinations, national disasters, the passing of icons like Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
However, we also listen to the radio for entertainment, especially when living alone on extended trapline treks. “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” has long been a must-hear show, with “The Moth” and “This American Life” being less amusing but worth tuning in for background noise. We still miss long-gone shows like “Prairie Home Companion.” (Does anyone else remember the infamous case of Guy Noire and the Missing Chads during the Bush/Gore election fiasco?)
Life takes us outdoors every day, but we also have plenty of indoor work that doesn’t require intense concentration, making radio-listening an appreciated pastime. We might be preparing 3 gallons of carrots to freeze, building a dogsled, or sewing beaver mitts; the radio plays along with our life’s rhythms.
One of my favorite times to tune in is a lazy trapline day when I’m not running trail, but staying in to work on pelts. A productive run might yield enough fur to keep me busy much of the day. At remote camps I don’t have to worry about meeting the mail plane, checking the under-ice fish net, making phone calls or butchering moose meat. It’s just me and one solitary job with the radio for company.
Camped at a remote trapline cabin in late February one year, Miki called in on a satellite phone to Talk of Alaska during their annual pre-Iditarod sled dog talk show. With her 80-pound, heavy-coated huskies howling in the background she explained to the excited screener that she wanted to point out how a few of the old-time work dogs still amble down trapline trails. Unfortunately, Miki didn’t make it on the show because she didn’t know her sat-phone number.
I admit to taking advantage of public radio for personal benefits, too, such as for book promotions or when I finagled interviews because our Post Office was threatened with closure, an event that would spell disaster for any mail-dependent bush community.
Over the past years, Miki and I have several times been on both KUAC in Fairbanks and KSKA in Anchorage. In all cases we were treated respectfully and given intelligent questions, unlike the one time we talked to impudent old Herb on KFQD AM 750. He didn’t treat us as badly as some of his guests, but we worried about appearing on his show because commercial radios too often sensationalize their product to sell advertisements.
Public radio, however, relies on grants and listener-donations to fund their programming. Without the pressure to sell ads, the reporting usually reflects journalistic integrity with well-sourced information and unbiased reporting. (Although from my vantage it’s not easy to determine whether their scathing treatment of Trump reflects bias or the unvarnished truth.)
Being able to contribute to the fund-raisers makes us feel like part of a family on the national as well as state and local level. It comforts us, too, to hear News-Miner Features Editor Gary Black read the local news briefs on KUAC, because he’s our boss when we send in these little “In the Bush” blurbs. Many of our public-radio contributions arrive in the form of postal stamps, which saves the radio station money but also supports our Post Office.
With two public radio stations to listen to, we can pick our favorite shows. The only concern is whether they can keep up the quality programming with everyone tightening belts. But as long as they’re on the air, we’ll be following “All Things Considered” and catching the achingly beautiful “Albatross.”
Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books. They live in Lake Minchumina.