The Place and The Stories
To get to the stories I report, you have to take a plane. Come spring, when the frozen river flows again, you can also take a boat.
I left this place once to report somewhere warmer and closer to home. But after you’ve stood on an island in the Bering Sea, frozen blood under your feet, watching a 55-foot bowhead whale carcass slamming against the shore as an elder tells you how they caught her, how they dragged her immense body to land, how the community gathered to butcher her, how her meat and blubber — her muktuk — is spreading to families across the region, once you’ve experienced that, it’s hard to wake up every day and tell the stories of anywhere else.
I’m the news director at KYUK Public Media in Bethel, Alaska. It’s the state’s only bilingual radio station, broadcasting in English and Yup’ik, the regional, Alaska Native language. We serve approximately 22,000 people across the region scattered along the rivers and coast in communities of a few hundred people. For many, English is a second language. And across this expanse, KYUK is the only local, daily news outlet.
The stories I tell are of a culture balancing and reconciling between a traditional, subsistence lifestyle and the pressures and conveniences of a cash economy. Stories of the rapid, visible, life-altering effects of climate change. Of tribal politics and municipal politics and the politics of natural resource development verses exploitation. The stories I tell are of the subarctic Yukon Kuskowim River Delta in Southwest Alaska.
Surviving In A Place So Different
Life in rural Alaska is hard and the elements can kill you. We don’t have fast food, strip malls, paved roads, or unlimited internet. Not everywhere has indoor plumbing. Everything costs four times more than it does in the lower-48. But my god, every day is an adventure, and the wild tundra engulfs the tiny scratches of development we call towns. This combination of the natural elements and material inconvenience, strips away the fat of life to its authentic necessities.
When I’ve hired reporters for KYUK, more important than professional qualifications and potential, is how well I think this person will adapt and survive in a place so different from anywhere they’ve been. Because being a rural Alaska reporter, it’s not just a job. It’s a lifestyle.
Most Alaska newsrooms are small, just one to three people. Every weekday our three-person news team at KYUK has to fill three 10-minute newscasts, covering everything affecting the region. There’s never a lack of stories. As a sampling, here are some of the stories I reported one week: plans for Bethel’s first football team, an armed robbery, a sled dog race preview, a subsistence fishery meeting, women responding to Trump’s locker room talk, and the one-year anniversary of a fire that demolished two Bethel schools.
No Faceless, Affected Masses
Let me tell you a bit about Bethel. It’s a six-thousand-person land island 40 miles inland on the Kuskokwim River. Like most rural Alaska towns, there’s no road connecting Bethel’s streets to the contiguous road system stretching across North and South America. There’s no road connecting us to anywhere. That is until the river freezes and trucks and SUVs tear across where no speed limit exists.
The people I’m reporting on, we shop at the same grocery store; we sweat at the same gym; we wash clothes at the same laundromat. There are no faceless, affected masses that I’m conjuring empathy and visibility for through my stories. I see their faces every day. I know many of their names. The degree of separation for all of us is whittled to one.
This means I’m not just reporting on my community members and neighbors, I’m reporting on my friends, or my friend’s dad, or their childhood friend, or my co-worker’s spouse. So many people here are related. We try to avoid conflicts of interest, but with only three reporters in a small town, we have to compartmentalize.
And frankly, that can really suck. Because I still want to go to parties and get invited to people’s houses and move through the world as a human being who nurtures social connections outside work. And then one of those people gets elected to public office or gets a high-level job at an institution I regularly cover or gets involved in a public scandal, and my personal and professional lives clash in a frustrating and uncomfortable way. And I have to accept that it comes with the territory and strike a balance between honoring journalistic ethics and not branding myself a social outcast. Dating is a whole other minefield.
When you’re all in together with the people who you’re covering and those listening, the stakes are high and the accountability, inescapable. If I mispronounce a name on air, someone will call to correct me. If someone has an issue with a story, they may send an email or a Facebook message, or simply walk into the station and straight to my desk. The confrontation is uncomfortable at times, but it means people hold us to a high standard. It means they expect to be heard. It means they hold ownership over their local, NPR member station.
It’s rare to find reporters in rural Alaska who have been here more than five years. I’ve been here a little over two. High turnover is an issue facing most professional sectors in the bush. Young people come in, gain experience, seek adventure, and then leave. This can create problems with building context and maintaining institutional stability, but it also means there’s usually an opening where you can get your start in radio. And you get lots of experience fast, working hands on with stories and news formats it might take years to get close to at a larger station in the lower-48.
I’ve hosted call-in shows, moderated political debates, and hosted long-form interview shows. I’ve interviewed presidential cabinet members, U.S. Senators, and tribal chiefs. I’ve flown in six-seater airplanes to remote communities to cover the front lines of climate change as oceans rise, permafrost thaws, and communities fall into the ocean. I’ve covered two of the premier sled dog races in the world, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the Kuskokwim 300. With the latter, I’ve stood on a frozen river at 3 a.m. outside a remote village, watching small, bright headlights break the distance and shine over the bristling, galloping bodies of the most magnificent athletes I’ll ever witness.
The longer I live in Bethel and the more aware of the community I become, the tighter the social fabric weaves around me. As I become more comfortable and more ingrained, I have to remain vigilant. Because these bonds can fix someone in place, keep them from asking questions, make them look the other way at a story that could destabilize their personal life. For this reason, rural stations require a mix of old and new reporters. Old timers, when you can keep them, provide that context and institutional stability, and new timers bring the liberty to take risks, ask uncomfortable questions, and see with fresh eyes this weird, intricate, beautiful place.
And this is a place where radio — actual transmitted radio, not streamed audio — still holds impact. Many houses don’t have internet, and many places can’t get data. When someone’s at fish camp or out hunting, a weather forecast or a river ice report can mean the difference between life and death. So often, radio is the only news source, and we are the voices they’re hearing.
I’m still new to Alaska. I grew up in Tennessee. I’m not Alaska Native. I don’t speak Yup’ik nor do I have the muscles developed to properly pronounce the language. I have no background working with indigenous communities. And the biggest lesson I’ve learned is humility. There’s a long history here that’s going to take a long time to learn. Listeners are used to reporters coming and going, and there’s value to new reporters, but the people don’t tolerate being inaccurately represented. So there’s a degree of patience and a willingness to teach, but the area doesn’t need another colonizer.
Many people ask me why I live here. I understand why it seems absurd. When you fly out of Bethel, you see a cluster of buildings and lights disappearing into miles of tundra. But I love immense land. I love the intimacy of small towns. I love people who fight to live in a place with the odds stacked against them. I love the immediacy of local journalism and the urgent purpose it provides. Most of all, my curiosity remains perpetually hungry in this remote land of extremes. And if my job is to wake up every day and ask questions and tell the stories of the people around me, rural Alaska is where I’m going to be.