Listening to the radio involves a complicated set of choices – you have to want to have something to listen to, choose which station fits you at this point in time, and then continue to passively choose to listen. Some people make those choices based on their desire for company, some for the purpose of connecting with their community and the wider nation, and some to be entertained or informed. In the lower 48, there are many choices for radio stations, multiplying the choices exponentially. And, of course, this is under the pre-defined activity of “listening to the radio” – there are many other options available for “things to do”.
KNOM, though, exists in a relative media desert – the only other options are KICY, and KUAC, throughout much of Western Alaska. (There are additional stations the closer you get to Bethel, Fairbanks, or Anchorage – but still fewer than in any comparable distance in the lower 48). It’s easy to forget the shear size of Alaska, what with most maps shunting it off to the corner in a non-size-matched box, but Alaska is huge – and rather sparsely populated for all of its immense size.
With a wide-spread population like Alaska, most mass-media techniques don’t work very well. Television (even through cable) is only economical with a population concentration, and FM radio requires line-of-sight to the transmitter. But AM radio bounces great distances – it travels not only in line-of-sight to the transmitter, but bounces off the upper atmosphere (ionosphere) and off of the ground. In fact, AM signals can travel incredibly far distances if the conditions are right – just a month or so ago we received a call from Finland saying that they were picking up the signal of KNOM! Even so, there’s an effective distance on clarity of AM signals – but our signal range looks something like this:
So, our signal stretches from about Bethel in the south to Barrow in the north under good conditions – its a great way to pass on news and information to a great number of people. AM Radio really serves a purpose in Alaska. And remember that I said there were few other stations? KICY is an evangelical station, and also cover local sports (excluding snowmachine and sled dog races), while KUAC is a repeater of the NPR affiliate from University of Alaska Fairbanks. What niche is missing? Local news, weather, music, and storytelling! And that’s just what KNOM brings.
Of course, it’s not that simplistic – as a catholic radio station, KNOM also has a mission to inspire and serve the population. The roots are within the Roman Catholic church, and so the station offers nightly readings of the Rosary and weekly Mass – but the mission is not just to Roman Catholics, instead including all people within the listening area. As the mission statement puts it,
“We acknowledge and celebrate that humans find inspiration, wisdom, and God in many different ways. We respect the individual perspectives of each and every one of our listeners and we never proselytize”.
It’s a small piece of the mission statement, but very important to the Mission – to be accessible to all people within the listening area. As volunteers, we come from different walks of life – and are allowed to represent our own perspectives, because they may resonate with one or more of the audience. It’s incredibly holistic, incredibly freeing, and incredibly authentic radio.
So, part of the mission is about inspiration, but another part is about information. News is a critical part of the mission because it is vital to linking each village and town into a region and state. News keeps people informed of important events, both upcoming and recently passed, and serves as a linking mechanism – all of Alaska is subject to the same system of justice, and both criminals and committees exist throughout the state. And the news is presented in a professional, objective manner, even sometimes reporting on subjects that are uncomfortable or close to home. Each of the volunteers hosts a call-in program several times over the course of our volunteer year, choosing topics of interest to the community, and guiding discussion as it drifts off-topic.
Inspiration and Information are great, but what about entertainment? Perhaps you’ve heard of a little thing called “music”. It’s pretty much all the rage these days, with people paying a dollar or more per song. What if I told you… that music could be delivered to you nearly free of charge? All you have to do is turn on the radio – maybe there’s one in your clock, or car, or even phone! Ok, ok, I know I might be overselling this, but here’s the thing: KNOM doesn’t play just one type of music, we play music from a catalogue spanning nearly a century, in all genres – country, jazz, blues, R&B, rock, alternative, dubstep/electronic, and even native music! We feature at least one Christian song and either a northern or native song each hour, plus songs from several decades. If you’ve ever heard of the JACK or DOUG or other radio format with a guy’s name – they pretty much got their idea from us, since KNOM’s been broadcasting this mix of music genres and decades since the early 70s. What’s great about this mix of music is that it exposes listeners to music beyond their favorite genres or decades – I’ve learned so much about music just from playing the songs every morning.
Now something personal: to me, KNOM represents the future of the church. It is not the church apart from the world, walled off in a garden, but it is also not the church as the world, disregarding tradition completely. It is instead something wonderful – the church IN the world, shaping and being shaped by contact with authentic people – people who are themselves. The church is the gathering of the people – and in the wild tundra, that gathering is more easily accomplished through radio. People come as they are, bringing requests for songs, messages and hotlines, celebrations of birth and death, and recognizing brokenness. Through coming together, and being inspired, healing can begin to take place, as can service and love.
This year, KNOM has been recognized by the National Association of Broadcasters for lifetime achievement – and given the Crystal Heritage Award. It sits now in a window, refracting the light from the window and creating a rainbow that offers its own beauty and inspiration throughout the day. To me, this is a perfect metaphor for how the mission of the Mission shapes and is shaped by its area. The sunlight and crystal change – but will continue to cast rainbows of beauty and goodness into a place that reflects them back.