Governor says ‘to stay tuned to your radio’ for wildfire news, vetoes public radio funding

Published: Aug. 21, 2019 at 7:17 PM AKDT
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Three public radio stations providing updates on three large wildfires burning in Alaska will have their budgets slashed by the governor’s vetoes.

The governor cut $2 million for public radio stations and around $700,000 for public television stations across Alaska.

The executive director of the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission Mollie Kabler said the impact will be felt differently by different-sized stations. Some medium-sized stations will see a cut of around $70,000 while some smaller stations will lose between $26,000 - $40,000.

Phillip Manning, a news producer at KTNA in Talkeetna, says the station will lose out on roughly $70,000 or a quarter of its budget. Office hours and staff time are being reduced and programming may need to be cut in the future.

People are already stepping in to donate but Manning says he doesn’t expect the shortfall can be entirely filled by donations as the area is economically challenged.

On Monday, the governor took to social media to give an update on the fires and advise people to be careful with their camps and campfires. “Stay tuned to your radio so you can get emergency updates on any of these road closures,” he said.

When the McKinley Fire ignited on Saturday just south of Talkeetna, KTNA was the closest news outlet and Manning began making updates immediately. As the fire exploded on Sunday, broadcasts went out “at least twice an hour” to residents, said Manning.

Standing over local maps, he was able to give real time information to people as the fire came closer. Power went out but KTNA had a generator and Manning kept calling the Division of Forestry to get updates.

“No one had cell coverage, the only way people were hearing about it was from us,” said Manning.

In Homer, KBBI has been playing a similar role, putting out dispatches on the roughly 700-acre Caribou Lakes Fire and the sporadic closures of the Sterling Highway. “I’m constantly taking updates and posting news,” said Kathleen Gustafson, the station’s acting news director.

Gustafson says KBBI has three staff but their reporter has been out on vacation this week. “When we have two people, it’s a luxury,” she said.

The station’s finance committee held a meeting on Tuesday but Gustafson said the veto would not be fatal as KBBI has strong community support.

“None of that can be in the front of my mind when I have to go to air with hourly updates,” she said. “So people have all the information they need to stay safe”

In Dillingham, KDLG has been providing updates on the nearby Levelock Fire that caused a partial evacuation of the village. Sam Gardner, the station’s general manager, said the veto could see a cut of roughly $80,000 or 8-10% of KDLG’s budget.

Gardner worries that could eventually lead to a position being cut, which could impact how much federal funding KDLG receives.

The governor’s office is touting federal funding and “other innovative sources of funding” to help bridge the fiscal gap for Alaska public radio and television stations.

“We believe the Alaska Public Broadcasting, Inc., will continue to provide services to Alaskans and will prioritize its services so it reaches Alaskan communities that need news and information the most,” read a statement from the governor’s office given to the media.

The Alaska Rural Communications Service (ARCS) that provides television to rural areas via satellite is also said by the governor’s office to be vital for rural areas. “The satellite provides the best means for transmitting emergency alerts across rural Alaska.”

Ed Ulman, the president and CEO of Alaska Public Media, describes another system that provides information across Alaska.

He says the state budget cuts will see $400,000 cut from Alaska Public Media’s budget. $150,000 of that $400,000 goes to paying lease costs for a fiber system between Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks.

The loss of funding will need to be picked up by public donations, said Ulman, who described that fiber system and other infrastructure as vital for broadcasting statewide. “It provides a public media interconnection system.”

Ulman said the cuts to stations across Alaska would lead “to the loss of localism” with less on-the-ground content.

For listeners in need of urgent information, the governor’s office says that the emergency broadcasting systems will not be cut. The systems provide real time warnings from the authorities including when to evacuate.

In Talkeetna, Manning estimates that one warning went out Sunday evening when the McKinley Fire grew and burned down roughly 80 structures. Manning laughed at the idea that the emergency alert system could be a substitute for KTNA, “We know the geography, we live here.”

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