Chugiak-Eagle River was still a frontier community in the 1950s.
Electricity was not even extended here until early in that decade. News came from the Chugiak Calendar published by Cloyce and Justine Parks, the Anchorage Daily Times, Anchorage Daily News, and radio stations KFQD and KENI.
Television was a novelty when Northern Television’s KTVA debuted on Channel 11 a couple of weeks before Christmas in 1953.
Its scratchy image was in black and white, coming in for only a few hours each day. Rabbit ears antennae perched atop the set required considerable adjustment to get a passable picture on the round screen.
Radio had been around in Anchorage since May of 1924, when KFQD was issued one of the first broadcast licenses in the entire nation. They used local programming plus world and national news transcribed from Morse code by telegraphers of the Army Signal Corps’ Alaska Communication System working in their off-duty hours. A second station, KENI, came on the air in 1948. It also used local programming but by then teletype service was available through ACS, allowing news reports to come by wire.
Live radio and television programming was a necessity because of Alaska’s remote location. Television images and radio signals are transmitted by line-of-sight waves. It is similar to today’s cellular telephone systems where there is no service if a tower is not within range of your instrument. Satellites were still in the distant future. Network programs were filmed and mailed to the stations here. Programs were seen two weeks after being viewed by people in the Lower 48.
Local personalities augmented a station’s announcers. Among them was Eagle River resident Ruth Briggs, who held sway in the afternoons on KENI. Others included Col. M. R. “Muktuk” Marston, an organizer of the Alaska Scouts who settled in Anchorage after the end of World War II and was a regular on KENI. Chugiak teacher Carol Connell later was to have a popular children’s show, “Miss Carol,” on Channel 11. Norma Goodman had a popular program geared to women’s interests also on Channel 11.
Live programming had both advantages and disadvantages.
Col. Marston had a way with words and spoke from wartime experience when he traveled from village to village to recruit people to look out for enemy invaders or to aid in the event of an aircraft accident. He put himself into the short programs, making the listener feel part of the story.
A pair of personalities was highly regarded because of their inventiveness in giving play-by-play re-creations of baseball and football games being played in stadiums thousands of miles away. Ruben Gaines and Ed Stevens developed sound effects to be inserted at appropriate times. A catcher’s mitt was struck with a drumstick to imitate the sound of a baseball being caught. A wood block was whacked with the stick to make the sound of a ball being hit.
Basic information was typed in at the press box at the game as it happened and sent by teletype. It would show the results of each pitch, whether ball or strike, foul or in play. If the ball was in play, the copy only showed whether it was a hit or an out made from one player to another.
That’s where the genius of Stevens and Gaines came in. They described the hit as a line drive or a grounder, one that narrowly got by the infielder and went to the fence, or if it was bobbled momentarily before getting the out—without knowing what actually happened. It was all imagined.
Challenging that inventiveness one day was a disruption in the transmission of the game play-by-play information.
Let’s say the game was between the visiting Brooklyn Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs. It was a beautiful day at Wrigley Field, clear skies and warm temperatures, the audience was told. All went well for about four innings. Stevens and Gaines were in fine form as they told of the feats on the far-away field. Suddenly, the stream of play-by-play copy coming over the teletype machine came to a stop. Relayed from the Chicago press box to Seattle, thence by undersea cable to Whittier from where it traveled via wire to Anchorage, somehow, somewhere along the way something happened to the signal.
At the ACS office in the Federal Building on 4th Avenue, a frantic phone call was answered. The announcers could only be told that the technicians were working on the problem. The soldiers on duty rushed to tune in the station, hoping they would not bear the wrath of the announcers.
Instead, listeners were told that a sudden rainstorm had come up. Sunny skies were gone and rain was falling as if poured from a bucket. The infield was covered and it was hoped play would resume soon. Meanwhile, the masters at the microphone delved into statistics books to pass along baseball trivia.
After about an hour, the teletype again began spewing out a string of paper with information that had built up during the outage. Stevens and Gaines happily reported that the clouds had dissipated, the sun was out, the tarps rolled up and the players back on the field. The game went on to its conclusion—which actually occurred about five hours earlier than the time it was broadcast.
Gaines, an Alaska poet laureate, was also known for his “Conversation Unlimited” program featuring characters such as Chilkoot Charlie. He was a true story-teller, very popular with listeners.
Not all live television problems were so well handled as the sports re-creations.
A fellow ACS teletype operator took a job with one of the television stations, dressing up as a cowboy and doing a Saturday afternoon children’s show. He was also required to read the commercials. In one instance, he began listing the virtues of his C Street Foodland sponsor, describing items on sale. He concluded by saying, “And if you want the best in groceries, but sure to shop at Carrs Food Center.”
Another blooper came from hairdressers lined up on a couch in the tv studio, prepared to boast of their shop. One nervous lass smiled at the camera and cooed, “Come see us because we always use the best home permanents when we do your hair.”
Not all early broadcasters were always professional on the air.
Watching television soon became a family affair after Alaska’s first telecast was aired in December of 1953. Remote controls and plush upholstered furniture, though, were still far in the future.
At one tv station, an ad salesman also read the evening news. On April 17, 1961, the top story was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion intended to thwart Cuban revolutionist Fidel Castro. The salesman apparently spent quite a bit of time in a nearby watering hole before transforming himself into the newscaster. He became emotional when reporting that there were casualties, exclaiming, “Oh, thash terrible!” “My goodness,” was thrown in after a few other slurred facts before the screen went blank. The remainder of the half hour was filled with music.
Another tippler had the late night shift. One of the sponsors was Sunshine Market. His undoing was a special on Ashley’s Enchilada Sauce. It took at least three minutes to do the 30-second commercial. That one would be hard even for an unimpeded speaker.
The real professionalism of Anchorage broadcasters gained national recognition in the aftermath of the 1964 earthquake. Both KENI and KFQD were on the air quickly after firing up generators and restarting their transmitters. Reporters Ty Clark and Genie Chance staffed a remote van set up at the Public Safety Building at 6th and C Street. Reporters at both stations were on the air around the clock, giving important information. Because people were very concerned about loved ones, they also broadcast names to let others know they were alright. They declined, however, to disclose casualties until late the next day.
People who lived here before 1950 have seen dramatic changes in communication. They listened to favorite programs on a battery-powered radio, cranked their wall-mounted telephone to hear the operator ask, “Number, please?” and had to go to the ACS office in the federal building on 4th Avenue to make a long-distance call. Today there are numerous radio stations, several television stations plus cable and satellite systems that access hundreds of channels, plus Internet resources galore.
The above anecdotes are based on this writer’s recollection of actual events. Names of those deserving credit are listed; names of those who deserve embarrassment are omitted.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com.