“When I was young I’d listen to the radio waiting for my favorite song… when they played I’d sing along, it made me smile…” Karen Carpenter
Alaskans have ridden high on the 21st-century wave of information technology– a dramatic tidal shift in the way we live and work.
Most of us these days would feel somewhat incomplete without our iPhones, internet, cable and streaming video.
But another mode of communication, radio, has stood the test of time. It is as relevant today as it was in the 1920s when the Territory of Alaska’s first commercial stations were established: KGBU in Ketchikan and KFQD in Anchorage. And as more stations came on the air in the 1940s—KFAR in Fairbanks and KENI in Anchorage, colorful personalities began to emerge.
Fairbanks’ station KFAR, for example, had two creative geniuses—Ed Stevens and Ruben Gaines—who simulated “live” coverage of baseball games. Their play-by-play announcing made it sound as if the coverage were live, which would have been impossible because back then there were no satellites. The pair received information about the game ahead of time by telephone and teletype. With crowd-cheering sound effects, as well as tapping a screwdriver head on a piece of board to simulate the sound of balls being hit by the bat, they made the games sound real—pitch by pitch, inning by inning.
Ruben Gaines moved to Anchorage in the 1950s and launched his landmark program, Conversation Unlimited. At drive time each night on Anchorage station KBYR (700 AM), the program featured humorous stories about strange and sometimes ornery characters such as “Six-Toed Mordecai,” “Doc,” “Mrs. Malone” and “Chilkoot Charlie,” which became the name of Mike Gordon’s Spenard nightclub.
Radio was my family’s chief source of entertainment in Seward in the 1950s.
Programs such as Johnny Dollar, Gunsmoke, Amos and Andy, Jack Benny, Our Miss Brooks, Suspense, and The Shadow were our evening listening staples.
A popular radio personality among Anchorage teenagers in the late 1950s and into the 1960s was Ron Moore, who hosted the “Coke Show” from the Bun Drive-in on Northern Lights Boulevard. Replete with car hops, the place was as close as Anchorage ever came to scenes in the movie “American Graffiti.”
A contemporary of Gaines was Herb Shainlin, who began his journalism career in the 1960s as a public information officer at Ft. Richardson. He was best known for his programs “Public Opinion Hotline” and “Desperate and Dateless”—both on KFQD (750 AM). With a college background in logic, he was well known for not suffering fools, and could sometimes be brutally caustic with callers. I recall one of his cynical sign-off sayings: “Remember, we’re all in this alone.”
Commercial and amateur radio played a crucial role in communication following the devastating 1964 earthquake.
Broadcaster Genie Chance, on what was then 550 AM KENI, remained on the air for more than 35 continuous hours following the quake, with the station running on a backup generator and a damaged transmitter. Ham radio operators across the state relayed important information for rescue coordination during the hours and days to follow. Today they continue to play a critically important role in statewide emergency response and coordination.
Unique and important programs on both KHAR and KENI radio in the 1960s and 1970s were “Northwind Messages” and “Mukluk Telegraph,” which reached out to folks living in the bush. For a few years, my parents lived in a cabin at Nancy Lake. On occasion, my sister and I would send a message from Anchorage over the radio such as: “Coming up this Saturday and will bring some bread.” (“Bread” was our code word for beer.)
Among all of the radio greats of those early days all to way up to the 2000s, Dick Lobdell was considered Anchorage’s most iconic radio personality and sports broadcaster extraordinaire. Some have described his voice as “folksy” and “silky smooth,” but I liked him simply because he sounded down-home and authentic. After 40 years of broadcasting, he was installed in the Alaska Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame in 1994.
Here in Eagle River, we have KVNT (92.5 FM, 1020 AM) for valley news and talk. To access local (Eagle River) podcasts, which are mostly religious-based, go to:
Among nearly 200 Federal Communication Commission (FCC) licensed radio stations in Alaska today, there are about 45 in Anchorage, mostly FM, that offer a wide variety of programming to keep the airwaves newsy, entertaining and provocative. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_radio_stations_in_Alaska
Like the radio pioneers of yesteryear, today’s broadcasters continue to provide key information and a link to the state’s far-flung population.
Radio has come a long way in Alaska from the 20th to 21st century. And aside from providing news, public information, sports and other entertainment, it consistently does something very well: with only sound, it allows us to use our imaginations. Best of all, for it’s still free for consumers—of course, after the purchase of a radio.
Frank E. Baker has been an Alaska resident since 1946 and is currently a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebakah, a retired elementary school teacher.