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Lily Herwald vividly recalls the time between 1992 and 1994 when public broadcasting came under attack.
“There were legislative battles, there were proposed cuts to public broadcasting, and at that time Sen. Stevens was a relentless champion for the needs and services of public broadcasting – radio and television.”
Herwald started work at KCAW in Sitka in 1985, three years after its founding. She left nineteen years later as general manager. Herwald says that Stevens had a clear rationale for his support of this station and twenty-five others across the state.
“And he really stressed to his colleagues, and I think provided a voice to the nation, that these services were lifeline to remote communities across Alaska. And he really wanted to advocate for rural Alaskans getting the same information that someone living in Miami or Chicago would be able to hear.”
At the time, most of the pressure to limit public broadcasting came from conservatives on capitol hill. Commercial news services picked up the story. Ultimately, the network news magazine 60 Minutes traveled to Sitka to examine the diverse, and apolitical role public broadcasters like KCAW played in their communities.
But in 1993 public radio in Sitka did become political. The Alaska Pulp Corporation mill closed that year, and KCAW’s active news reporting on the labor and environmental issues that preceded the closure pulled the station into the deep divisions in the community.
Senator Stevens subsequently sponsored legislation providing Southeast Alaska Economic Disaster Funding. Sitka’s share of what came to be called “Stevens money” was just over $18-million, which was allocated into a private and public sector revolving loan funds.
With access to that funding, KCAW could buy its building from AT&T, and subdivide its property to give the city some waterfront land badly needed for a new cruise ship lightering dock.
William Stortz was president of the KCAW board. He said there was just no way a majority of Sitka’s assembly would ever regard a public radio station as “economic development.”
As he tells it, one phone call changed some minds.
“We had lobbied as far as we could with local politicians and statewide politicians to make this deal happen. The last weekend before the vote the count was three in favor and four against us, and we were afraid it was going down. After a discussion I had with a local elected official there was a call made by that person to the senator’s office and the senator’s chief of staff said ‘Yes, this is an appropriate use for those funds and he [Sen. Stevens] supported it unequivocably.’ Tuesday night, it was 6 to 1 in our favor. We are here because of that.”
Stortz would go on to become a founding member of CoastAlaska, the five-station consortium in Southeast Alaska created to consolidate engineering, administrative, and programming expenses when public broadcasting funding did grow tighter. The general manager during that era was Barnaby Dow, who said Stevens helped pressure National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to create a sliding fee scale for rural stations.
Dow now works for the King County Executive’s office in Seattle. He says Stevens’ ideas weren’t really all that common at the time.
“His vision was shared by the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission and all the member stations to bring not only news and information to the people but a microphone and a voice from the people back into the communities. And to let the experiences that are going on in places like Sitka, Yakutat, Kake, and Angoon be heard at a level that goes back out from the communities into the greater world.”
Dow first met Stevens at a logging show in Sitka in 1984. Dow was a cub public radio reporter, saw Stevens in the bleachers, and bagged his first spontaneous interview from a US Senator. Lily Herwald also remembers that Ted Stevens the man had a soft spot for public broadcasters. She once sent him a birthday card thanking him for his service to the state. He replied with a hand-written note on the stationary of the president pro tem of the United States Senate.
“’Thank you so much for the wishes and I hope you enjoy your time at Raven Radio.’ It’s one of those honored keepsakes that I have. It’s a very meaningful personal effect of mine.”
KCAW will broadcast live funeral services for Sen. Stevens beginning at 2 PM Wednesday, August 18th.
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