KCAW newsman Will Swagel, in 1987. Swagel typifies the mix of professional and volunteer talent that would help shape Raven Radio. Swagel would later write for the Daily Sitka Sentinel. He now is an author, and publisher of the Sitka Soup. (Photo by Martin Strand)

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Today (3-6-12) is Raven Radio’s birthday – the thirtieth anniversary of the start of regular daily broadcasts.

We celebrated our sign-on back on the 19th of February, when Marika Partridge briefly put the station on the air to lend some weight to KCAW’s pending request from the legislature. With $53,000 in state funding hanging in the balance, it might have been our first unofficial on-air fund drive.

Here’s what that broadcast sounded like.

This is Raven Radio, KCAW in Sitka, partially funded by the community of Sitka as well as the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission, signing on the air. I am Marika Partridge, and it brings me humongous pleasure to welcome all of you who happen to be listening to this, our very first historical broadcast. During the next couple of weeks we’re going to be on the air in the evenings beginning at 5, and as soon as we get the bugs worked out of our system, were going to sign on for our full broadcast day, and we’ll be sure to let you know all about that.

And that full broadcast day eventually came on March 6, 1982, when those bugs would be worked out, and Raven Radio began a broadcasting routine that sounds pretty much like it sounds now.

Marika Partridge, by the way, would later go on to work as the director of All Things Considered, NPR’s evening news magazine.

Partridge was an émigré from KTOO in Juneau; so were general manager Rich McClear and his wife Suzi, who previously had helped found an early community radio station in northern Minnesota.

McClear turned down an offer from a national media outfit in Washington DC to work in community broadcasting Alaska. He does not regret the choice.

“I think the media scene is so debased in the United States. Really. Look at the quality of television news. It’s terrible. NPR is one shining beacon of news, and some newspapers like the New York Times. And when you look at community media, I still think that’s the future. Maybe I was right 35 years ago.”

McClear says that early in the movement there was a widespread belief that community radio stations would revolutionize communication. He says he and other station pioneers envisioned co-equal status for community, public, and commercial broadcasters.

That never happened. But McClear is satisfied with what happened instead.

“I look at Raven Radio. I look at KTOO. This is where things are happening. The CoastAlaska stations are really in touch with their communities. I listen to the sports show on Raven Radio on Sunday night. I listen to the Library Show. I listen to storytelling shows. I think, Wow, this station is really still doing what we wanted it to do – and that’s exciting.”

The idea for Raven Radio began with Todd Davis in 1978. He organized KCAW’s first local board, long before there was a station. Several months later, Davis died in a climbing accident, but his idea didn’t.

Suzi McClear says she and Rich first saw Sitka on a 24-hour layover at about that time. She says she believes in love at first sight. She also believes community broadcasting has made permanent imprint on the region.

“Each community has changed a lot in thirty years. Some for the better, some not so. Stations that have actually been adopted by their community – that truly do have their roots in their community – are doing programming that I’m not as excited about. It’s programming for the twenty-year-olds and the thirty-year-olds, and I’m not there anymore. So, I don’t like it, but I REALLY like it, because that’s where it needs to be.”

Since leaving Raven Radio in 1993, both McClears have continued to work on developing community radio – mostly in post-Soviet Eastern Europe and the Balkans. They were among the first of the thousands of people who have listened to the station’s signal online, and followed our news stories daily on Facebook and the web.

McClear says he’s not surprised that Raven Radio has cultivated a large audience outside of Sitka.

“Community radio I think is the best medium to integrate with new media. Social media, because community radio started as social media. It started as a group of amateurs – amateur from (the Latin) Amo, Amat, ‘I love’ – I love radio, I love my community. And you take that with community radio and mix it with social media… Holy Cow! We could really do something here. I’m really excited.”

Rich and Suzi McClear will be in Sitka more often nowadays. They’ve decided to limit their overseas work to shorter visits in the developing world.

They both have plans to be in town when Raven Radio celebrates its thirtieth birthday in style this summer, with a 5-day reunion and party from June 30 to July 4th.

Learn more about Raven Radio’s 30th Anniversary Celebration this summer.