In the sleepy hamlet of Port Alexander in Southeast Alaska, amenities like wifi, cell service and even electricity are a luxury. Diesel generators run everything and fuel isn’t cheap, so conservation is a cornerstone of daily life. Now, Sitka’s Raven Radio hopes to help the remote community conserve energy by updating its aging radio transmitter with wind and solar power.
Port Alexander is a hard place to explain. It’s tiny, with less than 60 full-time residents, on the southern tip of Baranof Island. There’s no roads in or out, no cell service or municipal electricity. Perhaps PA is more of a lifestyle than a location.
Mostly PA is quiet, except for the sound of the rain, or whales breathing. Maybe a fishing boat pulling out of the harbor. But the most consistent sound is the hum of the radio in people’s homes. Raven Radio to be specific. Susan Taylor, longtime Port Alexander resident and part owner of the Laughing Raven Lodge, knows this first hand.
“Well, my husband’s really an addicted person to news. And so it is on 24/7 in my house,” she explains.
When I find her husband, Peter Mooney, he’s in his shop, sharpening his chainsaw…listening to the radio.
“It’s like you know, when I was trying to give up smoking, especially in the morning with coffee, you know? I don’t know if my coffee tastes the same without Raven radio in the morning,” he says chuckling. “It’s nice to know what’s going on in the world every day…you get NPR in the morning and it’s just this sort of really important contact with the outside world. And then we get, you know, the local news, and on and on.”
The Sitka radio station broadcasts from a repeater on the couple’s property. The power for it comes from generators owned by the city of Port Alexander, burning expensive diesel in the process. However, an ambitious new project by KCAW might be able to change that. Pete Tredish, is one of three engineers renovating Raven Radio’s transmitter. He says the station wants to take some of the pressure off the community’s energy reserves.
“It’s not easy to live in a town like this where you don’t have a city government that’s going to provide all the services that you get in a city, including electricity,” said Tredish. “It just seemed like it made sense for Raven Radio to step up and generate the electricity it needed to do its broadcasting.”
He says part of the project includes installing a wind machine and solar panels.
“We’re hoping by the end of it that we’ve installed enough wind and solar capacity, that, you know, sometimes we’re still going to need help from the diesel generator, but sometimes we’ll have some extra, and we’ll be able to contribute more electricity back into the battery bank,” he said. “The diesel’s real expensive, and, you know, sometimes supplies get disrupted in the winter. And so, just anything that we can do to help them conserve.”
This boost in power could not only help conserve diesel but also help Raven Radio transmit further off the coast, possibly reaching vessels on the water. But building infrastructure in such a remote corner of Alaska is not a simple task. Even during our interview, Pete and I sat in darkness, without enough electricity to power the lights.
“I mean, there are no stores here for food or for supplies,” he said. “Basic hardware store items, you know, every screw we had to think of beforehand, or get someone to send us later on.”
Longtime resident Paul Young recalls how exciting it was to hear KCAW for the first time in the 80s.
“Well, I remember when we first got it, it was like really? We get to have Raven Radio here? Oh, my goodness. Because we can get AM stations late at night in the winter, and that goes in and out,” said Young.
Marty Remond, who arrived in the 70s to be closer to the fishing grounds, echoed the sentiment. He says before KCAW residents could get some local stations, but coverage was spotty.
“You had to string up a wire for an antenna to get maybe like, you could probably get Petersburg,” recalled Remond.
With modern technology, like the internet, Port Alexander doesn’t rely on the radio the way it used to. Still, Remond says it continues to be an important source of news, weather, and general entertainment for the community.
“I’d say maybe half the households have satellite TV. And the rest of us don’t,” he explained. “Radio I guess is more important, especially if you don’t have any kind of television for news or weather or any of that stuff.”
As the age of technology continues to transform the way we consume media, it’s nice to know radio still has a hold on the people of Port Alexander.
Editor’s Note: In the interest of transparency, Report For America reporter Tash Kimmell is employed by Raven Radio