Our next Station of the Month, KICY AM, is in the farthest Western region of our country, literally at the edge of the world, in Nome, Alaska. Being situated at the northwestern tip of the continent, in a region only accessible by air most of the year, presents some unusual challenges for operating a radio station, and the opportunity for some unique content.
Nome, Alaska is just south of the Arctic Circle and right on the edge of the Bering Strait, which is the body of water separating the U.S. from Russia. This region is home to several culturally distinct groups of Alaska Natives – the Inupiaq, Siberian Yup’ik, Yup’ik and Cup’ik, all of which have their own distinct language that is still spoken in many villages today. Most of the villages in this region are very isolated, making KICY a critical source of information and communication in the Western Alaska region.
Sixty years ago this year, KICY started as a vision with the Evangelical Covenant Church missionaries, who saw the great need for radio as a way to connect isolated villages in the region. Today, KICY is owned and operated by the 501(c)3 non-profit Arctic Broadcasting Association, and most of their annual operating budget comes from churches and individual donors. They operate two distinct stations, KICY AM-850, which covers the entire region, and ICY 100.3 FM, which serves the city of Nome (pop. 3,500) and the surrounding communities. In 2001, KICY 850 AM increased their power to 50,000 watts, 24 hours a day, allowing them to broadcast the Gospel into some areas where other forms of media are not readily available.
KICY airs a variety of content, from Christian music to local sports competitions, including the world famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race, fishing reports, and Bible Study and prayer programs. This diverse programming reflects the community’s dependence on KICY – earlier this year, KICY was called on to broadcast the local high school graduation in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. KICY has been covering local sports since they first went on air, and basketball in particular is hugely popular in Western Alaska, according to station manager Patty Burchell. KICY covers all the Nome high school games and all the regional playoffs for the smaller schools in the region. They also cover the local elementary school wrestling tournament every year, of which Patty said, “Play-by-play wrestling over the radio is unique, and something not to be missed!”
With 10,000 years of Inupiaq history embedded in the culture of Nome (50% of the population is Alaska Native) and Western Alaska, most people here, whether native or not, practice some sort of subsistence living, such as hunting for moose, caribou and musk ox, catching, drying and canning fish, and foraging berries and greens. Therefore, the seasonal fishing reports from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that KICY broadcasts from May to September are critical for not just the fishing hobbyists but also the local people. Most Nome locals have a “camp” outside of town during the summer where they carry out their subsistence activities, and radio is the prime means of communication in these remote areas without internet or cell phone service. An interesting fact – Alaska is the only state that has permission from the FCC to broadcast personal messages for people because of its remoteness. People will broadcast birthday and anniversary greetings, notices of funerals and births, as well as safety messages. Local weather reports are also critical, given that all of their TV broadcasts come from Anchorage, which, at 500 miles away, can have very different weather.
Balancing the entertainment and news with spiritual encouragement, KICY offers valuable and uplifting Christian programming, including both syndicated and locally produced Bible study and Christian living programs and a music blend of Southern Gospel, praise & worship, and local artists that sing in both English and the native languages. However, their most popular program is their live prayer program, CareForce, which airs each weekday morning. Regional pastors call in on a rotating basis with a short devotional and then pray through the prayer requests that listeners send in. In a place where suicide and drug addiction are sadly all too common, this program is a bright spot of hope for those who tune in.
While KICY is a unique station is many ways, probably what most sets it apart is the fact that today, KICY is the only commercial radio station in the United States licensed by the FCC to broadcast into another country in their native language. Since 1960, long before the power upgrade to 50kW, KICY has been reaching listeners in Russia. After the sun goes down in Western Alaska and most people have gone to bed, KICY turns all 50,000 watts westward into Chukotka, the nearest neighboring region in Russia, where the local time is 20 hours ahead. The broadcasts are hosted by Russian Programmer, Luda Kinok, a native of the Chukotkan village of Sereniki. The programming includes current news, weather and music, along with a Russian version of the program “CareForce,” where Russian pastors from the area pray over the radio.
It is amazing how one radio station can meet so many needs for quite a diverse group of people, in two different countries nonetheless! Truly this is a multifaceted radio station, providing many vital services to help keep the local community connected, informed and encouraged, especially during the long and dark winter months. Moreover, KICY demonstrates how radio stations can provide critical support for the community in a pandemic.