Pierre Lonewolf’s career path, which took him to Kotzebue, Alaska in the early 1980s, included a stopover in a very large metropolitan California where he realized that big city life was not for him.
You can’t stray much farther from the major population bases than you can in northern Alaska. Kotzebue, with a population of 3,283, sits on a tongue of sand on Alaska’s arctic west coast directly across from the Chukchi and Bering Seas and several hundred miles from Russia’s eastern border. It’s a picturesque but sparsely populated place with abundant wildlife such as caribou, moose and bears.
With this in mind, Lonewolf manages CSRE, CNT, engineering services at KOTZ (AM) and KINU (FM), as well as a network of FM translators and low-power FMs serving small villages. This service includes seven translators and three LPFMs that were added from the mid-1980s to serve small riverside communities around Kotzebue.
Non-profit educational institutions KOTZ and KINU are staffed by a few full-time employees and one or two volunteers. But don’t take the “voice of the arctic” for lowbrow, says Lonewolf. For example, KINU broadcasts in HD Radio with HD2 and HD3 channels. Its FM HD2 offers all-talk programming from NPR and BBC, while the HD3 channel carries NPR’s Classical 24 programming.
“We transitioned to HD probably eight years ago,” says Lonewolf proudly. “It’s just another service we offer to the public. I believe in public radio and in serving the local community.”
radio in the blood
Lonewolf, 67, was born on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota, where as a child he occasionally heard stories in the Ojibwe language from elders and attended several Catholic Indian mission schools. “The mother tongue was not a priority at the time. I was basically suppressed until about 1973.”
After high school, he worked as a line technician/electrician and controls specialist for several electric utility companies before ending up in San Francisco and the School of Communications Electronics in 1977. There he earned his First Class FCC license.
“My father had started a radio station in Belcourt, ND in the mid 1970’s and I was hired as an assistant engineer. It was my first radio job. If you’ve never worked for your father, it’s a lot harder than working for someone you’re not related to,” Lonewolf said with a chuckle.
“But my father Dallas was a thought leader. He had no experience with broadcasting, but he just felt it was important that the reservation had a radio station. And that’s why I went to school in San Francisco – to help him with his radio station.”
At KEYA(FM), Lonewolf worked under a mentor, Miles Hustead, eventually succeeding him as chief engineer a few years later. Another job offer led Lonewolf to WOBJ(FM) on the Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) reservation in Reserve, Wisconsin, and a chance to build what he believed to be the first 100,000-watt Native American FM in the country.
“It was a tough few months signing up, but we got through it. It was quite an experience for a young man,” Lonewolf said.
[Sign Up for Radio World’s SmartBrief Newsletter]
“Logistics is everything in Alaska”
Lonewolf went north and joined KOTZ in 1983. His time in San Francisco had shown him that he didn’t like the urban environment; He decided that a rural outpost amidst Alaska’s rugged nature might be a good fit. Since then, he has led significant advances in radio technology at the stations in Kotzebue as Head of Technology for almost 40 years.
“During that time, we’ve gone from tube transmitters to solid-state systems. Computers have become the workhorse of radio. Consoles are now networked. And all the cables we laid yesterday are just one network cable.”
His duties as retail market manager may sound familiar to readers in similar circumstances.
“Like most public radio technicians in small markets, I do everything. From the roof to the plumbing to electrical and electrical installations. If you are a rural bush engineer, just take care of all these things yourself. They don’t usually call for help unless you really need it. I have acquired many skills outside of the normal broadcast engineer role. And that’s okay.”
Lonewolf sees his biggest challenge as finding replacement parts when something breaks. That was true before global supply chain issues exacerbated the problem.
“And logistics is everything in Alaska. You can plan everything for a project, but it’s just difficult to get things moving at the moment. And the cost of it all – we installed some light trusses in our AM studio. They cost $1,200 and shipping was $2,800. And then the brackets were missing, so we had to wait for those again,” he said.
Fuel prices are skyrocketing in Alaska, Lonewolf said, and $12 a gallon for gasoline is not uncommon during certain times of the year.
IT work has become an increasingly large part of his duties in recent years. He has had a love for computers since he met them. Like many engineers, he learned most of his IT skills on the job.
“Computers have obviously taken over everything. I used to spend a lot of time working on studio equipment and transmitters. Now I seem to work mostly on the computer.”
As a US Army veteran who participated in Desert Storm and served in the National Guard in Alaska and North Dakota, he has faced all sorts of challenges maintaining broadcast sites in rural Alaska.
“The coldest thing I’ve ever seen here is minus 65 degrees. And of course the wind blew. Winters are very long and dark here,” he said.
“Of course, the weather and climate pose challenges. Some of these villages can usually only be reached by boat, plane or snowmobile in winter.”
Kotzebue Broadcasting’s radio network consists of VHF translators and low power Nautel transmitters in villages such as Selawik, Kiana, Noatak and Red Dog Mine. The feed to the translators and LPFMs is via the KOTZ web stream by Triton Digital with Telos Z/IP Stream R/2 coding.
“We used to use AT&T over SCPC for the village feeds, basically a nailed-down voice line. Then came the internet. Our earliest feeds were about Barix Exstreamer 110s. The only problem we encountered…was when our ISP updated the system and connection reliability became problematic and we’re still trying to figure out why.
“It is interesting that we have said goodbye to SCPC [single channel per carrier]who was very reliable, to DAMA [demand assigned multiple access], which was ok, and now for IP connectivity. Sometimes I wish for the old days, but we are where we are.”
The stations in Kotzebue have in recent years replaced studio consoles with Wheatstone IP-12 and IP-16 surfaces and WheatNet IP blade infrastructure.
“We are now digital across the board. Everything goes via VoIP. We now have the Telos VX VoIP system. And we have a Nautel AM solid state transmitter.
“It’s funny, I used to spend a lot of time working on channels, but not anymore. It’s very reliable. Also, we recently switched our automation software to PlayoutOne, which offers cloud backup.”
Next, broadcasters plan to use Broadcast Bionics’ Bionic Studios for social media curation and audience engagement. “People live there now. You have to be on social media.”
He expects the future to see greater integration of fiber optic connections in studios and the use of artificial intelligence and voice cloning with implications for radio. “We’re probably not that far from a computer DJ who sounds pretty good.”
The vastness of Alaska doesn’t leave Lonewolf “isolated” like he did before the advent of the internet. “It used to be when you had to wait for the spare parts catalogue. But staying current with the latest technology and news is pretty easy now.”
According to Lonewolf, the non-commercial educational programming of its radio stations in rural Alaska is an important part of daily life in the Kotzebue area.
“When you travel to rural Alaska, things are different. Yes, there is cellphone service in the villages now. But the internet speed is usually very slow. The villages are small. From several hundred people to maybe 500 residents. We play a very important role in rural Alaskan life.”
Wolves as neighbors
Lonewolf lives with his wife, Rosie, in Kotzebue, about 550 miles northwest of Anchorage. He finds many benefits to this life in a landscape where he has hunted, wandered, and fished.
“I’m too old now to climb mountains and cross the tundra. I leave that to my sons and nephews now. However, I still occasionally encounter musk oxen and wolves at transmitter sites.”
Lonewolf was active with the Association of Public Radio Engineers, currently serves on its board and helps oversee the grant program. APRE uses outreach to encourage others to pursue careers in broadcast technology.
“I tell people that if you like technology, audio, music and sound, this is a great career path. It is a unique ability to know computers, transmitters and audio chains. But if a person loves it, this is the perfect job. Now the pay is a bit different, but I think the pay scale will change with the next generation of broadcast engineers.”
He credits a fraternity of public broadcast engineers across Alaska for helping guide him through a variety of technical challenges.
“I wouldn’t be able to do my job without the support of all my fellow engineers. Engineers’ small public radio crowd. And we all help each other and support each other morally. I can look at a problem and think this is the way to do it. Then I will put it on the email list and someone will give me a better idea. We exchange ideas quite often. I thank my colleagues for this support.”
[Visit Radio World’s News and Business Page]