Without Gavel Alaska, fewer Alaskans will be able to watch a road system special session

An example of one of the many moments captured by Gavel Alaska's cameras and easily find-able thanks to the station's archiving. (Screenshot from Gavel Alaska/360 North)

Update: When we wrote this story, we hadn’t yet heard back from the Legislative Affairs Agency about potential for the Alaska Legislative TV cameras to make it to Juneau so we kind of wrote around it. After publishing this post, we heard back and found that the Legislature’s cameras actually can’t be moved. The special session will go without the two traditional sources of video. The special session is expected to have audio.

There’s still plenty of uncertainty around the special session Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy has called on July 8 in Wasilla, but one thing is for sure: Gavel Alaska’s cameras won’t be there.

The service that broadcasts the deliberations in the Alaska Legislature to the rest of Alaska doesn’t have the means to leave the state’s capital city, explained KTOO President and General Manager Bill Legere in an interview this morning. It’s true for a special session in Wasilla, Anchorage or anywhere else outside of Juneau.

“We have no capability to take Gavel to Gavel on the road, so we won’t be in Wasilla and we won’t be providing live TV from Wasilla,” he said, explaining that Gavel Alaska requires a fair bit of infrastructure to shoot, process and broadcast. “That infrastructure doesn’t exist in Anchorage let alone in Wasilla. … That would mean moving eight people and literally a ton of equipment for us to bring everything that we use up to Wasilla.”

Legere said the budget for Gavel Alaska, which is produced by Juneau-based KTOO and broadcast statewide on the public affairs channel 360 North, is already stretched thin as it is.

“It’s overall just not practical and then the other issue is we’re not budgeted for it,” he said. “We’re already making a 90-day budget stretch over 150 days plus.”

And that’s not to mention the uncertainty of whether legislators will stay in Wasilla or relocate as they have done when they previously sparred with the governor over the location of a special session.

At a Friday news conference outside of the Wasilla Middle School, the governor’s choice for a venue, a spokesman for the governor said they were exploring “alternatives” to Gavel.

One of those alternatives is for Gavel Alaska to get a shared video feeds from the Anchorage television stations, like it did for the governor’s Friday press, but Legere said that’s meant more as a stop gap and it wouldn’t serve as a long-term fill in for the kind of coverage Gavel Alaska produces.

“Their style of coverage would not be within the parameters we do for Gavel Alaska. … (Gavel Alaska) is modeled right after the C-SPAN concept to provide complete coverage and we don’t cut away so we get to see the process as close to real time as we can make it,” he said. “That’s the philosophy to provide that. It’s not reporting on what the Legislature is doing, but Gavel is there to watch and be the public’s eye.”

The decision to move the session to Wasilla hasn’t sat well with many legislators, who’ve cited Gavel Alaska coverage as one of the biggest bonuses to staying in Juneau.

“I’m extremely disappointed that the Governor chose Wasilla Middle School for 2nd special session. Juneau has Gavel to Gavel, committee rooms, offices, and all needed infrastructure,” said Juneau Rep. Sara Hannan in a tweet. “Holding special session anywhere but Juneau is expensive, unnecessary, less transparent.”

Access problems

While a special session on the road system might mean more Alaskans can drive to session in person, the lack of Gavel Alaska coverage will mean far fewer Alaskans will be able to easily watch the session unfold, both in real-time and after the fact.

It’ll hit rural Alaska particularly hard.

While session coverage may still be available through the Legislature’s own recordings, those recordings won’t be carried on Gavel Alaska, said Legere who likened the service to “security camera-level coverage.” He recalled that the Legislature-produced coverage of the 2015 Anchorage special session had problems with clear audio.

“In terms of all-day coverage for a month that wouldn’t fit our purpose,” Legere said.

It means whatever coverage that is produced will only be available online to people who have good enough internet to stream multiple hours of coverage. 360 North is available through Alaska Rural Communications Service, which connects the public affairs channel to more than 200 rural communities. For many of those communities, internet access is far more expensive than urban Alaska.

“It limits it to people who have decent bandwidth,” Legere said. “The channel that Gavel Alaska is on, 360 North, is the most ubiquitous channel in Alaska. It’s available in both rural and urban Alaska.”

Historical record

Gavel Alaska doesn’t just serve as Alaska’s eyes and ears for live coverage, but in its many decades of operation the program has also created an invaluable historical record of some of the state’s biggest decisions. This session, 360 North has been filled with retro public affairs programs discussing the formation and use of the Alaska Permanent Fund and the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend that have often seemed prescient to today’s debates.

The importance of quality recordings either by Gavel Alaska or by the Legislature itself were highlighted in a Legislative Affairs Agency response to the governor’s proposal of the Wasilla Middle School for the site.

“The inattention to the historical record is one of the greatest deficiencies throughout the proposal. An accurate historical record is fundamental to any meeting of the Legislature,” explained a rebuttal produced by the Legislative Affairs Agency. “There must be adequate recording, transmission and a clear historical record for any session to be considered successful, especially when considering monumentally important decisions. If no record of proceedings captures the deliberations, this causes immense problems contemporaneously and for posterity. … The historical record and the people of Alaska deserve better than the spotty recordings of the 2015 Anchorage special session.”

The importance of a quality historical record should also apparent this week as the legislative working group on the future of the PFD plans a deep dive into the history of the Alaska Permanent Fund.

The working group will meet in Anchorage.

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2 Comments on "Without Gavel Alaska, fewer Alaskans will be able to watch a road system special session"

  1. A few days ago I called 360 and told them I can fulfill the coverage needs for them if they pass on my contact to legislative office in charge of meetings.

  2. Jeremy Lansman | June 18, 2019 at 7:49 am | Reply

    Radio is relatively easy and cheap. Turn off the picture. Get used to using your ears and brain.

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