By Rhonda McBride
Although I am no longer with KTVA, the news of the Anchorage TV station’s sale saddens me—not just for my former colleagues but for the state as well.
The station has been sold to Gray, the company that owns KTUU. And while I have worked at both and have much admiration for what KTUU has achieved, it does not bode well to have one newsroom swallow up another. There will be less diversity in the news—and my understanding is that not everyone at KTVA will be part of the newly emerging organization.
It’s funny how these sales go—that the people who work in the organization are not really considered part of the value of the sale. It’s the bottom line that matters: the revenue generated, the hard assets like the equipment—all of those have a price tag.
But the people are truly the most important assets—and I’ll have to say, KTVA has some of the finest and most talented broadcast journalists Alaska has ever seen. The news team has regularly won national awards for its work.
I hope KTUU can pick as many KTVA staffers as possible. Alaska is not like other states. Our stories are very Alaska specific.
Alaska viewers patiently suffer the cheechako broadcasters, who come and go, so a team of seasoned Alaska journalists is pretty special—and there is some real experience based at KTVA, people like Lauren Maxwell who have been at the station for more than 30 years.
Although many of those at KTVA are relative newcomers to Alaska, many have been at the station for seven years or more—and that’s a lifetime of experience in Anchorage TV news, where reporters generally last about two years, because Anchorage is a stepping-stone to bigger and better things.
But those who stay discover that Alaska is bigger and better than they ever imagined—and they bring their love of the state and community to their work.
I’ve never worked with a finer newsroom team than while I was at KTVA. Like the Avis rental car slogan says: #2 tries harder. KTUU is a fine organization—but was at its best, when it was looking over its shoulder at its competition. Monopolies rarely benefit the consumer.
Until recently, when KTVA went through a major downsizing that led to my departure, I never thought I’d see the day where there was only one major TV news organization in Anchorage. Channel 13 jettisoned its newsroom not too long ago.
There were three, then there were two and now there is one. While this is a sad day in Alaska broadcast history, it’s also part of a nationwide trend.
Times were already tough. Then came COVID-19. It not only hurt ad revenue but moved people increasingly to online entertainment. When COVID passes and the ad money returns, it’ll go to different venues.
COVID-19 probably marks the end of an era for local broadcast TV, accelerating a trend already in progress.
Years ago, I was saddened to hear that a good friend of mine, who had his dream job at a Los Angeles all-news radio station, lost his job when another station bought his—and jobs were lost in the consolidation. The only work he could find was a job at a company in LA that produced newscasts for other markets. He began producing and anchoring newscasts in Los Angeles for stations in Arizona. This company also had a political agenda—and he was given a list of political talking points to incorporate in his stories. He was threatened with his job if he did not find a way to do this.
I was always bothered by Anchorage news organizations covering rural news from afar, even when I did it. It seems that so much gets lost in the coverage. Authenticity. A sense of place. That’s why public radio is so important to Alaska—stories that filter into the news food chain from reporters who know their communities.
I hope KTUU can stay strong, and we won’t reach a point where our news is covered by people from outside Alaska.
Perhaps, as it absorbs some of the experience and talent at KTVA, it will grow into a stronger more vital news organization. But given our struggling economy and the steady downsizing of TV news organizations, there are some clouds on the horizon. A practice known as “hubbing” is starting to make inroads in Alaska. It’s a practice that helps TV and radio stations save money by being part of a “hub” sharing the same talent. Technology makes it possible to seem like the broadcast is coming from the community in which it airs even if it’s produced hundreds or thousands of miles away.
We’ve already had a morning radio star who broadcast from out of state for a period of time, Rick Rydell. Rick had a good reason and didn’t try to hide it. He was taking care of a sick father, and it was a workable solution. But it also showed how these broadcasts could be done from out of state with Alaskans none the wiser. Of course, now we know for sure Rick’s in Alaska. He’s working for the governor. I believe Dan Fagan has broadcast his program from out of state at times as well.
Coastal Television Broadcasting Company, which let go of most of its newsroom recently, is one of the first to test the waters for “hubbing” in the Anchorage TV market. Coastal operates KTBY and KYUR. And if you tune into Fox 4 News at 9:00 p.m., you’ll see some headlines and interviews delivered by Maria Athens, an Anchorage anchor and reporter, but also an Alaska weather forecast from Jeff Kirk, who says he produces his segment from his living room in Las Vegas. National headlines are delivered from a news service called NewsNet.
Alaska stations have always supplemented their news with stories from the networks they are affiliated with—as well as syndicated features and occasional correspondents from the Lower 48—but having the Alaska weather done from outside the state takes it to a new level.
For the sake of Alaskans, I hope this business model doesn’t make more inroads in our state.
Perhaps the consolidation of KTUU and KTVA will help improve the bottom line for KTUU and result in better coverage. KTUU is in an enviable position to absorb a newsroom where there is so much talent and experience. And with the purchase of other GCI-owned stations in Southeast Alaska, as well as the stations Gray already owns in Fairbanks, KTUU now has the building blocks to become a true statewide network. But will Gray be willing to make that kind of investment in Alaska?
For now, there’s only one true statewide news network, the Alaska Public Media, which is still robust, despite all the setbacks stations have had in state funding. And I worry. Public broadcasting has always had a lot of ups and downs over the years. Who knows what the picture will be like in five years?
News that KTVA has been sold is a sad day Alaska broadcast history—a station started by Augie Hiebert, one of Alaska’s radio and TV pioneers. He saw how communications is so important in a large and challenged state like ours, with a small population scattered over such an epic land mass. He worked all his life to bring Alaskans together through the airwaves.
I’m disappointed that GCI has sold KTVA. And I’m left wondering if the company, which has had such a “can do” legacy might have tried a little harder to save KTVA and served Alaskans better. But GCI itself is not completely locally owned anymore, and it did pump millions into the operation–so it must do what it needs to do to stem its losses and protect its core business.
Had KTVA reached a point where it was no longer possible for it to continue as a stand-alone news operation—and that it was time to let the inevitable happen? But as that saying goes, we see darkly into the future. There is much technology around today that can help bring news and information to Alaskans. Maybe it’s the dying of the old that helps the new to grow and thrive. Here’s hoping the best is yet to come.
Rhonda McBride is a longtime Alaska journalist and works as a roving reporter, filling in when newsrooms need a helping hand.