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Keeping Connected

Humanities on the Air

By Laura Wolff Scanlan | HUMANITIES, September/October 2005 | Volume 26, Number 5

Shishmaref, just south of the Arctic Circle, has no paved roads, television, or running water. The villagers keep connected with the rest of the state with a radio show sponsored by the Alaska Humanities Forum.

Like a dozen other state humanities councils, Alaska's is finding radio a way to keep humanities interests thriving in a state with a far-flung population.

Each week, its radio program, AK, collects stories from around the state. One week the theme was "How Alaskans communicate with one another." Another week it was "How to own and operate your very own democracy." Another show covered a Catholic priest who kayaks between his two parishes and an Air Force chaplain returned home from Iraq.

Shishmaref had a chance to tell its story in a documentary called Moving the Village, which was produced by AK's Gabriel Spitzer. The village, home to the Inupiaq for a thousand years, is gradually sliding into the sea, a victim of global warming.

Spitzer explored the human cost of climate change and the political and ethical dilemmas yet to come. Some people are moving their houses off the bluff, but no one has yet relocated to another town. An option the government is considering is moving the villagers to Nome or Kotzebue.

Percy Nayokpuk, owner of the village's general store, says that being forced to move to someone else's land would be catastrophic. "I'm not moving. Not to Nome or Kotzebue; I've seen 'em both. For one thing, there's not enough resources for the village and their own populations. We're a subsistence group, and wherever we go, we're gonna takee our needs with us."

Luci Eningowuk, chair of Shishmaref's Erosion and Relocation Coalition, is more hopeful. "We just need a little help to find a safer place to live. It's not our fault that the permafrost is melting, or that there's global warming that's causing us to go farther away from our home in Shishmaref. But we'll survive."

"The program is designed to weave Alaska together," says Ira Perman, AHF's executive director. "We have a state that has very different people living in very different parts of it. The Yupik Eskimos that live in the southwest are very different from the northwest coastal Indians, very different from the Anchorage urban dwellers, very different from the Russian communities all over the state."

The councils are finding that radio is an affordable, flexible way to reach wider audiences than may attend a humanities event.

Each week, AK reaches eighty-five thousand listeners, more than a tenth of the state's population. In Virginia, With Good Reason, a half-hour interview program cosponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, reaches twenty thousand listeners each week with topics as varied as the history of Jamestown, race relations, and autism. The Virginia council has been posting With Good Reason on a National Public Radio exchange Web site that allows public radio stations to download stories that might have appeal in their local markets.

Even where the state is geographically small, state humanities directors are turning to radio. Sara Archambault, executive director of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, says that although her state can be traversed in an hour, it is difficult to get people out to humanities events. "Rhode Islanders are not known for adventuring outside of their towns and cities. It's very hard to amass large audiences for public programs. Radio gives us another opportunity to reach folks where they are, in their homes."

In Wyoming, where the mountain ranges and great distances between towns make connections difficult, the state council is producing A Wyoming Conversation, a half-hour interview show featuring state and community leaders. The day after broadcast, humanities specialists go into communities to hold public forums based on the previous night's broadcast. "Our goal is to get people talking across the state; to get a simultaneous Wyoming conversation going," says Marcia Wolter Britton, executive director of the Wyoming Council for the Humanities.

In Oregon, the council has offered a radio series called On Principle. In the segments, a small-business owner, a public defender, and a cattle rancher presented their views about principles at the center of American democracy--equality, economic opportunity, civic engagement, justice, and individual freedom. In his segment, Ben Moorad, a community activist from Southeast Portland, describes the importance of freedom of speech for the speaker and the listener. "So, if you restrict who gets to speak, who gets to tell their story, then the political discourse is narrowed," says Moorad. "When you hear the stories of someone very different from you, you have a greater capacity for empathy. You can put yourself in their shoes, so you are more likely to protect their freedoms in other realms."

Christopher Zinn, executive director of Oregon's council, hopes these segments will produce "driveway moments," when people pull in, sit in the car, and listen until a story is over.

Most of the councils work with public radio stations; Massachusetts works with both public and commercial radio partners. Its Mass Moments, a one-minute history almanac, airs on fourteen commercial stations and one public radio station.

"We decided to turn to commercial radio stations, both AM and FM, because part of our goal was to reach out to new audiences that are not our usual suspects for humanities programming," says David Tebaldi, MFH's executive director.

Mass Moments tells the stories of strikes, riots, arrests and other happenings in Massachusetts that were important in state or national history. The program directs listeners to where they can find additional background and sign up for e-Moment, a text version delivered daily via e-mail.

As a result of their radio successes, several councils are looking for ways to reach new audiences. The Ohio Humanities Council, which cosponsored the state's Bicentennial Minutes in 2003, now supports Ohioana Authors. The weekly segments focus on Ohio's literary and historical heritage and direct listeners to The site contains bibliographic information, excerpts, and a curriculum for high school teachers.

The Virginia Foundation is launching a news bureau with correspondents statewide reporting on humanities events; it is exploring distribution of the programs via Internet and satellite broadcasting. Rhode Island is considering podcasting, which would allow listeners to download audio files of Action Speak. Wyoming's council hopes to venture into commercial radio.

"Radio is a very powerful medium," says Alaska's Perman. "It is a great way to get the message out."

About the Author

Laura Wolff Scanlan is a freelance writer in Wheaton, Illinois.

Funding Information

Alaska, Massachusetts, Ohio, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Wyoming have received We the People funding from NEH to produce their radio programs. The aim of We the People is to foster understanding of American history and culture.