Unalaska Community Broadcasting has covered local news for the past 20 years.
To mark that anniversary, KUCB is spending every Thursday of 2019 looking back at our former reporters and sharing some of their stories.
In September, we’re focusing on John Ryan, who was with the station during the summer of 2015. He sat down with KUCB’s Zoë Sobel to discuss his decision to take time off from his job at KUOW in Seattle to work in Unalaska.
JOHN RYAN: Ever since my two years in Juneau [at KTOO,] I’ve kind of had the Alaska bug. I love the Great Land, the 49th State. Love it to death, and always I’m thinking, “Oh, how am I going to get back there?” For fun, or any reason really. And down here [at KUOW in Seattle] in 2015, I had been covering that Shell Oil had been trying to get permission to drill for oil in the Arctic. Their platform — the Polar Pioneer [was] the name of the big rig — was down here for some work in the shipyards. All these protests were here. The “kayaktivists,” as they call themselves, went out on the water and did these floating, boating protests. So I did a lot of that coverage. And then, of course, Unalaska was going to be kind of the headquarters for Shell’s Alaska effort as the last deepwater port before they got up to the Chukchi Sea. So I thought, “Oh, that’ll be really interesting.” That would be a really interesting place to continue covering a story that I felt like I’d covered as much as anybody — and would still be of interest to a Seattle audience. I convinced folks here. “Hey, can I just disappear for four months and not lose my job? And here’s why.” Told them about this gig, and after some negotiations, they finally said “Sure.” So I did that. It was very quick because the [job] opening was happening right away. “Ahh, how do I shut down my life in Seattle and get up there as fast as possible?”
KUCB: What was the station like when you were there? At the beginning, you were the only reporter, right?
RYAN: Yes. For most of my time there, I was the only reporter. Coming from a big station where there’s lots of bureaucracy, I guess, there’s lots of quality control, which is good. And there’s also lots of hoops to jump through, which are kind of the two sides of the same coin. That coin didn’t exist at KUCB. It was just me. I could, in theory, call up somebody in Anchorage or Juneau to a get an edit. But I didn’t do that much. So there was a freedom and a terror to doing that. I like to think of myself as a pretty good self-editor, but it’s always better to have somebody else review your work. That was scary. I also hadn’t been responsible for a daily newscast before, other than occasionally filling in for somebody else. But to do that day in and day out — that was a high-pressure thing to jump into. I was an investigative reporter before, which means I might spend weeks on a single story instead of doing five newscasts a week. So it was a shift of gears.
KUCB: While you were in Unalaska, what were some of your favorite stories to cover?
RYAN: I love covering science and environment stuff, so I did a lot of those. Maybe more than some other reporter might have. But I just loved doing those. There were also the random stories that were just kind of surprising. [General Manager] Lauren [Adams] would say, “Hey, there’s a nuclear submarine in the bay. Go check it out.” Like, “What?” So I did it. I go out there, and there’s a black submarine in the bay. The station had a nice camera, a long lens, so I got some nice pictures of this thing. And then tried to get anybody from the Navy to talk to me about what’s going on. To name one particular story I loved: When these researchers came out there with these devices they called “saildrones.” They looked like big windsurfers, and they were kind of self-piloting, essentially. They would just work their way all around the Bering Sea, taking different measurements — temperature and salinity and all sorts of stuff to help monitor ocean conditions and climate change. I got to interview the guy behind this as he was collecting the drones down on the docks. Then I got about as goofy as I’ve ever gotten in a story and kind of made it an almost science fiction story: “Maybe these drones are not what they’re purported to be, and they’re actually out to get us.” Telling this story of what was actually happening [but with] my paranoid, ridiculous voicing. “But what if they aren’t following orders?” I can’t remember the details, but [it was] probably my story I had the most fun writing. The reporting was just pretty cool. People often talk about “Only in Alaska” stories. I think there are also “Only in Unalaska” stories.
KUCB: Do you still keep up with what’s going in Unalaska or at KUCB?
KUCB: Thank you.
RYAN: You’re welcome. I think there’s just great, interesting stories happening out there. I like to call it the western end of civilization, right? That there’s basically one newsroom — one full-time newsroom — covering a thousand miles of island and ocean is kind of sad. Like, wouldn’t be nice if there were more journalists out there? But I think it’s also what made it interesting to be out there as a journalist.
KUCB: You’ve definitely shared some favorite stories already. But any other favorite memories of Unalaska?
RYAN: The internet. So crappy, right? That was part of the reason I spent so much time hiking because just being inside — there just wasn’t much to do inside. And to move someplace as a solo person — a middle-aged solo person — not really knowing a soul was kind of terrifying. I was fortunate to make friends with a couple of folks who were big hikers, and I got to do that all the time. So that was great. I guess I would say it was great to be part of a community where what I did really mattered. To feel like you’re really making a contribution. Can be easy to not feel that way in a big city. We don’t often get feedback on our work here [at KUOW]. But in Unalaska, I would run into somebody at the Safeway or what have you, and they would have feedback. Sometimes thanks or praise. Sometimes maybe not. But it was just nice to be part of a small but powerful little institution that was really central to the life of a community. I think it’s especially true in a tiny, tiny town like that. They’re really fortunate to be able to have a public radio newsroom in a town of — is it 4,000? Is that the population now?
KUCB: It’s a little bit closer to 5,000. But small.
RYAN: So yeah, that’s just a tremendous asset that I hope the community appreciates and keeps supporting.