Mel Sather, Alaska broadcasting pioneer, dies at 75

Mel Sather and his wife, Diane Kaplan. (Courtesy photo)

The reach and reliability of statewide public broadcasting in Alaska owes much to a man many have never heard of: Mel Sather, who died Dec. 4 after a long illness.

An Aleut, born in Seward in 1944, Sather was still in high school in Anchorage when he was first hired at Northern TV by Alaska broadcast pioneer Augie Hiebert. After a stint in the Navy during the Vietnam war, Sather returned to Alaska and taught electronics and math at Bartlett High School, a job he said was his favorite. He became the chief engineer at Northern Television and also served as board chairman for Alaska Public Media’s television station KAKM.

Sather was also instrumental in helping to build the system that brought national news to Alaska, and built the Anchorage-based Native station KNBA.

Jaclyn Sallee, CEO of Koahnic and KNBA, says Sather’s engineer work is everywhere in Alaska.

“From Barrow to Bethel to Southeast to the Aleutians in creating synergies and efficiencies,” she said. “Especially with KNBA and KSKA in terms of combining our signal, and we share a tower out in Goose Bay.”

Sallee says she first met Sather in 1986 when she interned at the Alaska Public Radio Network. She said he was a mentor and an articulate friend with a great sense of humor who taught Alaska Native middle school students how to make videos and other broadcast content.

“That really helped in creating much of the work that we’ve done, here at Koahnic and KNBA to create opportunities for Alaska Natives to learn how to produce their own stories and to tell their own stories in their own voices,” Sallee said.

Sather also built radio station KUYI on the Hopi reservation in Arizona in 2000, and worked on many other radio and television projects in the U.S. and Indonesia. In an Anchorage Daily News obituary, a former co-worker said Sather was the ‘original McGuyver’ and could keep a station on air with duct tape, wire and a leatherman.

The Alaska Community Foundation has a new program called the Mel Sather Public Media Internship, which Sallee says is the perfect way to honor his legacy.

“Whether you’re a reporter or on the business side, there’s so many areas that need support and this provides so much opportunity,” she said.

Sallee says Sather’s death is a big loss for broadcasting and the Alaska Native community.

“There’s so few of us who are in positions of management or reporting that are Alaska Native so it’s really been a difficult time for all of us and he will be remembered and is going to be missed, dearly,” Sallee said.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori