Alaska Public Media grant will enhance coverage of rural health

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Alaska Public Media has received $500,000 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to expand reporting on health-care issues in rural areas of the state.

The two-year grant will help the statewide organization “inform and educate the Alaskan public about a wide range of ongoing and emerging health concerns,” according to an announcement Tuesday.

A portion of the money will help reporters cover more distant communities. “Travel in rural Alaska is expensive,” and the funding “will help us reach remote communities that are seldom heard from,” Alaska Public Media News Director Lori Townsend said in the announcement.

Many of Alaska’s rural communities are not on on a road system, Townsend told Current. “You can’t drive to them, you can only get there by plane, by river travel in a boat during the summer or on river ice roads in the winter,” she said.

The grant will also help expand coverage of “emerging health issues related to a changing climate and other factors,” the announcement said, which is important for educating not only viewers and listeners but also policy makers, Townsend said.

Climate change is creating psychological stress among Alaskan populations, Townsend said. Melting permafrost and coastal or river bank erosion “can make travel on river ice less stable and more dangerous,” she said, so hunters have to trek farther for food. That also means more fuel costs in areas where those prices “are many times higher than in urban areas,” she said.

Stress also results from “uncertainty about the ability to maintain subsistence ways of life that have existed for thousands of years but are now changing as the Arctic warms at twice the rate of other places on the planet,” Townsend said. Ice cellars — pits dug into permafrost that act as natural freezers for residents in arctic communities — “are melting into slushy holes that can no longer be used, forcing them to buy electric freezers in areas where the cash economy is severely limited and the price of electricity is extremely expensive,” she said.

Expanded coverage of rural health issues will air on stations statewide, Townsend said. Alaska Public Media is a partnership between Anchorage stations KSKA-FM and KAKM-TV, which also operates a statewide news service with KTOO Public Media in Juneau and KYUK in Bethel.

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