Like the records he spins, the Saturday afternoon disc jockey at KNOM in Nome, Alaska has a flip side. “I’m sending Peter Frampton out to all the folks in Shageluk, Mary’s Igloo and Kwinhagak,” announces Father Jim, DJ, in his best broadcaster baritone. Then there’s the Rev. James Poole, S.J., who instead of exhortatory commercials offers helpful homilies such as, “When life becomes a grind, remember, it’s merely a test to see if you’ll come out broken or polished.”
As founder and director of the 10,000-watt Catholic radio station, Poole offers contemporary music, public service (counseling on problems like alcoholism) and hourly news. His five-minute sermon is aired only twice daily. “People up here don’t want to be preached to,” says the 55-year-old Jesuit. “Christianity is the sell, but it’s soft.” KNOM rates No. 1 in the market perhaps because its only competition, KICY, run by the Evangelical Covenant Church, carries lengthier religious programming. The stations are battling over an audience of 30,000 people in 85 villages in western Alaska (plus an undetermined number in Siberia). Less than half of the Alaskans have TV, and 85 percent are Eskimos. (A few programs in Eskimo and Indian tongues are interspersed with the English.)
The station went on the air in 1971 with welcoming messages from Pope Paul, President Nixon, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. It cost $150,000 to dynamite through the permafrost and install the 236-foot transmitting tower. The station is operated by 19 volunteers, plus Poole’s widowed mother, who cooks lunch. Still, it’s a “hand-to-mouth” existence, according to manager Tom Busch, the only paid staffer. “Mostly we live from crisis to crisis.”
Poole got the idea for KNOM in 1963 when, assigned to a tiny church in St. Marys on the Lower Yukon River, he wired a public-address system between the mission and village homes. “Then I thought, instead of 100 homes, why not 100 villages?” Today KNOM broadcasts from 6 a.m. to midnight (or 2 a.m. during the short summer nights of the fishing season).
Raised in the state of Washington, Poole entered the Society of Jesus at 18 and was ordained at 30. Over the years the cheerful, young-looking Jesuit has served as local scoutmaster, fish cannery supervisor and tax collector. Half his time is spent on parish duties as co-pastor of St. Joseph’s Church. “As a priest,” explains Poole, “the idea is to get closer to God and to other people around me.” The latest project of this determined people’s priest: raising funds to build Nome’s first swimming pool.