Celebrating 20 Years Of Local News: Zoë Sobel
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 November, we focused on Zoë Sobel, who worked in the newsroom from 2016 to 2019. She told KUCB's Laura Kraegel about her experience at the radio station.
ZOË SOBEL: [In 2016,] the station had started becoming part of Alaska's Energy Desk, the energy and environment reporting collaborative. So there was this additional reason to want to do energy and environment stories, which I think — from Unalaska — really turned out to be science stories or stories about the ocean. And I had been very excited to be a part of that collaborative. But I was actually surprised that by the end of my time in Unalaska, I was a lot more excited to do more of the daily news, local-value stories, if that makes sense. So while I know that long-term, I'm interested in telling longer stories, being at KUCB helped me see so much the value of local community journalism. Like, when [former mayor] Frank Kelty faced recall, I think there was a lot of misinformation going on — and just a lot of confusion about how the process of a recall works. So that was a good opportunity for me to learn how a recall works, and then also to share everything I got from that research with other people.
KUCB: What other local stories do you particularly remember from your time at KUCB? Your favorite stories or the stories you considered the most important?
SOBEL: I think a lot of the stories I enjoyed doing the most where more people-based, and I really liked collaborating with my coworkers. So I was a big fan of the story I did with [high school student] Gilmar Tapaoan about his first time going to prom, which also was his first time dressing up in drag. So fun and delightful — and happiness. And prom in Unalaska is just so unlike prom anywhere else. I was not into prom at all in high school, so it was kind of fun to get really excited about prom with someone who was so excited about prom. I also was a big fan of getting to learn more about the history of Unalaska — and I think a lot of that was done through looking at the history of World War II and what that meant for the Unangan people who have been calling the Aleutians their home for thousands and thousands of years. So the documentary, a lot of the stuff related to Attu, cultural revitalization — things like that. And then, I think everyone knows that my favorite part of my job was calling basketball games on the radio. I miss that a lot.
KUCB: I really miss your play-by-play, too. As basketball novice, I always learned a lot. But tell me more about your experience covering Unalaska's history and the WWII anniversaries that happened during your tenure, like the Battle of Attu and Japan's bombing of Dutch Harbor. You did a lot of reporting there and you were a big part of the documentary that KUCB produced on the Lost Villages Project, which helped Unangax̂ people to visit the communities the U.S. government didn't allow their ancestors to resettle after the war. Why was it important to you that the station cover those issues as well as we possibly could?
SOBEL: KUCB and a lot of other rural stations in Alaska hire a lot of Outside reporters, and a lot of us are Outside white reporters. So, as a reporter, moving into a community that has a lot of history and has a lot of diversity — and a just lot of history that I don’t think is super widely known — it seemed important to try and do work to make sure that history is more accessible. I found out there was going to be a trip back to Attu at some point within my first four months in Unalaska. I was on a different reporting trip on the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research vessel] Tiglax. They thought I did a good job, and they were like, "Do you want to come to Attu with a bunch of descendants of Attu?" And I was like, "Yes, this sounds awesome, but so meaningful." And if I am going to take a place from a descendant — somebody who should get to go back to this place that their parents or their grandparents or their great grandparents are from — then how can we contribute? And make sure other people have access? It just seemed like a very obvious thing. We needed to find a way to share that video and share all the content and the stories we had gotten. The Unangan people are the people who have been in Unalaska the longest, and it seemed like a very good place to start. And I think, based on my reporting at KUCB, there was still a lot of room to grow in adequately covering all of the different demographics and people who make Unalaska their home or their place of very hard work. And I think that's probably something that's going to continue to happen. It takes time, and that's hard when reporters come in for a couple of years or there's financial instability when the governor cuts all of the public media funding. But it's important to do better.
KUCB: Agreed. Now, tell me what you've been up to since you left the island? I know you're talking to me right now from Nepal.
SOBEL: When I left KUCB in June, I started a 13-month fellowship with the Henry Luce Foundation that aims to introduce young Americans who have limited exposure to Asia. For me, I chose to be placed in Nepal, and I spent the summer learning intensive Nepali. That's all I did, and then in September, I started working at an English-language online newspaper in Kathmandu called The Record. There's a slight complication in that my visa was denied, so I'll actually — at the end of November — be heading to another country and doing something else. I'm not sure what that's going to be, but I can tell you I'll be in Asia. [Editor's Note: Since this interview was recorded, Sobel has decided to finish her fellowship in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.]
KUCB: So many Unalaska people have roots and family in Asia. Any chance you’ll make trips to the Philippines or Vietnam?
SOBEL: Yeah, I'm going to Vietnam in December. Siem Reap in Cambodia in January. And then, one of the trips I'm most excited about: My program is wrapping up in Mongolia — it's our focus country — in July of 2020. My landlords for three and a half years in Unalaska were Amy and Enkhee Purevsuren, [who are spending the year in Mongolia], so I'm just so excited that maybe I'll get to see them. Yeah, if there are Unalaska people who are going to visit Asia or have family in Asia, ask Laura Kraegel how to find me. I'd love to meet up.
Listen to some of Zoë Sobel's reporting: