Bill Legere, president and general manager of KTOO since 1991, is retiring on Jan. 3 after a career in public broadcasting spanning more than 50 years. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Bill Legere, president and general manager of KTOO since 1991, is retiring on Jan. 3 after a career in public broadcasting spanning more than 50 years. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Legere leaves a legacy

KTOO’s president and general manager retiring after 40 years of transforming Alaska’s public media

Bill Legere had just landed in Oregon on a flight from Maine to begin a new job when one of the first things he saw was an Alaska Airlines billboard with an image of its iconic Inuit that ended up making his time in the Beaver State essentially a long layover.

“I saw the finger pointing north and I thought ’I could go to Alaska,’” he said.

More than 40 years later Legere, president and general manager of KTOO since 1991, is retiring on Jan. 3 after a career in public broadcasting spanning more than 50 years. The highlights of his resume include being the Alaska Broadcaster’s Association broadcaster of the year in 2007, inducted in the ABA’s Broadcaster Hall of Fame in 2010 and a winner of the governor’s Arts and Humanities Awards in 2020.

“For me it’s been the dream job,” Legere said in an interview at the station Thursday. “It’s been perfect. I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of things station managers aren’t normally allowed to do. We can do anything we want to do as long as we can raise the money.”

During his tenure KTOO has expanded from one radio station to three (one general programming, two music), launched now-indispensable projects such as the CSPAN-like “Gavel To Gavel Alaska” and statewide TV channel KTOO 360TV, and brought specialized programming such as the statewide collaborative reporting of “Alaska’s Energy Desk” and the Native American FNX network to the airwaves.

Bill Legere, left, president and general manager of KTOO, and video producer Will Mader watch local politicians and residents in a hallway at the Alaska State Capitol on Thursday as the Juneau delegation of the Alaska State Legislature hosts their annual holiday open house. The studio room is among the numerous additional and higher-technology installations at the station’s building during Legere’s tenure. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Bill Legere, left, president and general manager of KTOO, and video producer Will Mader watch local politicians and residents in a hallway at the Alaska State Capitol on Thursday as the Juneau delegation of the Alaska State Legislature hosts their annual holiday open house. The studio room is among the numerous additional and higher-technology installations at the station’s building during Legere’s tenure. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The day-to-day job for Legere has changed drastically as well from his arrival in Petersburg covering city council meetings and fish issues, to expanding his proverbial “empire” during an era when slashing government funding for public broadcasting was all the rage, to his final years managing all the pieces mostly from his remote home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But some aspects never change, including the daily pursuit of funds in many ways and being in the control room to monitor “Gavel To Gavel” when it debuts on the first day the Alaska State Legislature gathers.

“A major part of my job is making sure we have the money, facilities, technology and people,” he said.

His successor is Justin Shoman, who worked as development director at KTOO from 2014 to 2016 before becoming the fundraising communications manager at Colorado Public Radio in Denver. A KTOO news release cited his “eye on future trends in public media” and “strong financial and fundraising background” as reasons for the hire, qualities also attributed to Legere’s long and constantly evolving efforts at the station.

“I really enjoyed my time at KTOO before,” Shoman said Friday. “Bill stood out even then as a great leader for public media and for broadcast journalism throughout Alaska. It was a real inspiration to learn from him as part of the leadership.”

Shoman said a return to Juneau remained on his radar after departing for Colorado.

“I was thinking in the back of my head someday Bill is gong to retire and I was thinking when that happens I’m going to apply to be the station manager,” he said.

Legere said he plans to continue working part time for KTOO for about six months to help Shoman during the transition, but expects the hours to be relatively few and much of it will continue to be done remotely from his home well out the road north of town.

“It will be nice to start the day without a list of emails with problems that have to be solved,” Legere said.

Coast to coast to Alaska

While fortunate circumstances resulted in his arrival in Alaska in 1980 and his desire to remain in Juneau since moving here in 1985, Legere said he believes he would have ended up in such a career regardless since at the age of 15 he was volunteering for consumer advocacy group in his childhood home of Maine.

“I think my path would have always led me to public service and nonprofit radio,” he said.

Legere’s public broadcasting career started in 1971 as a reporter and news producer for Maine Public Broadcasting’s radio and television stations, where he remained until 1978. He also graduated from University of Maine in 1974 with a degree in journalism and broadcasting, and from 1977 until 1979 was a member of the broadcasting and journalism faculty at the university as well as the advisor for the university’s radio station.

In what might seem a strange and possibly career-altering pivot, he also pursued graduate studies in “agricultural and resource economics” along with “rhetorical theory and analysis.” But Legere said both subjects proved relevant to his career as a broadcaster in The Last Frontier.

“Believe it or not, for both of those it was all about how people made a living and survived in small, rural places,” he said.

But first came the “layover” in Oregon when left Maine in 1979, only to move onward and northward a year later.

“My friends said ‘You’ve got to see the rest of the world. You can’t just spend your whole life in Maine,’” Legere said.

Legere’s first landing point in Alaska was as news director at KFSK in Petersburg in 1980. Everything suggested humble beginnings, including the $100 he received for moving expenses.

“It was probably meals on a ferry,” he said when asked how much of the costs that actually covered.

On the other hand, arriving in Petersburg after growing up in a small inland mill town in Maine was an imposing experience.

“It was magical for me to be in a small fishing town,” he said.

Still, covering news for public radio then was considerably more humble than the scope he would help expand during the coming decades.

“In those days the expectation was you sort of covered what was sort of obvious in the community,” Legere said. “In a fishing town you would cover commercial fishing. There wasn’t much enterprise or creative reporting. It was mostly meat and potatoes.

“These days you have to be a videographer, photographer and you have to be able to write for the web.”

The early days of KTOO’s operation in its current building are narrated by Bill Legere, the station’s longtime president and general manager, in an online video about the KTOO Legacy Foundation produced in 2019. (YouTube video screenshot)

The early days of KTOO’s operation in its current building are narrated by Bill Legere, the station’s longtime president and general manager, in an online video about the KTOO Legacy Foundation produced in 2019. (YouTube video screenshot)

Legere made a quick jump from the newsroom to the broader picture when he became KFSK’s station manager from 1982 to 1985. That’s when the fateful opening as KTOO’s radio manager arose. While Juneau by then was something of the “big city” for Legere, there were more humble moments ahead at the station that was at the time in the building now occupied by Rainbow Foods.

“We had one computer everyone used and we were all proud of our IBM Selectrics,” he said.

Legere also moved up quickly at KTOO, becoming the vice president and assistant general manager from 1987 until 1991, when he was hired for his current job as the president and general manager.

“He was by far the best candidate,” said Betsy Longenbaugh, a member of KTOO’s board of directors when it hired him. “We were just thrilled that he wanted the job.”

The board was hoping to promote from within, although she said his qualifications were also better than the outside candidates, and he proved his worth with a long history of expansions and new projects.

“He was the motivation behind moving to a new building and that was a huge move,” she said.

While the facilities were considerably humbler then and music came largely from the vault loaded with (now again in vogue) LPs, what has remained relatively consistent is the 50 to 100 volunteers Legere oversees who play the music and do a wide variety of other tasks to keep the airwaves buzzing.

“In the early days volunteers created the station and were integral to managing it,” he said, noting many of them went on to be prominent employees in public media.

When asked to name the most memorable names among those on-air volunteers, the first that came to Legere’s mind was Don Drew, a forecaster for the National Weather Service who produced the country western show “Mule Train” that aired for 25 years. Drew, who shed his mild-manned meteorologist persona in favor of a complete cowboy costume in the studio, died in 2006.

Expanding to cover the great land

KTOO, founded by volunteers as a 10-watt radio station that began broadcasting in 1974, launched what the station’s website acknowledges was a fledgling television production project in 1977 with the goal of providing daily legislative coverage. During Legere’s tenure that began eight year later his early efforts included 24-hour radio broadcasts begin during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s and the debut of “Gavel To Gavel” in 1995.

“When we first proposed to do it the leadership said no,” he said. “They were worried it would lead to grandstanding or the camera catching legislators doing things they didn’t want to be seen doing.”

A decade later he expanded radio operations to three stations by purchasing two Juneau commercial radio stations — now known as the music/arts station KRNN and multi-genre music hub KXLL — for what he called a “fire-sale price.” That allowed Legere to pursue what would become an increasing focus on news and related programming at KTOO during the coming years.

“Bill is leaving a very different organization than the one he inherited,” said Cheryl Snyder, vice president and general manager of KTOO Music & Arts, who’s been at the station since 1997 (much of the time under her maiden name of Cheryl Levitt).

“He’s been a real visionary. There’s many things about the things he’s left that I’ll take with me. He was not afraid of failure and encouraged us all to take creative risks. That opened a lot of paths for innovation and expansion, which was his hallmark.”

That approach allowed KTOO presence to grow in an era when media — public and commercial — is largely scaling back, Snyder said.

“When things get tough don’t shrink, create more capacity,” she said. “For such a small town we have such incredible public media. “

Among the most notable growth spurts was an expansion of news operations launched in 2013.

“For years we had a two-and-a-half person news staff,” Legere said. “We just decided to shed other things we had here and put as many of our resources as we could into news.”

’The resulting effort was a news operation with about 10 people. In 2015 he initiated another effort statewide, from writing grant applications to coordinating with public media entities in communities large and small, that resulted in Alaska’s Energy Desk that today involves about 15 employees at nine stations.

“That was incredibly important in terms of getting news on the air, and some of the money went to small stations around the state,” said Ed Schoenfeld, former regional news director the Southeast Alaska public radio consortium CoastAlaska.

Schoenfeld, a print and radio journalist for 37 years mostly in Juneau until retiring in 2018, said among the biggest impressions Legere made during their parallel careers came during an annual meeting of public radio managers in Anchorage in the mid 2010s. Both were part of a three-person panel discussing how management can best support news operations and Legere’s response was unabashedly blunt.

“Bill went first and essentially said to the other managers in room the most important thing they can do to differentiate public radio from other media was local news, state and regional,” Schoenfeld said. “The reality may be is what you really have to is eliminate another position so can have a news position. People can listen to music anywhere.”

Such an approach is also what resulted in KTOO launching its 360 North (renamed KTOO 360TV in 2021), which includes Alaska Native programming as part of the FNX affiliation and other state-related public affairs content.

“That was doing something nobody else was doing, putting people on 24 hours a day,” Legere said. “We had this resource we were paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for, so why not use it year-round?”

In addition to logistical and financial challenges, such growth was happening in an era of growing sensitivity and fractiousness among cultures that continues today.

“I think there are a lot of nuisances and idiosyncrasies in working like this in Alaska,” Shoman said. “I think Bill had strong relationships and sort of a keen vision, and how to lean on those relationships and find the resources to make things happen for KTOO and Alaskans.”

Swings and misses

The risk-taking traits that earn Legere praise also means everything hasn’t been a megawatt success.

A few years ago current and former KTOO employees voiced complaints publicly and to the station’s board of directors about unfair treatment from management. An example is a journalist who worked at KTOO from 2013 to 2016, resigned when she disagreed with the hiring of a news director, then after working for the city government for a couple of years declined a job at CoastAlaska because Legere stated he would not broadcast or support her work because it would be a conflict of interest.

Another longtime broadcaster, at the same board meeting and in interviews, described what he described as “belittling, antagonism and bullying and other inappropriate behavior” by newsroom management.

Legere, in an interview at the time, said KTOO had a longstanding policy of not hiring reporters who formerly worked at the Alaska Legislature or for the city, and that he hadn’t heard anything from employees about the alleged bad treatment by management.

“Nothing out of the ordinary, in my view,” Legere said. “There’s always give and take with employees in any organization.”

The dispute also came during a tough political time for KTOO, as then newly elected Gov. Mike Dunleavy zeroed out all funding for public media in his first proposed budget in 2019, part of a politicial resistance primarily by Republicans since funding support peaked in the early 1990s. The Legislature added funding during the session, but Dunleavy subsequently nixed it again with a line-item veto, which would set a pattern for his aversion to such funds during his first term.

Yet, Legere won ​Distinguished Service in Leadership category in the governor’s Arts and Humanities Awards in 2020.

“His hard work and quiet leadership have touched almost every Alaskan,” the Alaska Humanities Forum wrote in an summary of the award winners. “He transformed KTOO from a conventional public broadcasting station to a statewide leader in news, and has nurtured the careers of dozens of talented reporters, producers, editors, and media makers.”

Legere focused on the future rather than past accomplishments when accepting the award.

“I think our most important work is yet to come,” he said. “It’s time for all of us in the arts and humanities to use our resources – our time, talent, and insight – to address the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in Alaska. It’s time for me and those who lead our cultural institutions to make changes that we know are overdue – at the board table, on our staffs, among our volunteers, our programs, and, most importantly, in our hearts.”

Last days of surfing the airwaves

Now in his final days as the head of KTOO, Legere is deferential about matters such as his humanities award and legacy, frequently referring to the collective group of station and statewide public media people he has worked with over the decades.

“I do prefer to operate quietly and behind the scenes,” he said. “I’m an introvert by nature.”

KTOO President and General Manager Bill Legere watches public testimony at the public radio station’s board meeting in September of 2018. Current and former station employees expressed concerns about newsroom atmosphere and what they felt was unfair treatment by upper management. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)

KTOO President and General Manager Bill Legere watches public testimony at the public radio station’s board meeting in September of 2018. Current and former station employees expressed concerns about newsroom atmosphere and what they felt was unfair treatment by upper management. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)

While that might seem contradictory for a person who’s spent his life in the public arena as a journalist and business persona, he said radio is actually a surprisingly fitting occupation for non-extroverts.

“You’re in a room by yourself with a microphone,” he said.

Yet isolation isn’t something that works any longer for Legere’s role as a station manager or a station like KTOO itself. He said when he joined the station geography protected against competition from other media entities, but but now everything is everywhere on demand (which, conversely, means people wanting to following “Gavel To Gavel” in Mongolia can do so).

“In the arc of KTOO’s history we need to do something new every few years to keep our audience engaged,” he said.

Legere said his current mission for KTOO’s news operations are treating it as a different, but complimentary, entity than other local media organization such as KINY’s commercial station and the Juneau Empire.

“Our focus is on telling stories that would otherwise go untold,” he said. “We look for people to talk to rather than talking to officials.”

Growth also continues to happen, such as the debut in August of KAUK, which rebroadcasts KTOO content from a new transmitter and frequency at Auke Mountain site about 12 miles northwest of the heart of Juneau.

“For anybody in broadcasting putting a new station on the air is a big deal,” Legere said. “I was driving around recording the audio in my car because that was a big deal. I just wanted to hear how it sounded in different places.”

The funding chase also continues without end, something Legere said is the main advice he remembers getting from the station manager before he took over the job.

“My predecessor’s advice was never let a day go by where you don’t raise funds,” he said.

Legere said he is passing similar advice on to Shoman, but with some additional tips.

“Don’t get so caught up in the day-to-day routine you’re not keeping an eye on the financial part,” Legere said. “The first answer to anything should be ’yes’ or ’maybe,’ not ’no.’ Don’t squish good ideas. Tip the delivery guy and pay the vendors on time.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

Bill Legere, president and general manager of KTOO, examines pictures from around the state by a former photographer in a hallway he selected as favorites to display in a hallway at the station. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Bill Legere, president and general manager of KTOO, examines pictures from around the state by a former photographer in a hallway he selected as favorites to display in a hallway at the station. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of June 22

Here’s what to expect this week.

Eddie Petrie shovels gravel into a mine cart as fast as possible during the men’s hand mucking competition as part of Juneau Gold Rush Days on Saturday at Savikko Park. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Mucking, trucking, chucking and yukking it up at Juneau Gold Rush Days

Logging competitions, live music, other events continue Sunday at Savikko Park.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Thursday, June 20, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Pins supporting the repeal of ranked choice voting are seen on April 20 at the Republican state convention in Anchorage. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
State judge upholds most fines against group seeking repeal of Alaska ranked choice voting

An Anchorage Superior Court judge has ruled that opponents of Alaska’s ranked… Continue reading

Joshua Midgett and Kelsey Bryce Riker appear on stage as the emcees for MixCast 2023 at the Crystal Saloon. (Photo courtesy Juneau Ghost Light Theatre)
And now for someone completely different: Familiar faces show new personas at annual MixCast cabaret

Fundraiser for Juneau Ghost Light Theatre on Saturday taking place amidst week of local Pride events

Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire
A section of Angoon along the coast is seen on June 14. Angoon was destroyed by the U.S. Navy in 1882; here is where they first pulled up to shore.
Long-awaited U.S. Navy apology for 1882 bombardment will bring healing to Angoon

“How many times has our government apologized to any American Native group?”

Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon announced this week she plans to seek a third three-year term. (Juneau Empire file photo)
Mayor Beth Weldon seeking third term amidst personal and political challenges

Low mill rate, more housing cited by lifelong Juneau resident as achievements during past term.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Wednesday, June 19, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

A king salmon is laid out for inspection by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at the Mike Pusich Douglas Harbor during the Golden North Salmon Derby on Aug. 25, 2019. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire file photo)
Emergency order bans king salmon fishing in many Juneau waters between June 24 and Aug. 31

Alaska Department of Fish and Game says low projected spawning population necessitates restrictions

Most Read