North Country Public Radio is like a river, working its way through the geography of the Adirondack North Country. We adjust to a changing and sometimes erratic environment, but we’re always there with a reliable flow of news, information, stories, and music of our communities, our country, and the world.
As we celebrate our fiftieth anniversary, I’d like to share some of the highlights of our history and my observations as station manager for the past thirty-five years.
WSLU-FM signed on the air as a little college-based station at St. Lawrence University in Canton, a half-hour’s drive outside the Blue Line. We broadcast classical music and newscasts for a few hours each day. In 1971, WSLU became a charter-year member of NPR and expanded to a nineteen-hour broadcast day; in the early eighties, we became a twenty-four-hour service and established a regional news department.
For the Adirondack Park, two of the biggest dates in our history came in 1985, when we signed on in Saranac Lake, our first transmitter outside of Canton. Fifteen years later, in 2000, we established our Adirondack news bureau, led by Brian Mann.
Today, North Country Public Radio operates thirty-four transmitters and translators reaching one-third of New York State, the greater Burlington area in northwestern Vermont, and southeastern Ontario. NCPR.org just won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for best website serving a small-market region.
The 8 O’Clock Hour, anchored by news director Martha Foley, provides the only daily reporting on the entire Adirondack North Country — broadcast, print or online — and, in the process, ties together the communities scattered across the geography we share.
Over the last few decades, NCPR has helped establish a regional identity for the vast Adirondack Park — connecting it to the rest of the North Country, the nation, and the world. Our role as a regional information center was dramatically demonstrated during the ice storm of 1998, when residents in the southern part of the Park stepped up to assist their neighbors to the north, connected by NCPR — literally a beacon in the wilderness.
An old friend of the station once said, “What sets NCPR apart is the station’s rigorous adherence to the highest standards and quality of service.” In our amazing and beautiful Adirondack North Country, NCPR has taken on the job of providing coverage of stories that otherwise would be left untold. We do not have the media resources of urban areas. What we do have is a station that cares about this place and its people and puts their stories above all else.
Our two-year multimedia series, Prison Time, is just one example of our in-depth reporting. We explored the forty-year impact of the Rockefeller Drug Laws on inner cities, the nation, and the Adirondack North Country. Brian Mann laid the groundwork for the series in the early 2000s when he followed the trail that connects New York City-based inmates and their families to the prison boom in our region.
Another example is David Sommerstein’s yearlong examination of the role of undocumented immigrants on dairy farms in northern New York. For this series, David visited farms in Lewis, Jefferson, and St. Lawrence counties and traveled to small, impoverished villages in rural Mexico.
We cover the day-to-day and ongoing stories, such as the controversy over the state’s plan to build a rail trail between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake and the unfolding of the massive Finch, Pruyn land deal. Our reporting on one of the region’s most notorious murder investigations, the Nick Hilary trial, uncovered some stubborn problems in our state’s justice system.
We know how to have fun, too. Don’t forget those fabulous audio postcards by Brian Mann, trudging through mud, skiing backcountry trails, paddling newly opened wilderness areas. But our let’s-have-some-fun ace in the hole is Bob Sauter, chief engineer, who pretty much single-handedly built and installed all those transmitters in the Park and who hosts the world-renowned Radio Bob R&B Show.
A lot has changed since WSLU first went on the air. With the flash and pop of twenty-first-century media and technology, it’s easy to forget that the important work of public radio is the day-to-day effort to bring you — the American public — reliable news and information, to engage in conversations about the world around us, and to delight and surprise with the stories of our hometowns.
Yes, we are on the air and online, and you can find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social-media platforms. But these are tools and containers. These are not the substance of what we do. You have helped us do work that matters — work that we can collectively take pride in.
At North Country Public Radio we are hopeful. We see challenging stories and believe in covering them courageously. We believe in the power of lifelong learning, in fairness and accuracy, honesty and substance. We believe in the power of human voices, in humor, in civility and civil discourse. We believe in the importance of the First Amendment and the privilege and responsibility it assigns us as journalists. We believe in fact-based reporting, and we work to be better year by year for the public we serve.
We are grateful to work in and to bring the work we do to this piece of geography, from the southern Adirondacks to the St. Lawrence River, from the Champlain Valley to the Tug Hill. We flow forward, not backwards.
Ellen Rocco is the station manager at North Country Public Radio.
This piece was first published in Adirondack Explorer magazine.