PUBLISHED: 4:23 PM on Wednesday, October 17, 2007
KTOO launches 360 North, adds digital television facility
Taking another step toward television history, KTOO-TV has reconfigured the existing public affairs channel, Gavel to Gavel Alaska, into a new year round, 24-hour-a-day channel called 360 North. Since May, it's currently on air and can be viewed on Juneau's GCI cable channel 18 and on the KTOO Digital Transmitter 10.2, for those with digital television.

While working as a stand-alone cable TV channel throughout Alaska, it's also delivered as an "over-the-air" channel on the new DTV transmitters in Fairbanks and Anchorage along with the associated DTV translators and also available to Dish Network subscribers throughout the state.

360 North is streamed live through the Internet, a service contributed by ACS.

For the past 12 years, KTOO has featured coverage of the Alaska Legislature, news conferences and public forums, but after session ends, the channel remained unused.

"We've been trying to find a way to do this since even before Gavel to Gavel started. It made sense because we're paying for the satellite channel 12 months out of a year, but only using it for five. We've been long wanting to fill it with good Alaska content," said president and general manager, Bill Legere.

Not to be confused, 360 North is the name of the channel, and Gavel to Gavel is now a program on the new channel.

Two years ago, the station received a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from the National Digital Services Fund, and started the project February 1, 2007. The project was to demonstrate how a station could use digital TV to increase service.

"We had a major presentation before a panel in Washington, but we were up against some of the major stations in the nation. They liked our project because it would be economical and low-cost, and it would be a channel of all Alaskan content that people would find very familiar and close to home," Legere said.

The grant received from CPB covers the start-up fees for the first 18 month, including personnel, acquiring programs, audience research, marketing and advertising.

"It's basically enough for us to experiment with a variety of formats and possibilities and then we're on our own after that. Part of the grant is to figure out how we'll fund it permanently," Legere said.

Much of the programming has already been produced, with a great percentage of it donated.

"The whole project is designed to be very economical compared to regular television, which are pretty expensive to operate and to create programming. This is based on the Gavel to Gavel model, which is point a camera at something and let people watch it," Legere said.

Overseeing the project is Tim Olson, who left his job in Fairbanks to work at KTOO.

"Tim is a long-time Alaska television producer, has traveled the state extensively and produced outstanding award-winning programs," Legere said.

"I moved here from Fairbanks to take this job because it's not very often you get the chance to organize a whole operation," said Olson. It was an opportunity to work with people who have done coverage viewed as a model for other states in the country, he said.

Olson has been managing start-up of the new service, which includes branding and marketing of the channel and is responsible for program acquisition and coming up with new production initiatives.

He's also creating the long-term sustainable funding plan to enable the station to stay on the air and grow over time.

Coming up with the channel's name was a group effort with brainstorming sessions and 100's of names to choose from.

"We wanted something that was short, easy to remember, and incorporated that idea that it's about Alaska," Legere said concerning naming of the channel.

"360 North implies this is a channel that looks at northern issues from every angle. Not to mention that our address is 360 Egan Drive!"

The channel is wide open for Alaska programming, and can come from any place any source, some from public television, some from independent producers, but the main thing is it's all relevant to Alaska, Olson said.

He said we wanted something that was a little unique and wanted to include other programs circa the Polar North that would be of interest to Alaskans especially events of interest that affect people here.

"A lot of this is built on partnerships and trying to find things that are already happening but weren't being recorded so we can bring those to a much larger audience," he said.

For example, KTOO started working with the University of Alaska Fairbanks to bring the Science for Alaska series and shooting the Permanent Fund Corporation board meetings, enabling people in Alaska to see how decisions are made about how their money is invested.

The Gavel to Gavel coverage is something people have used to seeing for a dozen years, and it's that's going to continue and be the flagship program stream on the 360 North channel, Olson said.

Another exciting project at the station is a new digital television facility, which assisted the expansion of 360 North as well as moving Gavel to Gavel into the KTOO building. KTOO received a one million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund project.

"They have a program called the Rural Utility Service and they're helping rural public TV stations convert to digital. We're one of six stations nationwide that got the grant last year; ours was the highest (amount)," Legere said.

The grant went toward an upgrade to the KTOO control rooms, the Capitol building wiring and equipment as well as replacing obsolete analog television equipment dating back to the 1980s.

"It's like a complete remodeling of a house. You gut everything and go down to the bare walls and start all over again," he said.

The station has been working on the project for the last six months, and plans on finishing Oct. 17 to go on the air Oct. 18 as Gavel to Gavel Alaska begins full coverage of the upcoming special section.

They said the biggest challenge was keeping everything on air, with all the renovation going on around.

"In addition to being able to watch 360 North in real time, every event is saved in an archive, so you can go back and play audio files for the past five years," Legere said concerning the Web stream.

A few programs for 360 North include The Alaska Film Archives Television Series, looking at the politics and issues in Alaska; Alaska Independent Film Festival; Science for Alaska; Safety at Sea, which teaches skills and dangers of commercial fishing, and more.

"When people start seeing it, it's going to get really popular. There's nothing else like it, there's no other programs out there that's all about Alaska people and Alaska programs," Olson said.