Radio Free Palmer’s slogan is: “We build, inform and celebrate community through local radio.”
Most community radio stations have liberal roots and Radio Free Palmer is no exception. The people associated with Big Cabbage Radio are a veritable who’s who of leftist, progressive, and Democratic politics and causes in the Mat-Su Valley. (There are a very few token and less involved moderates and Republicans thrown in for good measure.)
Even the name “Radio Free Palmer” is reminiscent of other very liberal community radio stations across the country such as “Radio Free Berkeley” and “Radio Free Moscow (Idaho)” – which calls itself “Progressive Community Radio for the Palouse.”
Radio Free Palmer is a member of the “National Federation of Community Broadcasters” which is the oldest and largest organization of non-profit community radio stations in the USA. Here is a good history of NFCB and community radio which explains the counter-culture, progressive, and activist roots of noncommercial radio. https://digitalcommons.linfield.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1012&context=mscmfac_pubs
Radio Free Palmer is a non-profit corporation. In its Articles of Incorporation, Radio Free Palmer stated that its general purpose was “to establish, develop, and operate a radio station in the Palmer area to facilitate building an informed, involved, diverse, and reflective community, and to provide broad citizen access and participation in radio.”
However, despite Radio Free Palmer’s pledge to use its station to build a “diverse” community, the station seems to cater mainly to the liberal community of the Mat-Su Valley.
Here is an interesting article about the lack of diversity at community radio stations across the United States. NFCB CEO Sally Kane in this article in Radio World from December 2019 admitted that this was a problem. Her analysis perfectly describes Big Cabbage Radio. https://www.radioworld.com/show-news/community-radio-engagement
“Lots of community radio folks say they are ‘inclusive,’ but in fact [their stations] are insider clubs that aren’t seeing or understanding the fullness of their communities. And I think that is perilous,” she said. “For example, lots of rural stations are actually embedded in a dominant culture that is highly conservative, and [yet] they are more progressive. It’s important for the stations to at least acknowledge that and not pretend that they represent the community as a whole.”
Big Cabbage Radio is definitely a club and its volunteers (or most of them anyways) all seem to know each other from Mat-Su Democrat and Progressive political circles. However, they tend not advertise their political and personal connections on the air. This does not mean that they don’t make their political views known through the content that is aired on the station.
The radio station’s board members, volunteers, show hosts, and show panelists over the years have included: Howard Bess, David Cheezem, Jim Sykes, Eric Deeter (now deceased), Mike Chmielewski, Lee Henrikson, Gini King-Taylor, Houston & Terry Snyder, Carolyn Covington, Mike Janacek, Jaime Rodriguez, Patty Rosnel, Bill Tull, Patricia Wade (now deceased), Rob Czarnezki, James “Brian” Mead, LaMarr Anderson, John Robertson, Kenni Linden, Judy Gette, Becky Stoppa, Gina Davis, Joseph Davis, Lisa Boyles, Helga Larson, Alex Munoz, Steffen Fromman, Will Sandidge, KT McKee, Dylan Blohm, Jill Valerius, Charles Hayes, Pat Chesbro, Dan Grota, Mark Kelsey, Zaz Hollander, and Tim Rockey.
From Radio Free Palmer’s website, here is the current list of Board Members:
The LOCAL SHOWS:
The flagship local show at Big Cabbage Radio is The Morning Show, which airs each weekday morning from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. This show is hosted by Mike Chmielewski. On Tuesdays, it is called “The Morning Show with Mike and Dan (Grota).” Lee Henrikson also makes frequent appearances on the show. The Morning show was the very first show to air on the station and it debuted in November of 2011. Mike and the other hosts interview a variety of people on the show and discuss current events. They also play music and talk about the weather, etc.
There are regular “segments” that air during the Morning Show including: The Citizen Lobbyist, “Inside the City,” “Inside the Borough,” “Inside the School District,” “In Summary” (summaries of School Board Meetings with Emily Forstner); “The Glacier Review,’ with Joseph Davis, “Watch for Moose,” with John Robertson, “Your Health with Dr. Jill Valerius,” “Ag Matters” with Amy Pettit, “From the Farm” with Jodie Anderson and “Sports with Tim Rockey.” Some of these “segments” are re-broadcast as stand alone shows at other times during the week.
There is a book club show hosted by Judy Gette with various panelists. There is a poetry show hosted by Dave Cheezem and Kenni Linden that airs occasionally.
Valley Edition is the premier local public affairs show. This is a weekly news round-up show that airs at 5 p.m. on Fridays (with a rerun on Saturday afternoons.) It has aired since 2012. It is moderated by Mike Chmielewski with a rotating group of panelists but the current panelists are: Terry Snyder, Anchorage Daily News Reporter Zaz Hollander, KNTA Radio Reporter Phil Manning, and Frontiersman Reporter Tim Rockey. Lee Henrikson and Emily Forstner also appear on the show sometimes.
“Bridging the Gap” aired from 2017 to 2019 and was hosted by Paul Thomas with various panelists. It was described as a show whose purpose is to bring people from all political walks of life together to find common ground on various issues and topics…but does it really feature people from all political persuasions? (Spoiler Alert: Of course not. More in Part 3.)
Political Candidates Forums and Interviews air during election season.
Other special shows include the annual “Alaska Home Companion” variety show and broadcasts of local high school plays.
The Big Cabbages:
Mike Chmielewski & Lee Henrikson (who are a married couple) are the head honchos at Big Cabbage Radio. Mike is the Chief Operating Office and Lee is the President of the Board of Directors. They spend countless hours every week working for free at Big Cabbage Radio and have done so for many years. Conveniently, they live within walking distance of the station.
Mike Chmielewski was one of the founders of the station. He served on the board for a long time but now his title is COO. Mike is the main on-air host at the station. He hosts the weekday drive time Morning Show and several weekly public affairs program such as “Valley Edition” and “Citizen Lobbyist.” He often hosts political candidate forums and conducts candidate interviews. Mike also livestreams many of the local government meetings such as Palmer City Council.
Mike is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Mat-Su Valley. Mike has been involved in other nonprofits – notably, the Alaska Humanities Forum and “Friends of Mat-Su” (which later changed its name to Envision Matsu and is now defunct.) FOMS was a pro-land use planning group in the Mat-Su Valley in the late 1990s/early to mid 2000s that was very involved in various local land use (read: coal) issues.
Mike is also a former local elected official. He was on the MSB School Board from 1999 until 2005. He served as President of the school board from 2002 to 2005. He lost his seat in the 2005 election. Mike then served on the Palmer City Council from 2007 to 2010. Mike ran for Mayor of Palmer in 2010 but lost to Delena Johnson. He also ran again for Palmer City Council in 2011 but lost. Here is his profile from the 2004 OEP (State of Alaska Official Election Pamphlet) when he ran for State House as a Democrat.
Mike has not held or run for political office since Big Cabbage Radio went on the air in November of 2011. (Big Cabbage Radio was founded in 2005; it was internet only until Nov 2011; Mike’s last run for office was the October 2011 Palmer City Council election.) However, Mike is not shy about giving his opinion on all manner of issues at local government meetings. For example, when he is at a Palmer City Council meeting for the purpose of livestreaming the meeting for Big Cabbage Radio, he is known to make comments during the public comment time. He simply gets up from his recording location, goes over to the podium and testifies and then goes back to his radio duties. (More on this in Part 3.)
Lee Henrikson was elected to the radio station’s board in 2009 and has been the President of the Board since 2013. She handles much of the behind-the-scenes business of the radio, but she is also on the air quite a bit on all of the various local public affairs shows such as the Morning Show and Valley Edition.
Lee Henrikson does not abstain from political campaigns. She RAN FOR PALMER CITY COUNCIL LAST YEAR in the fall of 2019, although she did not win.
Here is a glowing endorsement of Lee for City Council by Emily Forstner (who is also associated with Big Cabbage Radio) published in Make a Scene in September 2019. It also serves as a good biography for Lee.
This year, Lee was the treasurer for Brian Daniels’ campaign for Palmer City Council (2020.) She is also involved with the “Recall Mike Dunleavy campaign” and all of the local Peace/Women’s/Science marches. (More on her political activities in Part 3 of this series.)
DAVID CHEEZEM – who has been described as Mike’s best friend – is one of the original incorporators (along with Jim Sykes and Howard Bess) of Radio Free Palmer and he served as the first President of its Board of Directors.
Cheezem was the co-host with Mike of the station’s very first show which was called the “Dave and Mike Show.” This weekday morning “drive time” show began airing in the fall of 2011. It is unclear when David left the show but it was around 2012 or 2013. David currently hosts a poetry show on the station with Kenni Linden.
Dave Cheezem is also very involved in Alaska politics. He served on the Mat-Su Borough Planning Commission and a Palmer planning group. He politicked for a new MEA board in 2009. He was appointed to the Mat-Su Borough School Board in 2013 to fill a vacancy. He then ran for election to the seat in the fall of 2013 but did not win. He previously ran for State House in 2008 (as a Democrat) but was not successful. Here is his Alaska OEP profile from 2008:
Fun Fact about David Cheezem:
Big Cabbage Radio is housed in the building that David and his wife Melissa Behnke own on S. Alaska Street in downtown Palmer. The building also houses Fireside Books, the bookstore that David and Melissa owned and operated for many years, but sold to an employee when they retired a few years ago.
Jim Sykes was one of the three original incorporators of Radio Free Palmer. He was Vice President of the Board of Directors for a time.
Jim Sykes has a Wikipedia page! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Sykes He has had a varied career in radio, teaching, and politics. He helped start KTNA, the community radio station in Talkeetna in the late 1980s. Jim served two terms on the Mat-Su Borough Assembly (District 1 – Butte and Lazy Mountain) from 2013 – 2019. He was preceded in that seat by Warren Keogh and succeeded by Tim Hale. Sykes was one of the founders of the Green Party of Alaska. He ran for US Senate in 2002 and again in 2004 on the Green Party ticket. Here is his bio in the 2004 Alaska Official Election Pamphlet.
Carolyn Covington is also associated with Big Cabbage Radio. She has volunteered (mostly behind the scenes) and served on the board (as Treasurer) for several years and also acted as the registered agent for RFP.
Carolyn Covington is the heart and soul of the Democratic Party in Alaska and the Mat-Su Democrats. She lives in Palmer and is the longest serving Alaska Democratic Party Official. Here is her biography from when she was inducted into the Alaska Womens Hall of Fame. http://alaskawomenshalloffame.org/alumnae/name/carolyn-covington/
Ms. Covington is often the treasurer for local Mat-Su Democratic (and “Independent” wink wink) candidates for political office. In fact, she has served as treasurer for various political campaigns for Big Cabbage Radio peeps:
She was Dave Cheezem’s MatSu School Board campaign treasurer in the fall of 2013:
She was Jim Sykes treasurer when he ran for his second term on the Mat-Su Assembly in 2016:
Terry Snyder is a longtime on-air personality on Big Cabbage Radio. She has not served as a board member for the station, but her husband Houston Snyder has served on the board. Terry has her own show – the Citizen Lobbyist – which has aired weekly on Big Cabbage Radio since 2012. During this 30 minute show, Terry Snyder (the Citizen Lobbyist) chats with Mike Chmielewski about local and state politics and the goings on at all of the various local government meetings including MSB Assembly and Palmer City Council. Terry is also a regular panelist on the weekly “Valley Edition” news roundup hosted by Mike.
Thus, Terry has two prime spots each week on Big Cabbage Radio to share her analysis and opinions of local politics and current events.
(Photo of Terry from Radio Free Palmer’s Facebook page.)
The name Citizen Lobbyist comes from Terry’s now defunct blog from several years ago where she wrote about local politics and government. http://citizenlobbyist.blogspot.com/
Terry is not neutral. She has endorsed local candidates on her blog and on social media. Most of her favored politicians are liberal. She has close personal ties to Sabrena Combs (current Palmer City Council member) and Debbie Retherford (former Mat-Su School Board member). (See more in Part 3.)
Emily Forstner, a recently retired high school journalism teacher and BP Teacher of the Year, streams the MSB School Board meetings and discusses the meetings during a regular segment on the morning show called “In Summary.” She also hosts “Inside the School District” and she also sometimes appears as a panelist on “Valley Edition.” She also appears on various other local shows on the station.
Ms. Forstner is also not neutral when it comes to politics.
In addition to writing the article endorsing Lee Henrikson for City Council in 2019 in “Make a Scene,” Emily also wrote a letter to the Frontiersman endorsing an entire slate of candidates: Jim Cooper for Mayor; Jill Valerius, Dave Fuller, and Lee Henrikson for City Council. https://www.frontiersman.com/opinions/letters_to_editor/please-vote-for-critical-city-council-positions/article_2d709cc6-daa7-11e9-8f2c-c360caca2c36.html
Jim Cooper is a former Palmer Mayor and he ran again (but lost) for Palmer Mayor in the fall of 2019. Cooper is currently running for State Senate against incumbent State Senator Shelley Hughes. Guess who is his campaign treasurer?
THE SMALLER CABBAGES:
Kenni Linden has been a board member of Radio Free Palmer since 2015. She hosts a poetry show with Mike Cheezem and also conducts some of the interviews of political candidates.
Kenni herself ran for Palmer City Council in 2015 and in 2017 although she did not win. Just like Lee Henrikson, Kenni ran for City Council while she was an active on air contributor and board member for Radio Free Palmer.
Tim Rockey is a reporter with the Frontiersman. He grew up in the Palmer area. He has a radio show called “Sports with Tim Rockey.” He is also a regular panelist on “Valley Edition.” He seems to have taken the place of former panelist Mark Kelsey, who was the editor or publisher of the Frontiersman a while back. Tim also has a music show.
Tim is ostensibly a neutral local newspaper reporter. He covered the recent Peace/Social Justice/BLM/MatsuMoms marches for the Frontiersman and he also discussed these marches on Valley Edition but he devoted an edition of his “Sports” show to the cause AND he urged people to get involved which makes him not so neutral….More in Part 4.
Dan Grota co-hosts the Morning Show on Tuesdays and he also has a music show called “The Downbeat.” He is a retired military veteran who has written columns for the Frontiersman on various topics including current events and politics.
Joseph Davis is a current board member and he hosts the “Glacier Review.” He lives in Glacier View and serves on the Mat-Su Borough Glacier View Community Council.
Davis seems to try to keep politics out of his show which is mostly centered on the weather and space and science, but this does not mean that he is NOT political.
Tim Hale held a campaign event at Joseph Davis’ LAB when Tim was running for the Mat-Su Borough Assembly District 1 last fall (2019) to take over Jim Sykes’ seat (Jim was termed out.)
Guess who was Tim Hale’s campaign treasurer?
Jill Valerius is a local doctor and member of the Palmer City Council. She was elected to the City Council in the fall of 2019. She is part of what many have labeled the new liberal majority on the board. (Sabrena Combs, Jill Valerius, Julie Berberich, and Brian Daniels.)
Dr. Valerius has a show on Big Cabbage Radio called “Your Health with Dr. Jill.” This show grew out of interviews she used to give on the Morning Show about health related topics.
The CONFLICTS OF INTEREST:
You can read more about Big Cabbage Radio and its tangled web of people and politics and conflicts of interest in Part 3 of this series.