Meet Ernie Norton: The Arctic’s volunteer Gospel DJ
If you find yourself in Northwestern Alaska on a Sunday morning and scan the radio dial, there’s a good chance you will hear the voice of Ernie Norton.
Norton, who turns 80 years old in November, wakes up every Sunday at around 4 a.m. to prepare for his radio program. For six hours, from 6 a.m. until noon, he rotates between spinning old Gospel records, updating the local weather and sending personal messages out over the KOTZ airwaves.
With its tagline, “The Voice of the Arctic,” KOTZ is the only radio station in the Kotzebue region, which serves over a dozen outlying villages. Its signal stretches as far west as Chukotka, Russia. But thanks to the internet, his program reaches an even broader audience.
“There's people from Arizona, Ohio, California, Washington [and] Oregon,” Norton said. “I've had several calls from Europe. I think it was Sweden, and another guy that called from Germany.”
It's been over 30 years since Norton first started volunteering at KOTZ. Back then, he just wanted a chance to listen to some of the old records in the station’s library.
“I remember the LPs— they'd be warped because they're so old,” he said. “I'd have to have a quarter, nickel or dime to put on top of the arm to keep them from bouncing up and down.”
In his time volunteering at the station, he transitioned from reel-to-reel machines and 8-tracks, to cassette tapes and CDs. Now, at nearly 80, he’s learning a new computer system.
Despite the technological changes over the years, Norton’s Gospel music show continues to be one of the most popular programs on KOTZ.
But what makes his Sunday Morning Music program so unique and endearing? A lot of the music he plays is recorded in the region. Besides an occasional Porter Wagoner or Emmylou Harris tune, most of the songs are performed by local musicians singing in a mixture of Iñupiaq and English.
Norton said it began years ago when listeners from nearby villages began sending in their homemade recordings and he just kept playing them. Eventually, the radio station stepped in to help produce the recordings.
“Back in 2000, we had a [station] fundraiser, and that's the first year we did a local CD as a premium,” Norton said. “That's when it really started.”
At the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, when most of the area’s churches were closed, many listeners tuned in to Norton’s show for solace.
He said one of the reasons he thinks his show is so popular is that unlike most religious programs, he doesn’t preach. Norton, who was raised in the Friends (Quaker) Church and now considers himself Episcopalian, said he takes a more universal approach to religion.
“I've been to just about all the churches that I know of, I think,” he said. “But what I found in all those churches I went to, God was still the same.”
And his appeal seems to be universal, too. He said he often receives praise from some unlikely listeners.
“There's guys that say, ‘I don't go to church,’ but say, ‘I listen every Sunday morning,’” Norton said. “And these are big and tough guys.”
Hosting the show has helped Norton overcome his shyness, and it also keeps him busy. He retired over three years ago from his job as a commercial fisherman and working with a local village corporation.
And while he said his show, Sunday Morning Music, requires a lot of work, he doesn’t mind.
“I look forward to Sunday morning, six days a week,” Norton said. “Those songs stay with you.”
In the Northwest Arctic region, you can listen to Norton’s program on KOTZ radio 720 AM or at 89.9 FM. Elsewhere, you can stream the program live online on Sunday mornings from 6 a.m. until noon at kotz.org.