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‘Everything was kind of a stepping stone:’ Desiree Hagen leaves KBBI to head up news department in Kotzebue

After more than a decade at KBBI — and 15 years in the community — Desiree Hagen is leaving Homer to become news director at KOTZ in Kotzebue.
Hope McKenney
After more than a decade at KBBI — and 15 years in the community — Desiree Hagen is leaving Homer to become news director at KOTZ in Kotzebue.

If you live in Homer, and you’ve ever turned the radio dial to AM 890, it’s likely you’ve heard the voice of Desiree Hagen.

Whether she’s reading the Kachemak Bay weather, hosting Homer musicians live in the KBBI studio, talking to you about the connection between microbes, chemical warfare and synthetic fertilizer on Homer Grown or hosting the daily newscast, Hagen’s voice is just about everywhere.

But after more than a decade at the station — and 15 years in the community — she’s leaving Homer to become news director at the public radio station in Kotzebue — which hasn’t had a news department in two years.

KBBI’s Hope McKenney sat down with Hagen on Monday to talk about her time on the Kenai Peninsula, working at KBBI and what’s next.


DESIREE HAGEN: I think that, to get real here, in my life, I've struggled a lot with expression and expressing myself. And I think that being on the air and having to do that, you really hone your communication skills. And same with working in news and communicating with people. Just putting your voice out there on the air, it's really helped me. And I've struggled with communication and with expression throughout my life.

HOPE MCKENNEY: And so you've been here for more than a decade. Transitioned into news just about a year ago. Tell me about what the transition from being DJ and hosting your own garden show to daily news production has been like.

HAGEN: Everything was kind of a stepping stone to the next or was a step, each time going a little bit more and absorbing more knowledge. I started with Homer Grown because people around KBBI thought, “Let's do a production show, and let's make it about gardening. Does anybody want to do that?” And I wanted to do it, but I didn't say anything. And I was finally like, “Yeah, that's what I want to do.” So I started doing that. And then got a scholarship to do more, learn more about working in journalism and doing journalistic things, and then just kind of went all in and went straight into college, like six courses a semester. Then I got an internship in Bethel, working in rural Alaska, and really fell in love with rural Alaska and with being able to share other people's stories. As I had mentioned, I've struggled with my own expression. And for me, it feels really good to be able to allow a medium for others to express. And there's a responsibility that comes with that for sure. I'm not sure if I answered that question exactly, but that's where I'm at.

MCKENNEY: Tell me a little bit about either your first story you reported or some of your most memorable stories that you've reported during your time here.

HAGEN: Every story I do that involves people, I usually end up crying through some stage in the process because I take on a lot and absorb a lot and research a lot. My favorite story actually, it was when I went up to Kotzebue actually, and I met Ernie Norton, who is this 80-year-old DJ at the radio station. He plays gospel music that's made from people in the region that would come into the radio station and record their music. And you know, some of it's in Inupiaq and he’s just a really lovely human being that I really enjoyed meeting.

MCKENNEY: And so you're about to transition into this new role in a new community. Tell me a little bit about what's next.

HAGEN: I think probably four more months of winter. And going to Kotzebue, Kotzebue is 85% Native. And being in that role as a non-Native person, I think there's a lot of consideration and care that I think about. It's rural. It's off the road system. So there are different issues that you're going to encounter. I fell in love with western Alaska through doing an internship in Bethel. This summer I had the opportunity to travel because of Homer Grown and a grant. I traveled to Nome, traveled to Kotzebue. And, you know, I remember I just loved it. Even coming back here around Homer, I would ride my bike around and there'd be like a treeless spot with standing water, and I would think, “Oh, it's the tundra. I miss the tundra.” So I don't know, I'm excited about it, about being in a different culture, but also very much aware of the responsibility and what the role of a news director for a community that hasn't had anyone reporting the news for almost two years and even kind of historically has not had somebody boots on the ground there. It's a lot to take in, but I feel like I'm the right person for it.

MCKENNEY: What are you looking forward to in Kotzebue?

HAGEN: I'm looking forward to niqipiaq, which is real food. I'm looking forward to seal oil. I have been craving seal oil, and I’m like, “When I get there, I'm going to have seal oil and dried caribou. And it's going to be so good. And it's going to be minus 20. I'm going to hop on my fat bike and go to work.” I'm so excited for that. Not everyone would be.

MCKENNEY: You leave very soon. You are buying your plane ticket today. You're kind of closing this chapter in a way on Homer, although we all hope you will be back at some point. You've been here for more than a decade. Do you have anything that you'd like to share with the community and all your listeners?

HAGEN: I've been here in Homer for 15 years actually. And, you know, I was thinking about this as I was walking around and thinking about what's it going to be like up there, up north. And Homer is a really magic place. It's really magic. And I think rural Alaska is too, where things can be really serendipitous. I guess I would say, “Thank you for your support.” Doing this job, a lot of people would come up to me that I'd never even met that said, “Thank you” to me. And hearing that, I never really fully knew the extent of my voice and how far it reaches. And so I just want to say, “Thank you for allowing that and having this role in the community.”

In 2019, Hope moved to Unalaska/Dutch Harbor to work for Alaska's Energy Desk and KUCB — the westernmost public radio newsroom in the country. She has lived, worked and filed stories from California, New York, Bolivia, Peru, Cuba and Alaska.
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