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Southeast media veteran returns to government work

Posted: Friday, October 12, 2001

Longtime Alaska journalist John Greely wasn't surprised when a bullet punctured the trans-Alaska oil pipeline last week. After all, he was part of a group that bombed the line nearly 25 years ago.

It was only a small smoke bomb set by off by the staff of an alternative weekly newspaper called the Alaska Advocate. But it was a successful rebuttal to official statements about pipeline security, one of many points made by Greely in three decades as a reporter, news director, columnist and political speechwriter in Alaska.

Greely, until recently news director at public station KTOO-FM & TV, recalled the incident while settling into his new chair in the office of Lt. Gov. (and possible gubernatorial candidate) Fran Ulmer, where he is a special assistant.

"Anybody who had half a brain could see that the pipeline was just sitting there," Greely said. "Oh yeah, it caused a big stir. We got denounced by the pipeline company and everybody else as being irresponsible -- you know, showing people how to blow up the pipeline. ...

"I'm not going to say 'I told you so' or anything like that. At the time, it was on its face pretty ludicrous that anyone would claim the pipeline couldn't be attacked."

The unorthodox approach of the Advocate also was apparent in a legislative analysis Greely wrote in that same issue, which connected widespread stomach flu with lawmakers' end-of-session maneuvering. The irreverent article suggested that the record-setting session, then in its 140th day, was making people literally sick, including the author.

Now 53 and the married father of two boys, Greely is an elder statesman of the media, a veteran observer of numerous political campaigns and legislative sessions.

A multiple award-winner and co-founder of the "Alaska Week" public affairs program on KTOO-TV, he retired this summer after more than 13 years with the station, saying he just wanted to something different.

Greg Pease, who has played basketball and softball with Greely, and who was his co-host on KTOO-FM's Friday fish report for more than a decade, called Greely "part of history in Juneau."

"He's a great teammate, a great human being -- sharp as a tack," Pease said. "Really listens and doesn't just spout off the first thing that comes into his mind."

Pease recalls with special fondness Greely's news analyses with former Empire Managing Editor Larry Persily, which were broadcast weekly in the mid-1990s.

"That was insightful and right on, every week," he said. "You could drive down the road and (know) what you were hearing was the truth."

"They were fun," Persily recalled. "It was a good match. My personality's irreverent and a little flippant. He was amazingly coherent and thoughtful," especially for 6:19 a.m. on Mondays, he said.

Katie Bausler, who was host of KTOO-FM's "Morning Edition" program during that period, recalled that when she once promoted "a little chat with Larry Persily and John Greely," she got a memo from her boss: "We don't have chats. Chats are over tea and cookies."

Bausler called Greely "a living encyclopedia of Alaska history and political history," and therefore a valuable resource for station employees.

Claire Richardson, deputy press secretary for Gov. Tony Knowles and another former KTOO colleague of Greely's, now includes a section on "the famous John Greely interview technique" in her media training sessions for government bureaucrats. Greely is famous for asking a question and letting the interviewee squirm in any ensuing silence, rather than asking a follow-up question.

"I've seen people tell him their deepest, darkest secrets, their Visa numbers," Richardson laughed.

The Associated Press moved Greely from Seattle to Juneau in 1972 for what he thought would be a temporary stint covering the Alaska Legislature. He worked in Juneau and Anchorage for several months, found the environs agreeably similar to his hometown area of Vancouver, Wash., and ended up returning to Juneau the next year for AP.

Four years later, he co-founded the Advocate, which was published in Anchorage, and served as its Juneau bureau chief.

"I think we were of the opinion that what the state needed was some good, solid reporting that we didn't think we could deliver in the newspapers we were in," Greely said. "It was one of those youthful ventures that didn't make a lot of business sense."

Among the other co-founders was Howard Weaver, former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Anchorage Daily News (and later its editor-in-chief). But the group ran out of money in two years, Greely said. "I lived on the quarters we got out of the machines here."

In the next three years, Greely opened a full-time Juneau bureau for the Anchorage Daily News, did some publicly funded television coverage of the Legislature and handled public relations for the Alaska Committee, the Juneau group that was fighting a capital move effort.

In 1982, he became press secretary for newly elected Gov. Bill Sheffield. The inherently tough, flak-catching position was made even more difficult when the governor was accused of wrongdoing in the lease of a state office building and had to endure preliminary impeachment proceedings in the Legislature.

The public relations battle was lost before the political issue was resolved, Greely said. But he said Sheffield was able to get some of his legislative program approved in his final year in office, although he was not able to win re-election.

"From the time I spent in the governor's office before, I got an appreciation for how fragile it can be at the top at times," he said. "The people that kind of blew the whistle on that office lease in Fairbanks were career employees. The whole thing started when one career state employee lost his parking space and started building a file. ... I think the details on all that were lost on the public in a lot of ways. ... As it turned out, he (Sheffield) was, if not exonerated, it was put to rest."

Overall, Greely sees less civility in public discourse today than there was then.

"I've just noticed that politics has gotten to be more of a bloodsport in Alaska than it used to be. ... Now there seems to be a lot of arguments about the money," he said. Asked if elected officials reflect divisions among state residents or make them worse, he said, "I hope that it's not a societal problem. If it's a political problem, it can be fixed. ... I don't think people are naturally suspicious of each other but I think our politicians have a way of miscommunicating that causes suspicion."

Ulmer is considered a likely gubernatorial candidate but Greely says he hasn't given much thought yet to what her candidacy would mean for his future. His return to government is based largely on reaching the five years of cumulative employment necessary to get vested in the state pension system, he said.

"I don't know what my next career will be. ... I think of myself as a writer. I don't know if I'll ever write a book, but I think I've got one in me somewhere, if I ever get the time."

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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