Remembering JB Carnahan, the 'KIAK Country Cruiser'
KIAK-FM posted this on Facebook: “With unimaginable sadness, we share the news that our beloved JB Carnahan has passed away. To Roberta and the whole Carnahan Family, we send infinite love and prayers. KIAK-FM will never be the same, nor will any of us who were lucky enough to know him.”
I was lucky enough to talk with him many times over the years and see how this man with a booming laugh and plus-sized personality managed to bring a sense of good cheer into any room.
Carnahan was a Fairbanks fixture for nearly a half-century—a policeman, borough assembly member, Shriner, volunteer, Crimestoppers TV spokesman, businessman and one of the morning hosts on KIAK-FM.
Carnahan served on Second Avenue as a city cop during the height of the trans-Alaska pipeline boom, when crime of all kinds was a constant among certain elements. ”The city was always safe,” he once said. “This was an activity between people who chose to play. For them it was serious. A lot of them didn’t make it through it, but was of their own choosing.”
“I don’t recall anybody wandering down there selling Bibles who got bumped on the head and robbed,” he said.
During his radio career, Carnahan often cited two rules for winter travel. 1. People who haven’t driven on snow should stay home until everyone else is at work. 2. The brakes are not your friend.
Carnahan, born in 1937, served as a police adviser in Vietnam joined the Fairbanks police in 1972. A deacade later, along with the late Jerry Norum, he helped lead the charge to build a luge run on Birch Hill, an effort that led the two big men to be called the “Luge Brothers.”
As the KIAK Country Cruiser, Carnahan began providing traffic reports 30 years ago, driving around town and drinking coffee. This always struck me as a great gimmick, given the relative lack of traffic in Fairbanks. Whenever there was real information to pass along, he did so. Otherwise he would do his best to leave people laughing.
Here is a column I wrote on Dec. 6, 1995. This was a couple of years before Kathryn Harris joined Van Nort and Carnahan. With her arrival, “The IQ of the morning show doubled,” Van Nort once said.
The streets were empty when J.B. Carnahan, ears attuned to his radio scanners, stopped at the News-Miner office in his red Ford van at 5:45 a.m. Tuesday.
I had come to work early to spend a 35-below morning with Fairbanks’ only radio traffic reporter—the KIAK Country Cruiser.
Carnahan’s morning traffic reports on KIAK-FM are unlike those in the big city, where the stations have helicopters, airplanes and official “Traffic Centers.” Not to mention official traffic jams.
But then again, they don’t have ice fog, moose, four-hour days, and spells of 50-below weather.
KIAK, which used to have a tape that provided helicopter sound effects, has exactly what it needs in the down-to-earth traffic reports from the Cruiser.
The weather didn’t qualify as severe Tuesday, but it was close. On such days, when many old cars seems about ready to expire, Carnahan’s reports about accidents and traffic hazards are a good public service.
“Right now there are two kinds of people on the road,” Carnahan told me as we pulled into the ice fog at 5:50 a.m. “People who just got up and are on their way to work. And people who have left the bars, had a bite to eat and are on their way home. This is a good time to be on your toes.”
Carnahan started doing traffic reports four or five years ago after wrapping up a 30-year career as a policeman. He now owns Craigrick’s Party Store and entertains the morning listeners of KIAK by talking about traffic and exchanging wisecracks with morning host Pete Van Nort.
On Tuesday their repertoire ranged from how much roughage Canahan consumed the night before to snide remarks about the relationship between my coffee consumption and bladder capacity.
In his first broadcast segment with Van Nort shortly after 6 a.m., Carnahan warned listeners about the ice fog and advised drivers to test their brakes and carry warm clothing just in case. He spoke into a headset microphone that allowed him to keep both hands on the wheel when he wasn’t drinking coffee.
Riding with the Cruiser was kind of like traveling in a car with screaming kids. He had more electronic gadgets within easy reach than a clerk at Radio Shack. And all of them were turned on.
One scanner clipped to the driver’s-side visor monitored the school buses. Another checked the emergency frequencies so he could pick up reports of car accidents or breakdowns. he also had a cell phone on which he received frequent calls from the station. Someone called him Tuesday morning to tell him that a car had just hit a moose on Sheep Creek Road.
In addition to the scanners and the equipment he used to transmit back to KIAK, the car radio was turned up and pumping out country tunes. He got cues to give traffic updates every 10 minutes or so.
“What do you think? Isn’t this nice?” he asked me, raising his voice to a decibel below that of a police sergeant calling the day shift to attention.
“We’ll run down and see what the Rich looks like and go onto the Mitchell,” he said of his morning cruise. “After that comes the highlight of the morning, going to McDonald’s for a cup of coffee.”
When traffic on the scanners gets hectic, from about 7:30 a.m. on, Carnahan finds a place to park so he can concentrate on the radio reports. That way he can alert listeners to traffic hazards without becoming one.