Veteran Alaska journalist and KBBI news director Laurence Jay Barrett died Thursday, March 17, at his home in Homer. He was 60.
If you’ve ever turned on a radio in Alaska, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Jay Barrett’s unflinchingly upbeat voice. That voice has played on local airwaves across Alaska, from Kodiak to Bethel to Kenai and, most recently, Homer.
His first ever broadcasts were in his hometown of Dillingham, where he announced high school basketball games as a kid.
He was later pulled out of state by art of a visual kind, earning a degree in photography from the Art Institute in Seattle in 1988. He started pursuing a career in commercial photography.
But — as so many do — he found his way back. His brother, Jean Barrett, of Dillingham, said Jay always had a deep love for Alaska’s rural communities.
“You can take the kid out of the village, you can’t take the village out of the kid,” Jean said. “I think he liked small-town Alaska.”
Jay — known affectionately to friends as JayBob — found home all across rural Alaska, as a public radio and newspaper reporter for a myriad of outlets and as the decade-long voice of the statewide Alaska Fisheries Report.
But journalist Rhonda McBride said, despite that breadth, he was laser-focused on every community he worked in. And it showed in his storytelling.
“To me, there is a trademark Jay Barrett story,” McBride said.
McBride worked with Jay at KYUK in the 1990s. She said he had a knack for covering the stories reporters usually shied away from — the kind of nuts and bolts reporting on what makes a community tick.
“Jay always had a magic of taking stories like that and drawing us in,” she said. “And not just telling the story but building a sense of community with it. I mean, he was the quintessential small-town reporter — loved it. He never wanted to work somewhere other than rural Alaska.”
At KYUK, she said Jay was known as the “red-haired Native.” His mom was half Yup’ik, from the Kuskokwim area.
In all his news gigs, Jay was a dogged follower of AP style. He never shied away from emailing a reporter — including this one — when there was an error or typo in their copy.
But radio listeners statewide were perhaps most taken with Jay’s cheery radio voice, with a bellowing laugh that brightened every airwave. He could read out the phonebook, McBride said, and it would be entertaining.
With his statewide reporting came a statewide network of friends and colleagues.
Cheryl Nugent, one of Jay’s best friends and a DJ at KMXT-Kodiak, said they would celebrate their birthdays together every July, watching movies over the phone when their friendship turned long distance.
“We kept in touch by texting and sending silly stories and videos back and forth,” she said. “I just got one from him the day before yesterday, a really cute video with animals. And also we would watch movies together. He actually signed me up on one of his streaming channels so we could watch some of our favorite actors together, where we’d be on the phone and say, ‘OK, press play.’ and then ‘OK, press pause.'”
Beyond becoming a part of Nugent’s family, Jay was also a mentor as she found her voice at KMXT.
Casey Kelly said that was true for him, as well. He remembers coming up to Kodiak in 2006 to work on the fish report with very little radio experience under his belt. He said Jay took a chance on him.
“He was the first person I worked with in journalism who embodied the old saying — ‘Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,’” he said. “I still think about that saying because he would say it all the time.”
And while Jay’s work largely remained in the realm of audio and print, he was a talented and award-winning photographer. Kasilof artist Zirrus VanDevere said his art was featured in state and local exhibits often.
“Many of his pieces told of life in Alaska, both succinctly and tenderly, and his poignant images, his frequent fundraiser donations and his in-depth artist interviews describe a man passionately supportive of the arts,” VanDevere said.
Jay was a superfan of many stripes. He loved sports — namely, his Chicago Cubs. In Kodiak, he was part of a show called Jock of the Rock that ran for 10 years.
And he was a Trekkie and a sort-of tech wizard, serving as de-facto support for more than a few journalists around the state. Jean, his brother, also said he was an accomplished motorcycle rider in his youth.
“He had a great sense of balance. And he was able to do a lot of things on the motorbike that surprised me,” he said. “And later on in life, he was talking about getting a motorbike and I told him, ‘Listen, dude. Your center of gravity has changed. Don’t expect that you can do the things you used to do.’”
Jay leaves behind a far-reaching network of friends and listeners in every corner of Alaska. He is preceded in death by his parents — Evelyn Johnson Barrett and Lawrence Frances Barrett — and survived by his brother, Jean Barrett, of Dillingham, and several cousins and extended family.
KDLL’s Jenny Neyman contributed reporting.
Cheryl Nugent said she’ll be dedicating next week’s edition of her KMXT show, The Oldies Show, to Jay. She’ll be taking song requests between 7–9 p.m. on Friday, March 25 on KMXT.