Radio Station KYAY Is Lifeline For Apache Tribe

In eastern Arizona, there's a tiny, 1900 watt radio station that's marking its first year on the air. KYAY is licensed to and owned by the San Carlos Apache Tribe. For many of the isolated reservation's 13,000 or so residents, it's the outlet for community information, news and a lot of entertainment.

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And on a reservation in Arizona, there's a tiny radio station marking its first year on the air. KYAY is owned by the San Carlos Apache Tribe and it's become a window into this isolated reservation, offering news and entertainment. NPR's Kirk Siegler has been listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRADITIONAL APACHE SONG)

KIRK SIEGLER: From a cinder block building in a dusty lot on the edge of San Carlos, comes KYAY 91.1 FM, the voice of the San Carlos Apaches.

LYNN KEY: So, you know, it's KYAY.

SIEGLER: The station's GM, Lynn Key, says there's symbolism behind those call letters.

KEY: It's kind of an expression, native expression, you know, KYAY, you know, if, you know, you like something. It's kind of like the Anglo version of wow.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGLER: KYAY does play traditional music from the San Carlos Apaches. It's also the place to hear hits that are popular right now across Indian Country, such as this one from the band Northern Cree. It starts out like traditional music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FACEBOOK DRAMA")

SIEGLER: I read your status last night. This song is called Facebook Drama.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FACEBOOK DRAMA")

NORTHERN CREE: (singing) I don't want to go through this Facebook Drama so I press delete.

SIEGLER: It's definitely free-form radio, with the playlist sometimes a free for all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET BEAUTIFUL YOU")

STATELINE: (singing) Sweet beautiful you...

SIEGLER: KYAY is on everywhere you go in San Carlos - coming out of car windows, in the town's only cafe, inside the cramped tribal government offices.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYAY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The San Carlos Housing Authority, thank you guys for all for tuning in, Vondell, Sharon, Javon...

SIEGLER: Often a deejay will speak in a mix of English and Apache.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYAY)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaks Apache) last day to enter (speaks Apache) on a basketball tournament (speaks Apache) men, women...

SIEGLER: The radio station's central role in the community was galvanized this past Spring when the power went out. The San Carlos Apache Reservation is at the end of the line of an aging power grid. People here are used to blackouts. But this time the power went out for 58 hours. No water. No lights. Nothing. Except KYAY.

KEN DUNCAN JR.: During that time, just like we'd planned, just like it was supposed to, the solar power kicked in.

SIEGLER: Ken Duncan Jr. of the tribe's planning department says the station stayed on the whole time thanks to a seven kilowatt solar system that's installed just outside the building.

JR.: And we have a shed here that has the inverters that convert it from DC to AC.

SIEGLER: Duncan says KYAY became the only place for people to find out where the tribe was distributing batteries and ice, where to get medical help. Manager Lynn Key says this was the moment the station starting became a fixture here.

KEY: And it's something new for the people. So it's been a learning experience for everybody here in the community.

SIEGLER: Next up, plans for more community affairs shows. And this fall, Key says the hope to broadcast the San Carlos Braves high school football games, play-by-play, probably over an iPhone. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

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