Joseph Orozco, station manager for KIDE, serving the Hoopa Valley reservation in Northern California.
Joseph Orozco, station manager for KIDE, serving the Hoopa Valley reservation in Northern California. Jesse Hardman
At a time when most of America is inundated with new forms of communication technology, there is one segment of the country where a radio is still the most essential medium: Native American reservations. The stations broadcast cultural, language and community affairs programming to tribal members — many of whom do not have other options for timely access to news and information.
Loris Ann Taylor grew up on the Hopi reservation in northeastern Arizona in the 1960s. The reservation didn't have electricity, telephone or running water, let alone a radio station. A transistor radio was the only way she could listen to mainstream American music or talk shows. When a tourist gave one to her grandfather, she heard Elvis Presley for the first time.
"I thought it was just marvelous to hear this music that was so alien to Hopi culture," Taylor says.
Tribes Embrace Their Stations
It wasn't until December 2000 that the Hopi reservation finally got an FCC license and launched its own station, KUYI-FM 88.1. Today, 33 tribes own and operate stations throughout the country. Dozens more, from Hawaii to New York, have recently been approved for construction permits and expect to begin broadcasting in the next three years.
At KUYI, Hopi members, like elder and part-time farmer Jimmy Lacero, produce all of the station's shows. Lacero is the morning disc jockey at KUYI and calls himself "Southern Thunder."
"Everybody likes me, and everybody calls in. They all listen," Lacero says. "It's a good thing for them because they like to hear a person talking Hopi, their own language, on here."
The Only Medium Most Members Share
Loris Ann Taylor is now the executive director of Native Public Media, a nonprofit organization that is spearheading the surge in tribal radio stations nationwide. She says less than 10 percent of families on native reservations have broadband connections, and one-third still don't have telephones.
That means radio is one of the only ways for American Indians to get information on issues like safety, health, education and tribal government.
For example, at KIDE-FM 91.3, the Hoopa Valley Indian tribe's radio station in Northern California, manager and DJ Joseph Orozco warns locals about forest fires that threaten the reservation in the summer.
In southwestern Arizona, public health nurses on the Tohono O'odham Nation host a show on issues such as diabetes and children's health on KOHN-FM 91.9. They say that for the price of batteries, everyone can stay in touch on a reservation the size of Connecticut, where tribal members often live far from roads or power lines.
Supporting Native Culture
KOHN DJs also incorporate their language into their programming. The station airs a "phrase of the day" to help members learn and keep the language alive.
Taylor says that makes Indian communities more vibrant and makes members feel that their identity is valued and that their history is being told.
Tribal stations are not without their problems, though, according to Taylor. She says while many closely resemble the public radio model in the U.S., funding methods such as pledge drives are difficult to duplicate with the high unemployment and limited corporate underwriting opportunities on many reservations.
Taylor hopes that federal telecommunications policy will someday be updated to increase funding opportunities, access to new licenses and technologies like broadband. Right now, most tribes don't have the ability to stream their programming online, so the only way to listen to it is live, on the air.
Support for this story was provided by Jay Allison and Transom.org.