The Great Radio Hope: Tribal Stations Could Solve Indian Country’s Communications Gap

By Neelanjana Banerjee, New America Media
Tuesday October 09, 2007

When Native America Calling—a live, daily call-in radio program based in Albuquerque, N.M.—started more than 12 years ago, they had a hard time gaining people’s trust. 

“The phones barely rang,” says host and producer Harlan McKosato. “The native communities weren’t just going to call in right away because of their distrust of the media for painting them as ‘savages’ and ‘redskins.’” 

Today, the show airs in 15 states and two countries on 52 stations, attracting some 500,000 listeners with topics ranging from the light-hearted (“Rezzed-Out Weddings”) to serious community issues like meth babies. 

“Our job is really to be in tune with Native America, and then being able to articulate that over the air waves,” says McKosato. “Now that they trust us, it’s just a matter of pushing the button to get people to talk.” 

But Native America Calling’s national success in connecting tribal communities doesn’t solve the lack of telecommunications infrastructure that plagues Indian Country. 

The communications landscape hasn’t changed for Native Americans in the last decade, according to Loris Ann Taylor, executive director of Native Public Media, an organization dedicated to strengthening Native American media capacity. 

“On some Navajo land, they still don’t have telephone lines and sometimes people can’t afford cell phones—and even if they can, reservations are often black holes for cell phone service. A lot of reservations are nowhere near connecting to the Internet,” Taylor says. “In this landscape, the radio is their information highway.” 

That’s why Taylor—dubbed the “Gospel Woman of Radio”—has been working to ensure that there is a radio station in each tribal community. She says that mainstream America is unaware of how important locally produced radio is to the health and safety of Native communities. 

On the weekly radio program “House Calls,” for example, which airs on a Hopi radio station in Arizona, a local doctor answers questions from listeners and discusses Native health issues. “This show is so important because it is connecting the community with a local health care specialist,” Taylor says. “It’s not a program that’s designed for them somewhere else.” 

But these shows are scarce in a media environment that largely ignores Native news. At a recent conference of tribal leaders in California, Taylor recalls, “they talked about how the mainstream media still did not carry stories about their communities. They said it was like writing 5,000 press releases and maybe getting one reported.” 

Native America Calling may have half a million listeners, she adds, but it is not enough. 

“We have 562 tribal nations in this country,” she says, “and they want the same freedom that the rest of America wants: the freedom to express themselves.” 

The national show sees itself as a connector between the local radio stations that dot the Native media landscape. “At the beginning, the whole idea was to create a conversation that would link these tribal stations in remote areas—because they don’t have the Internet, they don’t have cable,” says McKosato. “What they have is radio.” 

The program now serves primarily as a way to bring Native news to audiences in cities like Spokane, Billings, Boise and Flagstaff, McKosato says. “Even though the show’s become an urban thing—most of our listeners are in D.C.—they want to be connected back to the Rez.” 

In the last decade that McKosato has been working on the radio show, he says the core issues of the Native community haven’t changed. “It’s about identity, first and foremost. That’s the core issue. It’s about our relationships with non-natives, our relationships with state and federal governments, and with other minority communities.” 

Cristina Azocar, president of the Native American Journalists Association, says the strength of Native America Calling comes from its recognition of diversity. “They help recognize the differences among us, which mainstream media don’t when it comes to Native issues,” she says. “You can really see the diversity of opinions around Indian Country by listening to the show.” 

They aren’t afraid of controversial topics, either, she adds. “I was on a show a year and a half ago talking about Native American identity issues. We were talking about Rez life versus non-Rez and blood quantum issues and what makes someone an Indian. It got really heated and that made it really interesting.” 

In order to bring more Native broadcasters into conversations like this one, Native Public Media is pushing tribal nations to take advantage of the Federal Communications Commission’s window to apply for a non-commercial educational broadcast FM license, which is open from Oct. 9 to Oct. 15, 2007. 

But it isn’t as easy as it sounds. 

“What’s happening is that [radio] spectrum is a finite resource like land and water,” Taylor says. Available FM radio spectrum goes between 88 and 108 megahertz, and once those frequencies are secured in a certain area, there aren’t any left for Native communities. “The likelihood of getting frequencies in Phoenix is low. There are other areas where it’s locked out. The Cherokee in North Carolina are locked out; there aren’t any frequencies available.” 

Taylor says her group has been trying to educate Native American representatives about the importance of securing frequencies for Native radio stations, but they are concerned with more pressing issues like housing and education. Because Native Public Media only started working on this two years ago, she adds, they are “playing catch-up.” 

Native Public Media, however, will testify on Native telecommunications issues in front of Congress on Oct. 24. “This means that while the FCC’s rules on media ownership are being forged, we’re still working on education,” Taylor says. “It’s like we moved into the house while it was still being built.” 

Taylor says if they aren’t able to secure radio stations for all the tribal nations, they will have to look at new platforms of communication and delve into the FCC conversations on broadband and Internet neutrality. “It’s like this whole universe just opened up and there’s this critical conversation going on, but we’re just a small voice at the table.