Friday, June 20, 2008

Full Power Series Finale — Native Radio

This post brings to an end my series about the varied groups across the country hoping to start new noncommercial radio stations. As these profiles have shown, the FCC’s filing window last fall marked a rare and important opportunity for many different kinds of organizations – from Unitarians to Catholics, Hare Krishnas to reclusive fly-fishermen – to share their views and build bridges with their neighbors.

All of these organizations see their causes as significant, but this final post highlights a group of radio broadcasters for whom the medium could be a matter of cultural survival: Native Americans. Native nations and tribal organizations now operate 33 radio stations across the country that focus on subjects of special importance to their communities, such as health, education, the environment, Native cultures and Native languages heard on no other broadcast media. With such targeted programming, some of which comes from national producers, these stations give Natives a rare chance to define and amplify tribal identities that have been battered by centuries of aggression and discrimination.

“What I find really important about my work is that radio allows us to be who we want to be,” says Loris Ann Taylor, executive director of Native Public Media. “If you’re able to tell your own story, that’s one of the highest forms of freedom.” And Taylor knows firsthand what it’s like to have that freedom denied -- she remembers when her grade-school teacher would pinch her hand if she spoke her Hopi language in class.

Native Public Media, an outgrowth of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, visited Native conferences last year to promote the FCC filing window and recruit applicants. Its efforts resulted in 51 applications for new stations from 37 Native nations and tribal organizations. Taylor is particularly happy that tribes in the eastern U.S., including New York’s Seneca tribe, applied – at present most Native stations are in the West. Several groups in Hawaii also hope to start stations.

None of last fall’s applicants currently operates a station. One hopeful newcomer is the Coeur d’Alene tribe of northern Idaho. Valerie Fast Horse, director of information technology, learned of the opportunity through Taylor – they both sit on the telecommunications committee of the National Congress of American Indians. Fast Horse says her tribe – about 2,000 members on a reservation of 345,000 acres – now has no radio station to listen to that provides programming about their culture or local issues.

A station run by the Coeur d’Alene could give attention to local sports and government, as well as the tribe’s music, history and language. Fewer than 10 of the tribe’s population speak the native Coeur d’Alene tongue as a first language, Fast Horse says. The station could also serve as a showcase for local flutists, singers and comedians and alert listeners to hazards such as heavy snowstorms or forest fires.

Perhaps most importantly, a radio station would help the Coeur d’Alene tribe to tell its own story. The reservation’s Native population has faced friction from the North Idaho Citizens Alliance, a local group of non-Natives that opposes the tribe’s control of resources. Fast Horse emphasizes that most of the Coeur d’Alene’s neighbors are more tolerant but believes a radio station would help to educate non-Native listeners and resolve conflicts. “Communication is everything,” she says.

The Coeur d'Alene application, like many, is on hold as the FCC sorts through the hundreds of competing requests it received for new stations. But the tribe has already amended its application to resolve conflicts with several competitors, and Fast Horse is confident that it will have the upper hand in the remaining disputes. This week, the FCC released a list (PDF) of the so-called mutually exclusive applications now pending, and within a month it will begin applying its point system to resolve the logjams. This will ultimately decide the fortunes of the Coeur d'Alene and other applicants I've profiled. (My first post in this series offers a primer on this process.)

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the diverse groups I’ve profiled in this series and that, like me, you’re looking forward to hearing some new noncommercial stations sign on in coming years. Catch up on any posts you’ve missed -- and thanks for reading!

Mike Janssen served as Project Manager on FMC's Full Power Initiative, recruiting arts and cultural groups to apply for noncommercial stations and assisting applicants throughout the process. He is a freelance writer, editor and leader of media workshops in the Washington, D.C., area. Visit his website at

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