Tribal Radio

Intro from Jay Allison: Jesse Hardman and Maura O'Connor recently drove around the southwestern United States visiting some of the 33 Native American reservations that have their own radio stations. They said it became clear that "radio, often dismissed as outdated for the Web 2.0 era, was the most essential medium of communication in Indian country." Airchecks from these stations sound alive and connected, peopled by a real range of characters. On Transom, Jesse and Maura put together a report, full of photos and audio, and we also created two radio pieces. One is an NPR-style news magazine piece. The other is a Transom-style collage. Listen to both. Tell us what you think. On our discussion board, we'll be joined by some of the staff of the tribal stations and they'd like to hear from you.

Listen to “Tribal Radio Collage: Transom “Slow Radio” style”
Listen to “Tribal Radio Magazine Piece”

About Tribal Radio

This past May, we spent nine days driving around the southwestern United States visiting some of the 33 Native American reservations that have their own radio stations. We knew before the trip that tribal radio would be unique but there was no way to predict how much so. Every station we visited was a different mix of professional old hands, volunteers, elders, youth, tradition, and innovation. The more community members we spoke to, the more clear it became that radio, often dismissed as outdated for the Web 2.0 era, was the most essential medium of communication in Indian country, whether it was serving a reservation the size of a small European country or one just a few square miles long.

Maps of stations

Fry broad posters, pueblo near Tucson
pueblo near Tucson

By the end of the trip, several things were patently clear. To begin: Fry bread is pretty tasty. Sure the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that a single serving of the crispy dough with soft, warm innards contains 700 calories but when you’re driving and working from sunrise to long past dusk it’s exactly what you want and it’s ubiquitous in Indian Country; people sell it in parking lots, restaurants, or out of their homes.

Also: Don’t believe people who warn you that Indians are reticent and won’t talk to outsiders. Time and again 20-minute interviews turned into hour long storytelling sessions about personal histories, community traditions, and tribal legacies that could have lasted through the night. The whole “shy” thing quickly began to seem like some kind of ruse.

Finally: Thanks to a meeting with Harvard economist Joe Kalt, a native of Tucson and the co-director of Harvard’s Project on American Indian Economic Development, we were given a simple but key understanding of modern Native America. “Real People Living Real Lives…” This mantra sounds simplistic, but it counters the outdated conceptions that many people have about the more than 550 sovereign nations that reside within the borders of the United States. The issues that indigenous people in America today deal with are most often no different than what Americans in general face: Identity, family, health, security, jobs etc.

Kalt also explained that tribes today are very focused on asserting their independence and the fact that they have their own constitutions, governments, courts, and police forces. This notion extends to tribal radio, as most native station managers we met said that being on the airwaves is about one basic thing: Sovereignty. Tribal radio stations remind the local community and the outside world that the tribe is alive. KIDE Station Manager Joseph Orozco in northern California told us, “We are voicing the essence of who we are, and the importance of why we exist. I think that is the point of the station, to bring that local voice. Any time you use that medium, to do anything, it is an act of tribal sovereignty.”

Modern Messengers

Sial Thonolig, KOHN
Sial Thonolig, KOHN

Our journey through tribal radio country started with Sial Thonolig, or “ST,” the dread-locked manager of KOHN on the Tohono O’odham nation in southwestern Arizona. ST had kindly called us up before our departure to explain that we better bring our own lunch, as there were not any real “lunch type places” on the rez. He picked us up at the one gas station in the tribal capital of Sells, and we drove to the radio headquarters, a lone building in a desert of saguaro cacti reaching up towards the sky.

Tohon O’odham Nation

Tohon O’odham coverage diagram

ST grew up in an isolated, very traditional “TO” village—the entire reservation is the size of Connecticut—and speaks the native language fluently. But he also hosts a two-hour music show on KOHN called “Zound Clash” and estimates his collection of music to contain some 30,000 songs. ST is a walking encyclopedia of reggae trivia and can recall not only the first reggae song he heard at age 13, but the second and the third ones as well. He heard them, of course, on the radio, from a station beamed onto the reservation all the way from Oklahoma.

Sial’s first three reggae songs:

Listen to “Operation Eradication by Yellowman”
Listen to “Natural Mystic by Bob Marley”
Listen to “Night Nurse by Gregory Isaacs”

Sial explained to us how, “In the old days each village had a group of young men that acted as messengers for the village. They would carry messages from village to village. And that’s the way we see ourselves, and that’s our role, to be the messengers of the nation.” Sial said when he goes on the air one of his goals is to give tribal members a variety of local, national, and international information so they can “better feel their place in the world.”

House Calls

As we traveled back to Tucson from the TO reservation, we came upon one of the more modern symbols of Native America, an enormous sign that read “Casino of the Sun.” While the casino looked big, the reservation it stood on certainly wasn’t. The Pascua Yaqui pueblo is just a handful of square miles in diameter. Sitting in the shadow of the casino is KPYT, the tribe’s radio station, delivered via a low-powered FM transmitter. Station manager Hector Youtsey joked about the limited reach of his station: “The drive home is only like five minutes, we should call it the drive to the Circle K (a local convenience store).”

Pascua Yaqui Tribe

Pascua Yaqui Tribal coverage diagram

Amalia Reyes, KPYT
Amalia Reyes, KPYT

The radio station might not be heard past the highway turnoff, but it does cover its mandate to inform the descendants of the Pascua Yaqui people, a group that numbers around 14,000 registered tribal members. The Yaqui’s are a diverse group, integrating aspects of Yaqui, Spanish, Mexican, and Arizona culture on the pueblo. At the station we heard everyone from the cleaning lady to the local medicine man speaking variations of English, Spanish, and Yaqui. Indeed, KPYT serves as a kind of local archive and laboratory for local language, culture, religion and tradition, teaching people about their heritage, and also experimenting through its programs on a manifestation of what it means to be a present day Yaqui.

Jose Morio, KPYT
Jose Morio, KPYT

On Friday nights listeners can turn into KPYT and hear Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne, and Motorhead thanks to “Uncle Jojo,” a full-blooded Yaqui and self-described “freak.”

We went to the local library and met Amalia Reyes, a tribal member with an impressive wealth of information and insight into the tribe’s history. Reyes hosts her own show on KPYT called Tribal Legacies, where she interviews elders and young people and engages them in storytelling.

During the day listeners hear about the present condition of the community, including social events and government announcements. They even have a program dedicated to one of the tribe’s more pressing problems, the skyrocketing diabetes rate which is twice the national average. Reyes noted the diabetes program as particularly valuable to the community, a sort of remote “house call” to people who are intimidated by the topic. “Pretty soon it’s a safe subject,” she said. “Not a taboo subject anymore. People will listen and they can do it at home.” She described it as “education and prevention at the same time going out over the airwaves.”

Listen to “A clip from Amalia Reyes ‘Tribal Legacies’”

Community Telephone

Merwin Kaye, KUYI
Merwin Kaye, KUYI

We headed north from Pascua Yaqui pueblo, chasing the sun into the northern canyons and mountains of Arizona. Travelling along Indian Route 2 past mesas that rose out of the barren landscape like massive icebergs, we finally arrived at KUYI 88.1, a Hopi-owned, Hopi-produced station begun in December of 2000. The station’s headquarters was a doublewide trailer next to the tribal police station. Breathing in the desert air we had an amazing view of the oceanic-sized valley and its semi-barren landscape, dotted with scrub brush, like something out of the movie Tremors.


KUYI coverage map

Inside the trailer, Merwin Kaye sat in the studio and scanned the list of birthday dedications he was about to read on air. “Derrick, Happy Belated Birthday. Wishing you many more to come. Very extended love to you from the voice of Tewa,” said one. Tewa is one of the dozens of villages scattered on top of the mesas there, some of which have been inhabited by members of the Hopi tribe since the 12th century A.D.

Hopi tribal sign
Hopi tribal sign

Birthday requests are among the most popular programs KUYI airs for the roughly 7,000 Hopis who live on this reservation, and all day the phone was ringing with dedications for children, grandparents, uncles, and cousins. Behind Kaye—a self-described farmer of watermelon, corn, beans, and squash in addition to being a volunteer DJ—were shelves with hundreds of CDs ranging from Al Green to traditional Hopi ceremonial music.

“For Hopi, music is part of our religion and culture,” said Kaye. “We sing those real old, old, old songs that have been with us for a long long time. We have song keepers, and song makers.” But Hopis have distinctly modern tastes in music as well, attested to by the numerous Michael Jackson and Skid Row posters on the trailer’s walls.

Listen to “A piece from Hopi High School weekly radio show”

“Wednesday night I’m here, doing the Honky Tonk Round Up show. Thursday night I’m here doing the Rez Rasta Rhythms show,” says Kaye. Punctuating the point, he puts Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” on the air, the song requested for Derrick’s birthday.

As we drove south towards Apache territory that night and listened to KUYI, Merwin gave us the greatest honor bestowed by a DJ by dedicating a song to us for a safe drive; Toots and the Maytals singing “Reggae Got Soul.”

9-1-1 of Indian Country

Native Public Media

Loris Ann Taylor, Native Public Media
Loris Ann Taylor, Native Public Media

Loris Ann Taylor is the executive director of Native Public Media, a non-profit that works to support and strengthen tribal radio. She grew up on the Hopi reservation but now lives in nearby Flagstaff. She met us in the town square, where the sound of trains heading west made a perfect backdrop to the night as the sun went down and the cold air rolled in. She said from Wisconsin to Alaska, remote populations rely on locally relevant radio. “I hear from the Inuits and the Tlingit who say, ‘We hear from the radio station whether the men that are out fishing in the cold waters off the coast are safe.’ We’re the 9-1-1 of Indian Country.”


KIDE coverage map

Joe Orozco, KIDE Station Manager
Joe Orozco, KIDE Station Manager

While we would have preferred to jump on one of the passing trains to get to our next destination, we were forced to be more mundane and headed to Northern California by plane, then rented a car to reach the remote Hoopa Valley, trading mesas for redwood trees and rivers. This beautiful valley is home to the Hoopa Valley tribe, which has run its radio station, KIDE 91.3, for 28 years. Joseph Orozco greeted us with a cup of coffee and proudly stated that the tiny town of Hoopa has three coffee options: The grocery store, a drive through trailer, and a coffee shop.

Orozco is the general manager of KIDE and he keeps an eye on what the most important topics are for the local population. He does a live broadcast of the local fish fair, an event meant to highlight the local Trinity river and its importance to the community. He also produces programs like “Public Life,” hosted by tribal member and recent journalism school graduate, Allie Hostler. Her show attempts to answer some of the more pressing questions about what it’s like to be a Hoopa Indian in a modern world. In one program, for instance, Hostler tackled the controversial subject of blood quantum, a process which determines who, exactly, can qualify as a tribal member.

Listen to “A clip of ‘Public Life’ from KIDE, Hoopa Tribal Radio”

Managing the airwaves

Impressed by what we saw and heard while driving around the reservations, we also began to feel a little biased and decided to find out what some of the negatives aspects of tribal radio were. We discovered that most tribal stations are still seeking a model of sustainability that will give them both independence and funding. Though many closely resemble the public radio model in the U.S., we were told by Native Public Media’s Loris Ann Taylor that certain aspects—pledge drives, for example—are impossible to replicate.

“If you’re in a really rural country where there is a 33 percent unemployment rate,” said Taylor, “and you don’t have the presence of major industry, pledge drives simply don’t work. It’s not a model that fits certain communities and for us to try and subscribe to that model is, in short, setting ourselves up for failure.”

White Mountain Apache

White Mountain Apache coverage map

KNBB Apache Rez
KNBB Apache Rez

In these situations, tribal governments often support the stations as is the case with KPYT in Tuscon. Such arrangements can also be problematic, however. At KNBB 88.1, the White Mountain Apache radio station, unemployment is high, tribal government budgets are strapped, and the station lacks funding for staff or training. Sylvia Browning is the 52-year-old programming director and one of the DJ’s at KNBB, but said she never received basic training, from running the sound board to technical production to journalism skills.

Government oversight also can create trouble for tribal stations, especially when it comes to what information goes on the air. Not all tribes have strong First Amendment rights in their constitutions, and some station managers worry about covering sensitive topics like tribal membership, land rights, and more.

Sylvia Browning, Programming Director KNBB
Sylvia Browning, Programming Director KNBB

Radio managers also have to manage the sharing of information that is sensitive at a traditional level. Native Public Media’s Taylor said free speech sometimes clashes with unique cultural considerations.”If you have a manager that is not as astute to the community needs or doesn’t know about the cultural implications that you could have run-ins, and not even understand the magnitude of what your actions might mean to that community.”

Taylor said that federal telecommunication policy has not been updated to serve the growing media needs of tribal communities. She said federal policy has traditionally limited the potential of funding opportunities, access to new licenses and implementation of new technologies like broadband. “One of the really interesting things we’re doing is trying to establish our own metrics. Most public radio stations, if they are large enough, are measured by the Arbitron survey. We’re too small for Arbitron. We’re trying to figure out, ‘What’s our impact? How do we want to quantify what our impact is?'”

Long Distance Dedication

Everywhere we went in Indian country our tribal radio friends were there to take us bahanas (Hopi equivalent of gringos) somewhere interesting. Thank you for all the warmth and generosity…

Editorial assistance from Jay Allison.

Additional support for this work provided by
Open Studio Project
with funding from the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting

Jesse Hardman

Jesse Hardman

Jesse Hardman is a reporter with more than thirteen years experience. His work has been featured on National Public Radio, This American Life, Marketplace and a host of other public radio programs. Hardman has a Master's degree from Harvard University where he researched free press and journalism development. He has served as a Knight International Journalism Fellow in Lima, Peru, training professional reporters and teaching journalism at the Peruvian University of Applied Sciences(UPC). Jesse spent the last year and a half working in Sri Lanka where he trained local reporters as a field coordinator for a humanitarian information project called Lifeline.

Maura O'Connor

Maura O'Connor

Maura R. O'Connor is a freelance journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in, The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, The Times of India and The New York Post, among other publications. She was born in Boston, Mass. and graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in 2008.


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  • Richard Alun Davis



    Greetings Jesse, Maura and Jay,
    thank you [kwakw’ah] for all of your hard work – we sure enjoyed your visit and wish you all the best!
    Come back as soon as you can…

    Jimbo, Merwin, Macadio, Davis, the Hopi Foundation and me,

    Richard Alun Davis, Station Manager
    KUYI 88.1 FM Hopi Radio
    "Your Native American Public Radio Station"

    (928) 738-5530 [direct]
    (928) 738-5505 [listener line]
    (928) 738-5505 [fax]

    PO Box 1500
    Keams Canyon, AZ

  • edmitchell


    Tribal Radio

    As they say, it’s all in the timing. I just got off a conference call with the lead team of the Native American Journalists Association student multimedia project. Seriously, just hung up the phone, relaunched a browser and saw Tribal Radio on the Transom home page. Transom is the landing page for my browser.
    Anyway, "Crossroads" has never been a more apt cliché here. Our conference call was about laying the ground work for doing a convergent media project with Native American high school and college students. Last week in San Juan Puerto Rico, at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists student project, we came close to this supposed nirvana. We worked in both Spanish and English. Everyone learned more than a few things. For the most part, the need for instruction in doing the basic things very well is still there. Looking ahead, and thanks to my finding this on Transom, I’m going to re-assess a few things we’re planning to attempt in Albuquerque during the last week of July. I’ve been doing training with NAJA since 1998 and have visited Hopi Radio. There are so many challenges. Still, through traditional radio, these communities remain together.
    Training should be about filling a need and since I have the luxury of going into minority communities to work with young people, I (we) should make sure we are working to keep a few things alive and well.

    Thanks for this….

    Doug Mitchell

  • trishymouse



    The pieces on tribal radio were extremely inspiring. I am Irish American and have similar feelings regarding Irish Gaelic radio. It’s amazing to have cultures validated and celebrated. ROCK ON!

  • Loris Taylor


    The Native Radio Network

    Over the weekend I attended the "Hopi Show" at the Museum of Northern Arizona that included a booth for KUYI, the voice of the Hopi Nation. Using a remote delivery system, the KUYI staff were able to carry live interviews, and some of the music and cultural events from the site back to the Hopi Reservation. Unfortunately, due to terrain shielding and the limited reach of the KUYI signal, we were not able to hear the station on the museum grounds. One day, when broadband comes to Indian Country, including Hopi, with the bandwidth necessary to ramp up our media capacity, we will be not only be able to hear KUYI on the web, but perhaps enjoy video and other information from our Native American communities across the country. The diversity of Indian Country is rich and intellectually loaded with knowledge and information that can enrich all our lives. Thank you Jesse for helping us to tell our story. It truly is wonderful to hear the voices of the Tohono Od’ham, Pasqua Yaqui, Hoopa, and Apache on the net and speaks to the power of what can be. Asquali

    Loris Taylor

  • Joseph Orozco


    CA Tribal Radio Network

    Yes, thank you for bringing us to Transom. Thank you for taking the time to visit with us.

    Radio was made for Indians, we just let others work out the bugs. Since 1980 KIDE has been the only Indian owned and operated radio station in CA. A proud and lonely fact. Within 2 more years we may have four more Indian owned stations or stations serving an Indian community. In Northern CA, meaning above where the CA and Nevada border bends there may be four new stations, if all goes well and on time. In southern CA near San Diego will be another Indian owned station.

    What I am working on is the creation of a CA Tribal Radio Network that will link the new stations to 29 year old KIDE by PRSS Satellite. Maybe the advent of fiber optics will work as well, I just haven’t as yet explored those details. Regardless of how the delivery system is developed the idea is to lower the intial operating cost of the new stations by providing them with as much of our 24/7 programming. Network agreements will have to entered, but the upshot is a system that can be used to share CA tribal News and public affairs programming.

    My thinking is allow the new stations time to learn how to produce their own local programming at an easier pace. Trying to learn production and maintain full operations at the same time will take many years and much money. I know this by experience. The stations having their own studios can always create original broadcasts in times of emergencies, or to do specialty programs like tribal language programming, but the balance of the time they can use our feed. In time we will be able to create as a CA Tribal Radio Network a CA Tribal specaility program like Native America Calling, or High Plains News Service, only with a complete CA tribal content slant.

    Looking at what we as Native Radio is doing now, I wonder how we as an identifiable group can give the American public something meaningful and different than anything America has ever heard before in radio. As our friend and colleague Dick Brooks says, "The golden age of radio has yet to happen. Let it start in Indian Country." Indeed!

    Joseph Orozco

  • Sydney Lewis


    slow better

    I had a chance yesterday to listen to both the slow radio and NPR-bite pieces. Very glad we put up the slow version. It gives us a much richer feel for what radio feels like and means on the rez. We take so much for granted now. Suddenly I was remembering the role of radio in World War II, what radio still means in those places where there’s too little of too much.

    I understand that the slow radio amount of time is too long for any NPR shows I can think of, but it’s frustrating and sad that something in between the two lengths couldn’t be offered on the air. Pieces that encourage us to spend a just a little extra time hearing the experience of others rarely air. If it’s "news" we hear lots of reporting about "others" but once it’s not news, poof, we’re outta there.

    What takes the place of the old NPR in terms of story-telling values will probably exist on-line. But as the slow radio tribal piece makes so very clear, not everyone has the latest laptop or high speed cable.

    Thanks Jesse and Maura for taking the time to be there and listen. And good wishes to all rez radio makers on being golden in the best sense.

  • Ruth Mortensen


    2009 Lakota Dakota Nakota Language Summit

    I just listened to the piece this morning on NPR – it was great!

    In June I was in South Dakota and learned about the second annual Lakota Dakota Nakota Language Summit being held in Rapid City in November: It might be something else you’d like to cover. KILI radio on the Pine Ridge Reservation does a great job, too. Next to it is one of the first wind turbines being built on Pine Ridge: Thanks for the work that you do!

  • Jay Allison


    Weekend Edition Sunday

    Right… forgot to mention the short version of the Tribal Radio piece aired this morning on Weekend Edition. Here’s the link:

    The producers would still be interested in hearing what people thought of the two versions of this piece, long and short.

  • Michelle duplantis



    My Name is Michelle Duplantis I am a Native American from a tribe in Canada, called the
    Kanien’kehá:ka or commonly known as the Mohawk. The reason i am contacting you is to notify you of a situation which you may or may not be aware of occurring in Canada there is a Chief by the name of Theresa Spence of the attawapiskat of which i am not a member of but i am still supporting her efforts, that is staging a hunger strike and is day 16 trying to attain a meeting with the Prime Minister of Canada, to which he has ignored the requests and has yet to acknoledge, to have her say about a bill their government is trying to pass called C-45 which will in essence take away their lands and rights, which will not only affect the native peoples of Canada and their rights given them in a treaty with that government but will affect all peoples not only Native Americans but all Canadian citizens and in the end all of us here in the United States and the world. This bill entails the use of this land for strip mining and and among other things like toxic waste this bill will allow relaxed enviromental laws which will affect the water, air, soil and the eco-system. Which in the end will affect all of us as humans period. I appeal to you all to go to the web inform yourselves and show Chief Spence our support in anyway possible, be it flash mobs, letters to the president, words of encouragement, drum circles, anything you can do will help. Let’s show her we stand behind her united. Idlenomore@fackebook is a website set up with info about the situation. We as humans need to stand up and have a say about this intended human rights violation. Because in the end we will ALL suffer. In closing I would like to thank you in advance for anything you can do to help. Niawen’ko:wa (Thank you very much)


    Michelle Duplantis

    Fell free to forward this email to anyone you feel might be able to offer any support.

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