Native Radio

By Peggy Berryhill & Nan Rubin, with Fatima Mahdi
August 2013

This article provides a snapshot of the field of Native radio as it exists in August 2013. The field is constantly changing and resources are continually evolving.

We love native radio because:

  • The announcers sound like “us”
  • We hear the latest Native music
  • We hear local news
  • We hear local interviews, especially with elders
  • We hear our languages
  • We hear local emergency information that saves lives
  • We get to share our world views and perspectives.

—Peggy Berryhill (Muscogee Creek), 38-year veteran radio producer

Native radio is a powerful network of individuals and organizations that support and reinforce one another. Radio stations are often owned and operated by Native American and indigenous groups, many on reservations or in traditional communities, and some also in urban areas. Many of these are networked nationally in their own countries. Other radio stations are operated independently by community members, sometimes networked through NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Radio programs and series are developed by Native producers focused on Native issues and culture. Some are delivered to stations by national broadcast or satellite organizations and others, produced independently, are available online or through independent satellite distribution. These stations and programs are supported by organizations dedicated to the support of Native broadcasting, to the training of Native producers, and to communications within and between indigenous communities. Together these entities create a synergy that can change lives across the Western Hemisphere.

Native radio is significant to both Native and non-Native audiences for a number of reasons. It gives indigenous communities a powerful voice that reinforces a sense of community through the use of their own language. It can provide news from the Native point of view and health programs that address local needs. It can broadcast music and cultural programs that support traditional and non-traditional Native artists.

New technologies are changing Native radio in radical ways. The growth of broadband internet for online streaming, satellite radio and distribution of programs to stations by satellite, and the rapid spread of low-cost digital technology through tablets, cell phones, and other devices have broadened access. Alternatives such as SoundCloud and TuneIn are becoming a cost-effective way to transmit community-based programming. New internet stations and audio resources are constantly appearing.

But many indigenous communities have limited access to communications technologies. For either financial or political reasons, many have trouble acquiring broadcast equipment. A vast digital divide exists in Indian Country, reflecting often extreme difficulty in obtaining online access. Even in the United States, where 77% of the population was online in 2010, many Native people still have to rely on dial-up services and less than ideal cable speeds. This lack of communications infrastructure underlines the importance of radio to these communities.

This article presents First Nations radio in Canada, indigenous radio in Latin America, and Native American and Latino radio in the United States. It looks at tribal and indigenous community and urban stations, radio programs, and the organizations that support and serve the Native radio-producing community.

Native Radio in the United States

The first Native-owned radio station in the U.S., KYUK in Bethel, Alaska, went on-air in 1971. Since then, dozens of stations have been constructed or purchased to serve Native American and Alaska Native listeners. In 2013 there are seventy Native stations in twenty states, though the tribes that owned and operated those stations represent only 10% of federally recognized tribes. Most, like KSUT on the Southern Ute Reservation in Colorado and KILI on the Lakota reservation at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, are located west of the Mississippi on reservations and in Alaskan Native communities. There are also stations on reservations in the East, like the Seneca Nation of Indians’ WGWE in New York.

Many Native stations are non-commercial public radio stations, supported through a range of government grants, donations, events, underwriting, and often tribal education and business development funds. A few are tribally-owned commercial stations that sell ads, and are run like other commercial broadcasters. For example KTNN, a full-power ad-supported station based in Window Rock, Arizona, is owned by Navajo Nation Enterprises. KTNN’s strong signal can reach the entire western region of the U.S. at night, broadcasting country music, as well as news and ads in Navajo and English.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a not-for-profit organization created by the U.S. Congress to fund public radio and television, was already in existence when the first Native radio stations were launched, and supported early station operations, program production, and program distribution. One of the organizations to benefit from the CPB’s support has been Koahnic Broadcasting, the country’s foremost producer of Native programming, including the two most widely heard Native programs—Native America Calling and National Native News. CPB has also supported independent producers, such as Northern California Cultural Communications on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation. CPB has made an ongoing commitment to support national distribution of programs to Native stations through Native Voice One, Koahnic Broadcasting’s distribution arm. The organization has also funded several initiatives to strengthen Native station operations through centralized technical assistance and collaborative services. One of the most recent has been Native Public Media, formerly the Center for Native Public Radio, which was founded in 2004 to provide technical support and to help Native stations find funding. However, these efforts have met with mixed success, and as of early 2013 it is uncertain if CPB will continue to allocate funding for direct services to Native stations.

Through two other Federal initiatives, the U.S. has supported Native radio’s expansion in order to better serve remote communities. In the late 1970s, the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program was initiated by the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA), a part of the Department of Commerce. This program was designed to expand the coverage of public broadcasting, both radio and television, for underserved portions of the U.S. and to facilitate broadcast station ownership by women and minorities. Grants from NTIA have funded the construction of new public radio stations on reservations in Arizona, California, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, and South Dakota. In 2011, Congress cut all funding for this program.

Under a different and complementary program that originated in the early 1980s, the U.S. made funding available through the Commerce Department for new public radio stations in underserved areas to buy equipment, with a preference given to Native groups. That funding, combined with the existence of available spectrum space on the dial in sparsely populated regions, spurred thirty years of steady expansion for Native stations. But that growth was stalled in 2011 when the program was canceled, leaving some projects with valid FCC permits struggling to get on the air.

In another initiative in 2013, the Federal Communications Commission called for applications for new, low-power, non-commercial radio stations. This is likely the final opportunity for new stations to be built on the FM dial. Even though equipment funding is no longer available, Native projects are among the applicants for some of these frequencies, which will result in a final wave of new stations that will go on the air in 2014–16.

Latino Public Radio Stations in the United States

Apart from the recent growth of commercial Spanish-language radio stations that have followed the population demographics across the country, there are educational public radio stations serving Spanish-speaking listeners in the West and Southwest.

During the struggles of Chicano farmworkers, many of whom were indigenous immigrants, and other immigrant groups in the 1960s, local ownership and control of radio stations came to be recognized as a critical and important organizing tool, leading to the slow creation of stations. In 1973, KBBF went on the air in Santa Rosa, California, followed by KDNA in Yakima, Washington, in 1979.

The most active public radio organization in this area is Satélite Radio Bilingüe (SRB), founded in Fresno, California, by Hugo Morales, whose own background is Mixtec. SRB is a producer and distributor of bilingual programming supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Its programs include the popular call-in show Linea Abierta, the news show Noticero Latino, and programs specifically playing music and cultural programs of the indigenous Mexican communities from which U.S. immigrants have come. It also serves broad audiences by carrying Native America Calling and other Native American programs produced by Koahnic. Through its thirteen FM stations in California and the Southwest and through its satellite service, SRB distributes these and other programs to more than sixty-five stations in the continental United States, Puerto Rico, and Mexico.

First Nations Radio in Canada

The evolution of First Nations radio in Canada has been quite different from that in the U.S. With a large percentage of the Native population residing in small villages spread across the vast northern regions of the country, the Canadian focus has been on utilizing communications technologies to reach these communities.

As early as 1976, the Canadian government began to provide large grants to support experimental satellite broadcasting and interactive communications in the North. In 1978 Inuit Tapirisat of Canada and Taqramiut Nipingat Inc. (TNI), made use of a grant for a pilot project to provide television services to eastern Arctic and northern Quebec Inuit communities. This project was so successful that in 1981 the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canada’s broadcast regulatory agency, licensed Canadian Satellite Communications Inc. (CANCOM) to deliver a basic package of television and radio services to remote and underserved communities throughout Canada. It was required by law to provide one video and two audio uplinks in the North for northern programming and to substitute up to ten hours per week of southern-originated programming with Native production. Later that same year, the CRTC licensed two First Nations groups, the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation and the Council of Yukon Indians and Dene Nation, to deliver television and radio programming in several Aboriginal languages to communities in the Yukon and western Northwest Territories.

By 1983, thirteen Aboriginal Communications Societies (Inuit, First Nations, and Métis) were in place, but it still took five years before a dedicated northern satellite transponder went into operation exclusively for First Nations radio and television. It now spans five time zones and extends to the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Arctic Quebec, and Labrador—one-third of Canada’s land mass.

In Nunavik, the Arctic region of Quebec, whose population is 90% Inuit and Cree, nearly twenty satellite-fed community radio stations have been established by TNI “to strengthen the Inuktitut language and to promote traditional and contemporary culture.”

The Société de Communication Atikamekw-Montagnais (SOCAM) serves Innu communities in Quebec and Labrador with a network of fifteen broadcast and six online radio stations, plus operates a robust service that promotes First Nations musicians, artists and other types of cultural expression and preservation.

Other networks include Native Communications Inc. (NCI) which operates across a dozen frequencies in northern Manitoba and reaches more than sixty rural communities. The station CFWE, supported by the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA), reaches seventy-five communities including all First Nations and Métis settlements.

Both NCI and AMMSA are part of the Western Association of Aboriginal Broadcasters (WAAB) with members in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Yukon. In addition to rural service, WAAB members are also broadcasting in urban areas such as Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, Yorkton, Fort McMurray, and Edmonton.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has its CBC North radio network, which airs the Radio One schedule, modified for the region, to stations in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Nunavik. In addition to broadcasting in English or French, the programming is presented in local languages, including Dene Suline, Tlicho, North and South Slavey, Gwich'in, Inuvialuktun, Cree, and Inuktitut. In local communities within the region, programming may be broadcast further through community-owned FM transmitters, especially valuable to indigenous language speakers who are far from their original communities.

For a number of years CBC produced and broadcast nationwide the Aboriginal Legends Project recording First Nations legends and songs narrated in English and in different First Nations languages by elders, region-by-region across Canada.

A string of stations has also been established in urban areas and on more populated reserves in lower Canada. For urban dwellers, Aboriginal Voices Radio has initiated a network of urban stations, in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, and Ontario. Reserve stations include CKRK at Kahnawake and CKON near Akwesasne, whose reach straddles the U.S./Canada border along the St. Lawrence River. Community station CIHW serves the Huron-Wendat reserve of Wendake adjacent to Quebec City. Hawk Radio is an online stream programmed by Samson Cree Nation near Edmonton, Alberta.

Most of these stations stream their signals and share a mission “to strengthen retention of Aboriginal languages, support arts and cultural initiatives, air discussions of currents affairs from the perspective of Aboriginal Canadians, and continue to bridge the cultural divides.”

Indigenous Radio in Latin America

Indigenous radio in Central and South America has followed several different paths due to the diversity of populations, political histories and cultural institutions in the region. One organization that operates across country borders is Asociación Latinoamericana de Educación Radiofónica (ALER). It was created in 1972 by the Catholic Church to connect eighteen of their own radio stations but, with the advent of popular uprisings and the radicalization of a certain sector of the Latin American church, the network soon became secular, and now offers news services as well as journalistic and technical training for a broad network of participating radio stations. Since 1997, ALER has broadcast via satellite and the Internet, reaching communities in Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Within ALER there are a number of subsidiary networks, including national ones for stations in Peru and El Salvador.

Another international Latin American radio project is Bostezoradio, a unique broadcast collaboration taking place in 2011–13 between community stations on both sides of the border between Colombia and Ecuador. The project will produce twenty-four radio programs using material from stations in both countries, as well as an audiobook and a website.

The national network of indigenous radio stations in Mexico is Sistema de Radiodifusoras Culturales Indigenistas (SRCI). SRCI is a part of the Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas (CDI), the national institute for indigenous peoples, and is supported by the national government. Begun in 1979 with one station, XEZV—the Voice of the Mountain—in Tlapa de Comonfort, Guerrero, SRCI now operates a network of twenty-four FM and AM radio stations in sixteen states, serving all the main regions with indigenous communities, including Oaxaca, Veracruz, Michoacán, Chiapas, and Yucatán. Stations produce programs both in their studios and as remote broadcasts, and transmit in the thirty-one indigenous languages of their listeners, including Maya, Náhuatl, P’urehpecha, Pames, Tenek, Mayo, Yaqui, Guarijio, Mazateco, Cuicateco, Chinantecas, Zapotecas, Mixe, Mixteco, and Triqui. Three quarters of the radio station staff is indigenous, a direct result of the media training that SCRI broadcasters have performed in local communities. Many of the stations stream their broadcast schedule online via the SCRI website. An example is XECTZ out of Cuetzalan in Puebla, which streams its daily thirteen hours of music and news in Spanish, Náhuatl, and Totonac.

Since its founding in 1972, the U.S.-based organization Cultural Survival has partnered with Guatemalan groups to create the Guatemala Radio Project, a thriving network of more than 200 indigenous-controlled community radio stations across Guatemala. The stations offer news, educational programming, human rights and health information, and traditional music. Many broadcast in one or more of the country’s twenty-three indigenous languages as well as Spanish, like Radio Ixchel, which transmits also in Kachikel.

Ironically, although the right to their own media was promised to indigenous people in the 1996 Peace Accords that ended the Guatemalan civil war, the current Guatemalan telecommunications law does not allow licenses for nonprofit community radio—only licenses for commercial and government-run radio stations. Consequently, close to 2,000 community stations across the country are operating illegally and are in constant risk of being raided and shut down, despite overwhelming local support. A new telecommunications law that would legalize community radio and allow indigenous peoples control over their own media has been under consideration since 2010.

Selected Bibliography

Alia, Valerie. “Outlaws and Citizens: Indigenous People and the New Media Nation.” International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics 5, no. 1–2 (2009): 39–54.

———. The New Media Nation: Indigenous Peoples and Global Communication 2. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2010.

Etling, Laurence. “Electronic Drums: Aboriginal and Native Radio in Canada and the USA.” Southern Journal of Canadian Studies 1, no. 1 (November 2005): 119–33.

Fleras, Augie. “Ethnic and Aboriginal Media in Canada: Crossing Borders, Constructing Buffers, Creating Bonds, Building Bridges.” In Media, Migration, Integration: European and North American Perspectives, edited by Rainer Geissler and Horst Pöttker, 143–79. New Brunswick NY and London: Transaction, 2009.

Gerdes, Marta Lucía de. “Media, Politics, and Artful Speech: Kuna Radio Programs.” Anthropological Linguistics 40, no. 4 (Winter, 1998): 596–616.

Hudson, Heather E. “Internet and Broadband Adoption in Indigenous Communities: An Analysis of Rural Alaska.” In 19th ITS Biennial Conference, Bangkok 2012: Moving Forward with Future Technologies—Opening a Platform for All.

Kallen, Martin. "Listen: Native Radio Can Save Languages." Native Americas 13, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 22–29. This overview of the issue of Native language preservation includes interviews with outstanding Native radio producers in Canada and the United States and provides detailed information on the use of Native languages and the possible impact of radio.

Keith, Michael C. Signals in the Air: Native Broadcasting in America. With forewords by Suzan Shown Harjo and Frank Blythe, and an afterword by Peggy Berryhill. Media and Society Series. Westport CT and London: Praeger, 1995. This first book-length study of Native communications history emphasizes the influence and impact of Native broadcast control on tribal communities.

Matsaganis, Matthew D., Vikki S. Katz, and Sandra J. Ball-Rokeach. Understanding Ethnic Media: Producers, Consumers, and Societies. Thousand Oaks CA: SAGE, 2010.

Robbins, Catherine C. "Indian Country Radio Sends a Stronger Signal." New York Times, February 4, 2001. Starting with a description of the opening at Hopi of KUYI-FM, the most recent tribal community station, this article provides an overview of the organizations active in Native radio today.

Skaar, Kristin Marie. “A Community Voice: An Explorative Study of Maya Community Radio Practice in Guatemala.” Master’s thesis, University of Oslo, 2011.

Squires, Catherine. “Race/Ethnicity in Media History.” In The International Encyclopedia of Media Studies, edited by Angharad N. Valdivia. Vol 1, Media History and the Foundations of Media Studies, edited by John Nerone. Wiley Online Library, 2012.

Veil, Shari R., and Jilane E. Rodgers. “Reaching at-risk populations: The inconsistency of communication channels among American Indian tribes and nations in Oklahoma.” Public Relations Review 36, no. 3 (September 2010): 302–5.