Rez Radio

Loris Taylor talks about Native Americans' fight for freedom on the media frontier.

| Thu Oct. 25, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

While officials in cities like San Francisco and Chicago scramble to provide free high-speed Internet access to hundreds of thousands of urban dwellers, Loris Taylor is fighting a different kind of battle—for rural media access. She's trying to bring more public radio to Native Americans, especially kids living on reservations. "Radio has become a significant social justice movement for young people in Native Country," she says. "It's the last frontier for freedom for Indians."

Taylor is the executive director of Native Public Media, a nonprofit that represents the interests of 33 Native-owned public radio stations located on reservations or tribal homelands in 12 states. Its stations range in power from 100 to 100,000 watts and broadcast standard fare such as community news, music, and birthday announcements, and often feature conversations in tribal languages.

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On reservations, where Internet access is spotty or nonexistent, and there are very few Indian-owned media outlets, the idea of a locally-owned radio station is especially powerful. Without more of these outlets, Native Americans are at risk of being left out of the changing media landscape, says Taylor. "There is a spectrum rush going on in this country right now," she explains, "and if we are not visible, we will be continually underserved and underrepresented."

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) just closed a two-week application period for non-commercial stations, the first such opportunity in more than seven years. Taylor and her colleagues recently submitted more than 20 applications for new FM radio station licenses.

Taylor organized the Hopi Radio Project on the Hopi Indian Reservation in northeastern Arizona, the first of its kind in Indian Country. The program recruits high school students who produce broadcasts for KUYI 88.1 FM directly from their classrooms between 4 and 6 in the evening, when many of their parents listen from home. Taylor, whose parents are Hopi and Acoma, has expanded the project into the Native Broadcast Camp, a weeklong radio workshop for teens that will begin at Arizona University next summer.

Taylor spoke with Mother Jones while attending a recent fundraising conference in the Bay Area.

Mother Jones: So why radio? Why not work instead for better Internet access for Native American youth living on reservations or tribal homelands?

Loris Taylor: Radio is a stable, lasting medium that can reach a great number of people, and it can cross economic barriers. The Internet, at our Hopi reservation, for example, is completely unreliable. We have reservations with no telephone system in place, so there is a real issue of access here. You hear people talk about the "digital divide"; well, that divide is more like a chasm. Radio is still new for Native nations.

MJ: But don't you face technical issues with radio as well?

LT: Yes. We don't have broadcast engineers in Native country, and they often have to travel a long way to come and make repairs. If your radio signal goes down in San Francisco, someone could be there in 10 minutes to work on it. In Native country, someone might have to drive 300 miles out to the reservation to help us.

MJ: How exactly can radio be utilized to meet your goals?

LT: What we are talking about here is access, ownership, and control. Ownership is a big deal for us. We have to build our own capacity. Also, you have to understand that we want to have stories told in native languages. We want identity and validation, and people want to speak in their own voices. But we have a long way to go. There are 562 native nations recognized by the federal government, but of those, only 30 have radio. We want a larger share of the spectrum, which represents the available radio waves or frequencies. Unlike wi-fi, there are only so many wavelengths [for radio]. As far as Native Americans are concerned, we need to have some so we are not left behind. It is so important for us to be connected financially, economically, and culturally. There is a spectrum rush going on in this country right now, and if we are not visible, we will be continually underserved and underrepresented.

MJ: What do you mean, a "spectrum rush?"

LT: The FCC [opened] up a window for new public radio licenses in October, but it's a small window, and it is a competitive process with thousands of applicants. It's been seven years since the last window. Unless the FCC takes measures to preserve some of the spectrum for underserved communities, it just won't happen. About 21 applications are Native American. The main problem is that bigger stations can apply for more power and help shut down smaller, lower-power stations. [Native Public Media] asked the FCC to limit the number of applications from one party to make the process more fair, but we did not hear back from them.

MJ: You helped start a youth radio program at the Hopi Reservation. What are the radio classes like at Hopi Junior Senior High School?

LT: We do a radio class at the school, which produces a weekly show with interviews with students and school personnel, and music. We teach them how to work the equipment as well as produce. But without infrastructure, it's hard. We were down for three days once because our technician was 100 miles away.

MJ: What kind of music do the students like to play on their shows?

LT: They love bluegrass, Ralph Stanley, reggae, Cajun, and zydeco, and they love blues and jazz and hip hop. The power of radio is so strong. I don't know if that interest was there before, but we've opened up a way for them to hear so much more music. And musicians have played in the studio, as well. It's a luxury that commercial stations can't afford; public radio has that door open to new ideas and different music and different stories can be told. Kids are producing shows in the Hopi language sometimes.

MJ: What are some of the topics students talk about on air?

LT: Drugs, like [crystal] meth, and substance abuse. They talk about politics, George Bush, Iraq, and local tribal government, obesity, diet, sports, and privacy. I think we often misjudge our youth about not caring about these issues, but they are really quite in tune with what's going on. And they go live, at a time when their parents can listen. They can't always go home and talk to their parents about something like meth. [Radio] is a safe environment. And people really listen. I've walked down the halls of tribal government offices and you'll hear it being played all day long. We produced a program on racism in border towns that NPR carried on Morning Edition. It used to be news coming onto the reservation, but we want it to be news going out. But there's a difference between dinnertime gossip and hard news, and we do both. We'll talk about food sales and village meetings. We have a daily birthday hour that is one of our most listened-to programs, from 6 to 7 p.m.

MJ: How have you seen radio production change or transform the kids?

LT: Our Hopi youth are very much connected to their villages, which is unique; it's not always like that. There are certain Hopi stories that should only be told in December or during the winter months, and they are respectful of those protocols on the radio. They check first with their elders about what's appropriate or not. The fact that they are respectful of those rules and translate it to new technologies is very special.

MJ: How did you connect with radio growing up?

LT: The first time I head a radio I was 12, listening to oldies from KOMA, an Oklahoma station. Its signal was able to reach the Hopi reservation in Arizona but you could only hear it late at night. People were already taking radio for granted and watching Hopalong Cassidy or Dark Shadows on TV. But I was listening to radio, and wasn't even familiar with those shows. I could have been stigmatized by that, but it just challenged me to catch up.

MJ: Are you still catching up?

LT: While the nation has discourse about how the media is important to democracy and having the freedom to be who you are, we are just beginning to have that conversation. We need to feel that our stories are important enough to air. Ken Burns, in his World War II documentary, didn't include all the Natives and Latinos who played a huge role in the war. We can put out press releases, or we can own our facilities. That is real power. Hattie Kaufman [Emmy Award-winning National News correspondent for CBS' The Early Show in Los Angeles and the first Native American journalist to report on a national broadcast in 1989] is an anomaly. We have a long way to go. It makes a big difference to be validated, to be connected to something. Owning 33 stations is not enough. Indian country is still largely underserved and under-appreciated. Ownership is still in the hands of a few.

MJ: Do you ever get impatient? Don't you want progress to be happening quicker?

LT: We are not radical, and we are not about any sort of violent revolution. We are about policy-changing. That's how we work; with the law, and we'll continue to work hard. We've jumped into this spectrum rush, and we'll keep pushing. I just started this in 2004, and I'm exhausted already [laughs].

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