PEACH SPRINGS, Ariz. — When a massive snowstorm hit the Navajo Nation, leaving hundreds of people stranded in deep snow and mud, there was no question about how to get emergency information to them immediately. In fact, there was only one way: Broadcast radio.
Elderly residents across the vast reservation tuned in to the tribe's AM station to find out what color to display outside their homes if they needed water, food, hay, coal or medical attention. Messages went out in Navajo and English on what do to with ready-to-eat meals that were being dropped from the air. Younger Navajos were encouraged to check on their parents and grandparents living in remote areas.
"All the elderly, they're very much aware," Lori Lee Sekayumptewa, who coordinated messages from the tribal government to KTNN-AM. "They get their little radios and batteries and make sure they have that equipment all the time. You go to a hogan, you go to a sheep camp, there's a little radio there and KTNN."
Under the vast skies in the great isolated reaches of Indian Country — from the high plains to the deserts to rugged mountain ranges — radio still rules.
Battery, electric and solar-powered radios sit atop tractors and in the hands of shepherds, blare from atop kitchen tables and have becomes travel companions for tribal members setting out on long, rugged drives. Across Indian Country, only one in three families own a landline telephone and broadband penetration is estimated at only 10 percent, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
"With infrastructure the way it is now, radio will always be the backbone, the failsafe," said Richard Davis, station manager at KUYI-FM on the Hopi reservation. "It's a very stable platform and it will always remain so. I envision a time when terrestrial radio probably no longer will be needed on the reservations countrywide, but that's a few decades out."
Tribal members on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota tune in to KILI-FM to hear an eclectic mix of music — from traditional Lakota to country, rock hip hop, blues and jazz. The staff covers Tribal Council meetings, more than 100 high school basketball games each winter and community announcements and school delays. Tom Casey, a self-described jack of all trades for the station, said it still is as relevant today as it was in 1983 when it first broadcast.
"We needed to connect the community, and we needed a voice to celebrate Lakota history, traditions and culture," he said.
The Navajo Nation's KTNN-AM pulls people gathered in a sports arena during tribal elections to interview and gives listeners a breakdown of how each community voted. Livestock and mineral reports are part of the regular programming, along with rodeo news, funeral announcements and a featured "Navajo Word of the Day," a teaching tool for the unique language.
Every weekend, dozens of people call into the Hopi radio station in northern Arizona with birthday dedications, congratulatory messages and other shout-outs, Davis said.
"It's like a blood pressure monitor; it reflects the heartbeat of where we live," he said. "People celebrating the gift of being alive and breathing a new breath every day."
All three stations have expanded their reach through Internet streaming, but one northwestern Arizona tribe has discovered that the Internet isn't the best fit when only half the community has access and even that is limited.
The Hualapai Tribe is taking a somewhat reverse approach, using federal grant money and tribal funds to sustain its Internet radio show while working toward a low-power FM license with the FCC that would allow it to broadcast within a 30-mile radius.
Out of the 14,600 total stations licensed by the commission as of the end of 2010, only 48 are held by tribes.
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