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.
In an effort to help tribes preserve language and culture, and to promote self-governance, the FCC established a priority last year for radio applications filed by federally recognized tribes or an entity that is majority-owned by a tribe and proposes to cover at least 50 percent tribal land. A proposed expansion would cover tribes that don't have reservations.
Fred Hannel, a consultant for the Hualapai Tribe, said a realistic expectation to start on the path to licensure under the new provision would be 2013, since the FCC must still establish filing windows for construction permits and licenses.
The most popular programming for Hualapai based on listener response so far is oral history. Elders have recounted the painful experience of their ancestors being assaulted by the U.S. Calvary during a grueling, 160-mile trek through the mountains of western Arizona in 1874 that led to death and disease among Hualapais. Radio listeners were reminded of the determination that helped the survivors reclaim their land.
"The most potential has to do with culture and tradition," said Terri Hutchens, a Hualapai tribal health worker. "When there's an oral tradition, it would only make sense that it be done over the radio."
Hualapai listeners get a dose of traditional music, sports and tribal government coverage, health tips and cultural programming through "The Peach," named for the tribal capital of Peach Springs. Students have been brainstorming ideas for a radio drama that is the cornerstone of a National Institutes of Health grant. The characters deal with storylines that represent an issue in the community — how to break an addiction, combat health problems or even bail someone out of jail.
Nicolette Teufel-Shone, who partnered with tribal health director Sandra Irwin to write the grant, says more than 75 percent of Hualapai youth will be diagnosed with diabetes or cardiovascular disease before the age of 40 if current trends continue. She said less than 10 percent of the families eat a traditional diet or engage in physically demanding activity.
There's a lot of passive acceptance of unhealthy choices, she said, which "The Peach" seeks to counter.
The station will have a broader reach when it goes to broadcast. Even though the date for that is uncertain, officials say the need is clear considering the reservation has no emergency notification system, a tribal newsletter publishes only monthly and regular television news rarely mentions the tribe.
"This really paints a picture of why terrestrial radio stations are so significant and so essential for tribal communities across the country," said Loris Taylor, president and chief executive of Native Public Media, Inc. "These stations were borne out of a need in the community to be engaged, to have an information ecology that will either help them to preserve or sustain their language or their culture or to provide a window into tribal history or simply to allow them to play songs and hear their own news and weather."