It’s hard to get more remote than the White Earth tribal reservation up near the Minnesota, Canadian border and the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. With these kinds of geographic isolations you’d assume other kinds of isolation creep in too, like from access to information that people need to be civically engaged. And yet these areas have thriving civic information providers, namely through a couple of tribally owned and run community radio stations. As part of a 2011 information ecosystem assessment of tribal areas, we spent some time learning and most importantly listening to how White Earth and Pine Ridge residents are developing culturally relevant information channels to keep residents up on all the news they need to know. Here’s what we learned back in 2011:
Information Ecosystem Assessment of White Earth and Pine Ridge Tribal Communities
This assessment is mainly anecdotal analysis of two tribal radio stations, one with many years experience on the air, and one that just began broadcasting. The idea is to explore sustainability and viability issues of community radio in tribal areas, to identify some of the commonalities between tribal stations, and to share some best practices for creating a healthy operation for years to come.
These community radio stations provide essential local news and information, often in local tribal languages, creating a living, breathing archive, and modern manifestation of their traditions, culture, and knowledge. In the mostly rural areas where federally recognized tribal communities exist, radio is often the ONLY source of information. In fact some refer to native community radio stations as the 911 of Indian country, the connecting point for essential information getting to populations that might not be connected in any other way than a battery powered radio. Poverty and geographic isolation mean many Native peoples lack access to the Internet, television, newspapers, and even telephone service. Like in many developing countries around the world, radio is the essential voice to and from indigenous communities.
While tribal media succeeds in offering a basic voice to its audience, it does so with a sparsely funded mandate, few resources, and little professional training. Tribal radio stations often rely on volunteers to fulfill programming duties, make do with second hand equipment, and must logistically improvise to keep a steady stream of information going out over the airwaves.
Based on field research conducted in December of 2011 on the Pine Ridge (South Dakota) and White Earth (Minnesota) reservations, the following opportunities exist for media development experts and stakeholders to help strengthen and sustain tribal radio.
- Sustainability Plan: A detailed manual for how the station will be run, including technical, financial, programming, and management.
- Basic Journalism Development: Setting up small news departments capable of doing formal newscasts, field recordings, and both short and long form radio reporting.
- Fundraising Development: Brainstorming new ways for tribal radio stations to create revenue sources that allow them to maintain their independence, while staying on the air.
- Staff Recruitment and Training: Best practices for developing on air talent that can be professional and volunteer.
- Talent Development: Identifying and developing talented young professionals who can take tribal radio into the future.
You might not see the difference when you drive onto a Native American reservation, but if you happen to have the radio on and are visiting a tribe with a community station, you will certainly hear the difference. Whether it’s the sound of a powwow song, a drum circle, a native language program, a high school basketball game, a tribal government meeting, and the list goes on, tribal radio is a unique, and powerful tool that is creating opportunities for more Native American groups in the United States.
Having access to a radio signal is a powerful resource for an Indian tribe. Whether it’s a few square miles of low power FM, or thousands of miles via a full transmitter, it’s a means to perpetuate and preserve tribal language, culture, traditions, music, identity, and more. It is also an essential information link to those same communities, which comprise some of the most isolated, and impoverished people in America, giving them important civic news about health, housing, legal rights, jobs, and more. Finally, tribal radio helps to educate non-Native communities, that these first nations still exist, that they are autonomous, self-governing entities, and that they are proud of their history and heritage.
But while the potential and power of tribal radio is undeniable, these community media outlets struggle to be sustainable, and to fulfill their important mandates to listening communities. Most tribal radio stations exist in rural areas, limiting potential for funding, community support, an experienced and trained talent pool for station personnel, and basic equipment and engineering resources.
There are an estimated 565 federally recognized tribes in the United States, and around 5.9 million American Indian and Alaska Native residents. Around 22 percent of native individuals in the United States live in tribal territories. And the median age of the Native population in the United States is 29, compared to 37 for the population as a whole.
According to census data native peoples on reservations suffer more than double the national rates of unemployment, serious health problems, and poverty than average Americans.
One of the more effective approaches to educating and informing tribal members about these difficult issues has been through radio. Over the last three decades 48 tribes have been able to build, develop, and run community radio stations. Still, of the 14,000 radio stations in the United States, only around one third of one percent are Native run.
In the last decade a push for more FCC licenses for Native groups has seen the rise of a new generation of tribal radio stations. The FCC established what has been called “Tribal priority,” in the licensing regulatory process. Technically speaking Tribes are getting “Section 307(b) priority,” that is meant to “provide a fair, efficient, and equitable distribution of radio service”. The FCC stated priority would be given because Tribes represent quasi-sovereign entities, and they are uniquely able to provide necessary information to their local communities.
This action by the FCC has opened the door for Native American tribes to have and develop a resource that can be a game changer. Tribal is a tool that can help them reassert their sovereignty history, and culture. And having access to the airwaves also helps tribes get important information out to populations who often live in abject poverty and geographic isolation.
This growth of tribal radio also presents an opportunity for media developers to work within the United States, but with populations that closely mirror those found in the developing countries where they spend most of their resources. The experiences of developing community media in places like Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, can lend insight and legitimacy to potential media development projects on Indian reservations.
Two tribal radio stations participated in this assessment. One is the oldest Native run community station in the United States, KILI radio in South Dakota, the other, Niijii radio in Minnesota, the newest.
KILI-Tribal radio station serving the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux reservation
KILI Radio, 90.1 FM, South Dakota
Details: KILI stands for “cool” or “hanging out” in the Lakota language
Established: February 25, 1983
Range: 100,000-watt station, repeater signal in Rapid City, South Dakota
In 1979 a group of local tribal members, and American Indian Movement (AIM) representatives gathered to discuss the community’s ongoing problems. One of their conclusions was that the people living on the enormous 100-mile reservation needed both a voice, but also a way to stay connected, through basic information.
The group began to raise funds to create a radio station, on ground just north of the Wounded Knee site. The Tribal chairman at the time said the funds would be better used to create a local business, “a gas station.” But the group persevered, and KILI radio was born with the goal of sharing culture, language, and tradition, and bringing local news and information to the tribal communities in the region. Logistically radio was chosen because of geography (its ability to reach the entire reservation), affordability (most tribal residents had a radio in their car, or at home), and because of the culturally relevant match between native storytelling and radio programs.
KILI radio first went on the air on February 25th, 1983. DJ Calvin Two Lance delivered the inaugural broadcast in both English and Lakota establishing one of the central concepts of the station–to preserve and amplify the traditional language. Over the past 29 years KILI has survived a variety of challenges and stayed on the air.
Shannon County, which sits entirely inside the Pine Ridge Reservation, is often regarded as the poorest and most under served in the entire United States. Around 44,000 tribal members, descendents of the Oglala Lakota nation, live on the Pine Ridge Reservation
According to the 2010 census, per capita income among tribal members is 7,800 dollars, and more than half of the tribe lives below the poverty line. Official unemployment for Pine Ridge is around 50%; unofficially that number gets as high as 80%, especially during winter months. Most of the jobs available to local residents are through the Tribal Government.
150 native owned businesses are members of the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce. The Pine Ridge reservation is 100 by 50 miles, and communities are spread out, from each other, and from basic resources. Many residents have to drive thirty miles or more for basics like food and dry goods. And they have to leave the reservation all together to access other resources, like banking.
Indian Health Services, the Federal Health Program for American Indians, has three sites on the Pine Ridge reservation. Locals can also access the Porcupine Clinic, which is independently funded and community managed.
Around 7% of reservation-based families have health coverage. The infant mortality rate is higher than some developing countries, and more than 100% higher than the national average. There is an 800% higher chance for diabetes on Pine Ridge. And the teen suicide rate on the reservation is an estimated 150% higher than the national average.
Shannon County is a dry county meaning no alcohol is allowed sold or purchased. Yet 90% of crime on the Pine Ridge reservation is alcohol related, and the rate of alcoholism in the area is 80%. That’s because two miles from Pine Ridge town, just across the Nebraska border, sits White Clay, a town that exists almost entirely on liquor stores, and alcohol sales.
Tribal Government and Departments
The Oglala Sioux Tribal Government is centered in Pine Ridge town, and has 18 Tribal Council representatives who are elected to two-year terms. The executive office includes a tribal president, vice president, treasurer, and secretary, also elected to two-year terms. The Tribe has its own constitution, which was ratified in 1936.
There are more than 57 programs and services offered by the Oglala Sioux Tribal office, including public safety, policing, health, veterans’ assistance, land use, and more.
Oglala Lakota Tribal College started in 1971, and has a current enrollment of around 1,400 students. Degrees include Agriculture, Nursing, Education, Business, and Lakota studies. There is currently no media studies or journalism program at the Tribal College.
According to the census Pine Ridge has a high school graduation rate of 78%, which is close to the state, and national average. Higher education is substantially lower, at 12%, but that number is gaining through the success of the local Tribal College. ‘
The main issue related to education, says tribal member and KILI DJ Arlo Iron Cloud is that even if locals are able to get advanced degrees, there’s no use for those degrees on the reservation.
“People that go out, and get the education required for whatever they want to pursue in life, they come back to the reservation, and they want to apply the education and know how to certain fields. But those fields don’t exist here on the reservation.”
In addition to KILI radio, there is one tribal focused newspaper available on the Pine Ridge reservation. The Lakota Country Times has a circulation of 4,275, and serves both the Oglala Sioux and the nearby Rosebud Sioux tribes. The paper is published in a mix of English and some Lakota language.
“In a time when you are bombarded by stimuli, from our mainstream American society, whether it be the Internet, or television, or videos, DVDs, on and on, this station can still be a connection to being a Lakota. There’s Lakota language on the air, Lakota music, traditional music, talking about issues involving Lakota people right here, it connects people.”
KILI Radio: Current profile
KILI radio, based in Porcupine, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux reservation, began broadcasting in 1983. It was the first Native American owned and operated radio station in the United States.
KILI Radio has a 100,000-watt signal that reaches as far as Rapid City, approximately 90 miles away. KILI also has a repeat transmitter in Rapid City that extends its reach even further. The station provides specialized programming for around 40,000 tribal members in the immediate area. Around 100 listeners can tune in at a time to KILI’s Internet broadcasts.
In the words of KILI business manager Tom Casey, “some weeks we don’t have two nickels to rub together.” But Casey is also quick to point out that in the spirit of community radio, “we’re a success story, we’re still here!” Not only is KILI still around after 29 years, it still provides an essential independent service to its community, offering programming that directly informs them about public safety, health, education, tribal politics, community events, and more.
Staff and Volunteers: It takes a village
KILI has a staff of four paid employees, including a business manager, a programming manager, a production manager, and a media developer. The title of station manager is shared between the programming and business manager.
The KILI board of directors has historically fluctuated between 4 and 7 members. The number most recently had been at 4, and recently 4 more were added, bringing the total to 8, making quorums impossible. The 4 new members of the board have been added in a somewhat controversial move, and the board has been a chronically dysfunctional entity over time.
KILI provides original programming 22 hours a day, and pre-programmed music for the other 2. A group that fluctuates between 10 and 20 DJs operates on a volunteer basis, and receives cash stipends that are meant to cover their transportation to and from the station. Programming Director Melanie Janis says most DJs wind up getting 20 dollars for four-hour shifts.
Tribal members interested in volunteering at KILI must go through training, and also adhere to a set of established rules, including being completely sober of any drugs or alcohol. Violations of this rule in particular result in termination.
Programming: True community radio
KILI radio broadcasts almost entirely locally produced programs, the majority of which are hosted by volunteers. The programming coordinator is Melanie Janis, who has been with KILI since 2003.
Janis helps recruit and train local DJs to fill morning and evening time slots, which last between 2 and 4 hours. Most DJs play a mixture of traditional powwow, drum, and other tribal music, mixed with more modern country music, classic rock, and some hip-hop as well.
Programming coordinator Melanie Janis, “I just like the community feel that this has. Where somebody come just come and start speaking Lakota and feel like this is “our” place.“
During the day the schedule is filled with programs focused on civic and social topics important to the tribe. Project coordinators, tribal officers, and local community organizers host programs that cover health, public safety and security, housing, alcoholism, parenting, transportation, personal finance, and education. KILI’s four person staff engineer and produce these programs, and enable community members with no radio experience to successfully put on weekly programs.
Additional community programming includes the live broadcast of tribal council meetings, usually on a monthly basis. These meetings can last anywhere from 10 hours, to two or three days.
KILI business manager/station manager Tom Casey, “I’m totally committed to it, because this is the government, this is the legislative body, there’s dialogue and discussion going on, and votes, that impact tribal members.” “It’s a 50 by 100 mile place. If people can’t get down to the meeting, we’re going to bring it to them.”
KILI RADIO: WEEKLY PROGRAMMING SCHEDULE
Native Culture and Language: Preserving the Lakota way
One of the original mandates of KILI radio was to preserve and spread the Lakota language. The station currently airs one hour-long Saturday morning program dedicated to the Lakota language. The KILI staff admits its goal is to include more programming in Lakota, but that limited resources make that difficult.
KILI recently broadcast a local girls basketball game in the Lakota language for the first time.
KILI has a digital transmitter that could enable the station to broadcast additional channels of content, but they don’t have the manpower, or the funds to produce enough programming to cover the additional airtime. If they did, says Tom Casey, they would create a radio channel that would focus entirely on traditional music, and Lakota language shows.
KILI Radio-Public Safety radio program
Station Funding: Doing a lot with a little
The station is funded by a mixture of Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) funds, other grants, underwriting, direct mailings, and wills and estate money.
The station currently operates with a budget between 200,000 and 300,000 dollars, but that an ideal budget would be closer to 500,000 dollars. Much of that money is tied to operational and technical costs of running the radio station.
Here is the breakdown for funding at KILI radio:
- Local institutions and non-profits: Most organizations pay between 5,000 and 10,000 dollars annually for their weekly hour time slot.
- Underwriting: A handful of local businesses pay a few hundred dollars a year for program sponsorship spots.
- Direct mail: KILIs main outside funding during the 80s and 90s was direct mail. That approach is too expensive now for the station, so they rely on some small donations via a paypal account linked to the station’s website.
- Wills and Estates: 2 years ago a woman in Chicago left KILI 90,000 dollars from her estate. A recently deceased man in Hawaii, who contributed to a lot of non profits, left KILI and the neighboring Porcupine health clinic 300,000 dollars to split.
- CPB and other grants: KILI gets some funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and have been recipients of McArthur and other grants in the past.
- Community Support: KILI listeners drive up the hill to the station in order to hand, five, ten, and twenty dollar bills to their favorite DJs.
Logistics and Equipment: By any means necessary
KILI survives on a mixture of equipment grants, local donations, and staff creativity.
Engineers at the station have to adjust the hodgepodge of microphones on the fly so they sound professional for the broadcasts. A local educational non-profit that produces a weekly show at KILI recently donated a new mixing board. The operating system for station programming is Itunes (most stations, even community ones, use some kind of program operational software), which run off of a couple of Macintosh desktop computers that were donated. The station has a long wish list of equipment it would like to acquire, everything from digital recorders to a CD player.
When KILI’s transmitter and antenna were damaged by lightning in 2006, the station was able to obtain federal and state funding to replace that equipment. They wound up with a new antenna, and both a new analog and digital transmitter.
For remote broadcasts the station utilizes an aging remote dial up transmitter. A local company that provides rural health care logistics is planning to donate a more modern remote transmitter and three head sets to KILI, to air basketball games and tribal council meetings.
KILI does not have an engineer on staff. They work through a veteran radio operator in Rapid City, they have not paid him in five years, yet he remains willing to trouble shoot over the phone, and visit when necessary.
KILI has no portable digital recorders to do in-person interviews, or reporting. Media manager Arlo Iron Cloud has digital editing software, and is able to produce content for the station, including PSAs, community announcements, and some longer programming.
Iron Cloud says equipment aside, the most coveted resource that KILI has is a supportive community, and good volunteers.
“It’s not about the equipment at all. It’s not about the building. Our building is horrible. Our building, our equipment is barely hanging in there. Do we have the passion and drive of the people, then that’s all we ever really needed.”
KILI is supposed to be operating partially via a wind turbine that was erected in 2008. The apparatus turned out to be faulty, and funding for a new device has not come through. The wind project was projected to save KILI around 12,000 dollars in annual electricity bills.
News: Ad-hoc and underfunded
KILI currently has no formal news department at the radio station. Local news items shared on the air are collected by staff and volunteer DJs online, through local newspapers, press releases from the tribal government and local non-profits, and frequently from individual community members.
KILI has no recording equipment that is designated for news use, and recording field interviews and reports. Tom Casey uses an outdated mobile phone link to air live broadcasts of tribal government meetings and other civic events.
Casey says that in the 1990s there was an initiative by the Oglala Lakota Tribal college to offer media courses, and develop native reporters to work at both KILI and the Lakota Country Times newspaper. That initiative was never funded and never realized. Casey says developing a local news department, and training tribal members as reporters, would be an important and welcome initiative at Pine Ridge.
New Media: Growing the KILI Nation
KILI media developer Arlo Iron Cloud says in 2008 the station barely had an online presence. He has updated the website, which now includes live streaming of KILI for up to 100 listeners.
Iron Cloud has also established a Facebook presence for KILI. The station’s Facebook page now has close to 13,000 followers. According to Iron Cloud, Facebook is the most popular media outlet for Pine Ridge youth, and is accessed via cell phone, and some computer use.
KILI’s Twitter account only has 250 members, and Twitter has not caught on in general on Pine Ridge.
Iron Cloud says new media access has helped popularize KILI with younger listeners. Some teens are listening in to KILI through their mobile phones.
He says he’s interested in exploring how to use cell phones and text messaging as a way to get important information and messages out to tribal youth, regardless of whether or not they listen to KILI. He envisions sharing Lakota language, culture, and music via cell phones at some point, depending on resources and financing.
“KILI radio they say is the Nation’s Iyapaha. Iyapaha in Lakota is the announcer.” “Obviously language and culture are something that we want to make sure are instilled in each one of those social media outlets.”
KILI radio is in all ways a model for community radio. It truly survives on the support of local tribal members and businesses.
KILI is a useful case study for other tribal radio stations in regards to:
- Programming-KILI has developed a broadcast schedule that covers all the main information needs of the listening community, including programs about government, health, safety, education, native culture and language, and housing.
- Community Involvement-KILI has positioned itself on the Pine Ridge reservation as a truly independent community resource. Many tribal radio stations run into trouble because of government or other affiliations. Everyone is welcome at KILI.
- Creative Fundraising-KILI has a diversified funding portfolio, and is able to draw the majority of its operational costs from local underwriters. Regardless of the fluctuations in amounts and frequency of federal and private grants, KILI manages to stay afloat through local funding and other support.
We have some of the offices donate us a box of paper. A lot of it is networking, and getting out there to just say, they’ll say well how are you on your paper, well we’re low, they’ll drop off a case of paper, they’ll drop off coffee, they’ll drop off a pack of toilet paper, you know, just things we may need.
-Melanie Janis, KILI programming manager
Recommendations for follow up with KILI radio
- Sustainability Plan: A detailed manual for how the station will be run, including technical, financial, programming, and management.
- Training and Mentoring: KILI would like to develop local talent to serve as community reporters. A series of simple reporting workshops would provide a select group of KILI volunteers with basic understandings of how to prepare and conduct field interviews and recordings.
- Media studies: The Oglala Lakota Tribal College has shown interest in the past in offering media courses. They should be approached with an existing basic journalism curriculum, and assisted in developing a journalism initiative.
- Equipment: KILI would benefit from basic radio newsgathering equipment, including two or three digital recorders.
- Equipment recycling/swap: KILI would benefit from the development of a kind of “Big Brother” relationship with commercial or better funded public radio stations that can donate used equipment.
- Youth driven news project/initiative: KILI has an extremely young population that needs to be engaged in a positive way. Media coordinator Arlo Iron Cloud has already begun to gather some data on how tribal youth are using new media. Iron Cloud needs assistance to develop a project that will take KILIs mission, and adapt it to cell phones and social media outlets, mainly Facebook.
- Additional fundraising-alternative economic model: KILI would benefit from some new ideas on fundraising, and outreach, especially using smart phone technology and the Internet.
KKWE (NIIJII) Radio, 89.9 FM, Callaway, Minnesota
Details: NIIJII stands for “friend” in the Ojibwe language
Established: November 11, 2011
Range: 60,000-watt station
Niijii radio began broadcasting on November 11, 2011. The station had been in the works for years, but didn’t become a reality until October 2010, when the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP) awarded the White Earth Land Recovery Project (parent organization to Niijii radio) a grant to build a radio station.
Niijii is one of four new tribal radio stations that have gone online in Minnesota in the past year. All of these stations are beneficiaries of the FCCs priority approach to tribal radio. Despite having broadcast for more than a month, Niijii continues to have next to no operational budget, and is relying on volunteer labor for the foreseeable future.
Niijii plans to focus its programming on the preservation and amplification of the Ojibwe language, and the local Anishinaabe culture, and traditions. The station also intends to place an emphasis on developing its own news service, to cover local social issues, tribal politics, community activities and more.
Niijii organizers say they want the station to play an integral role in the life of the tribe, creating discourse. Winona LaDuke is the Director of WELRP, and one of the founders of Niijii radio, “I’m a big proponent of talkin, and the radio gives you a chance to talk about these issues, and have discussions and inform your people. On whether it is their rights, their opportunities, their responsibilities, or what’s going on in the broader world.”
White Earth is the largest Indian reservation in Minnesota, covering more than 837,000 acres of land that was reserved under an 1867 treaty. There are more than 20,000 members of the White Earth Nation, but only around 20% of enrollees live on the reservation.
Mahnomen County sits entirely within the boundaries of the White Earth reservation. It is the poorest county in the state of Minnesota, and is split between the local tribal community, and a population made up of traditionally Scandinavian and German immigrants. Per capita income in Mahnomen County is 18,000 dollars, although that number is substantially lower for the native community.
29% of Mahnomen County residents are under the age of 18, the highest rate in the State of Minnesota.
There is no Chamber of Commerce for White Earth, so an official head count of local businesses is difficult to come by. According to census statistics there are 400 “firms” in Mahnomen County, 23% of which are Native owned and run.
There are five tribal towns, and five incorporated “cities” on White Earth. Most of these communities feature a gas station that sells some groceries, a liquor store, and a few other assorted small businesses.
There are five financial institutions within the reservation, including a private bank, a community development bank, a credit union, and a non-profit investment institution. This is a noteworthy fact, being that many reservations have no banking institutions.
In January of 2011 White Earth tribal officials declared a state of emergency based on the growing problem of prescription drug abuse in the community. The White Earth police department says 75% of all drug abuse on the reservation is prescription related.
One tribal employee at Child Welfare Services said the abuse of prescription drugs, and also heroin, is creating a lot of issues for local families, and children, “the child might not be being fed. Money that they are receiving might not be going to that child.”
The employee, who wished to remain anonymous, said the drug problem is intergenerational, from teens to grandparents. And she said it is exacerbated by the prevalence of teen parenthood, or, “babies raising babies.”
Extremely high suicide rates have accompanied the drug problem. Nationally speaking Native American teens are three times more likely to take their lives.
According to the Indian Health Services clinic on the White Earth reservation, tribal residents mostly deal with chronic illness related to diabetes (one third of all White Earth tribal members), hypertension, and heart disease. There are also abnormally high rates of cancer among tribal residents.
Tribal members have access to community nursing, emergency medical service, mental health assistance, chemical dependency assistance, and more.
Tribal Government and Departments
The White Earth Tribal government consists of five council members, including the president. The Tribal government facility is in White Earth town, and also houses offices for tribal Human Resources, Natural Resources, Justice (legal assistance), Child Welfare, and Veterans Affairs.
The White Earth Tribe offers a variety of educational opportunities, including a brand new tribal k-12 school. The Tribe also offers Head Start programs, early childhood, and a new Boys and Girls club facility.
Many tribal residents also utilize the local public school systems available in Mahnomen County. The Mahnomen public high school offered a media studies course in the past, where students learned about radio and television. Niijii Programming director, JoDann Rousu developed his interest in media through that program. He says those courses are no longer offered.
The White Earth Tribal and Community College offers five degrees, including Business, Education, Native Studies, Environmental Studies, and Humanities. There are no media or journalism related courses offered.
The Anishinaabeg Today is a Tribal Government owned and run 28-page monthly newspaper. 12,600 copies a month are distributed locally, and by mail. The paper covers Tribal Council news, community events and initiatives, birthdays, and obituaries. The paper is not an independent media outlet.
Nearby Detroit Lakes, which is off the White Earth reservation, has a bi-weekly newspaper that covers some Native news. Two smaller newspapers also include some news on the White Earth reservation, including the weekly Mahnomen Pioneer and bi-weekly Park Rapids Enterprise.
Winona LaDuke, founder of Niijii radio, “The difference between us and other folks is we know who we are. We know the issues we want to talk about. We know how beautiful our music is. How amazing our stories are. How rich and deep our history of seven thousand years right here is. And what we have historically offered and have to offer to the broader community, none of those were discussed prior to the advent of Niijii radio here.”
Niijii Radio: Current profile
Niijii radio (KKWE), based in Callaway, Minnesota, on the White Earth Aniishinaabe Ojibwe reservation began broadcasting November 11, 2011. It was part of a group of around twenty new tribal radio licenses that came out of an FCC initiative seeking to expand tribal access to media. The license for the station was given to a parent non-profit based in Callaway, the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP). The founder and Director of WELRP is Winona LaDuke, an author, journalist, activist, and former politician who ran as the vice presidential candidate with Ralph Nader in both the 2000 and 2004 elections.
Niijii Radio is a 60,000-watt radio station that reaches around 3,000 tribal members living on the White Earth Reservation, and thousands more via live streaming on the Internet. It can also be heard by the tens of thousands of non-natives who live within the 100-mile listening radius of the station.
The station is currently operating with no budget, and is borrowing from its parent non-profit in order to cover basic costs of running the station. Niijii also recently lost its station manager, and one of its two on air producers. Both employees were let go after staging a protest meant to try and separate the station from the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which owns the operating license for Niijii, and houses the studio in its building.
Niijii is currently in the process of a search for new board members, and are including non-tribal candidates for the open positions.
Staff and Volunteers: Treading water
The three current Niijii employees include a programming coordinator, an assistant producer, and a part time engineer. Those personnel are getting paid out of the WERLP budget at the moment. Niijii is planning to apply for one of its station operators to qualify as a Vista volunteer, and get funded through that program.
Community members are stopping by the station in hopes of volunteering, and creating new programs. Niijii’s two staff producers make an effort to train interested people in basic skills for operating the mixing board and microphones. One formal radio workshop was conducted at the inauguration of Niijii radio, but there has been no professional follow up.
Niijii is struggling to handle the volume of community interest, or do the appropriate outreach to strategic community members who run projects and programs that could fill important tribal information needs. Community members are aware that the station has had some trouble recently, gossip travels fast on the reservation, and are waiting to see if it stays on the air.
Programming: Too many hours in the day
Niijii is on the air 24 hours a day, and currently broadcasts with DJs from 8 am to 3pm on weekdays, and occasionally into the evenings. The rest of the airtime is filled with preprogrammed music and public service announcements. Station staff members are overwhelmed by the amount of programming space to fill, and their lack of trained DJs to fill it.
On weekdays from 8 to 10 am is the “Cup of Joe,” morning show, hosted by programming director JoDann Rousu. The program plays a mixture of traditional native music, and modern genres. Rousu is also beginning to offer ten minutes of local news programming every morning. News items are drawn from local newspapers, and a few native focused websites, and read, with no editing, or radio specific re-writes, on the air. Rousu also shares a “This Day in Native American History,” segment every morning, and a community calendar that covers local activities. The goal is to record that short news broadcast, and re-air it in the afternoons.
Niijii founder Winona LaDuke hosts a weekly hour long native affairs program, where she interviews community leaders, and other important voices on topics related to native well-being, the environment, sovereignty, and more.
“So you inform people, you give them some precautionary tools, whether its on sex trafficking, your write to not be unduly searched, your legal rights vis-à-vis the law, and then you work from there.”
A group of White Earth veterans have begun to visit Niijii on Thursday evenings to talk about a variety of issues. A handful of other community members have visited the station, and started basic training on how to run the mixing board, how to load music into the operating system, and how to speak on air.
Niijii is going to begin broadcasting some national native focused programming in the next month. The station will access the satellite radio service Native Voices 1(NV1), which offers the fifteen-minute National Native News program, the weekday talk show, Native America Calling, and the overnight music service, Under Currents. NV1 programming will allow Niijii to fill gaps in their broadcast schedule, and help them buy some time until they can train a group of volunteers to begin creating and hosting White Earth focused shows.
Native Culture and Language: Ojibwe on the air
Niijii’s goal is to help young tribal members to learn the Ojibwe language and traditions. They are currently airing local tribal music as often as possible, and sharing some traditional Ojibwe storytelling. They are also anticipating airing a “word of the day,” segment soon. In the future they would like to air entire programs in the Ojibwe language.
Station Funding: Empty account
Niijii radio is currently operating with no professional budget. The White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP), the parent company of Niijii, used the entire original Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP) grant of $466,389 to get the radio station on the air. Two months into broadcasting, Niijii is fundraising.
- Utilities: Niijii spends around 7,000 dollars a month to cover its utility bills. Office space, including Internet, computers, and basic supplies are covered by WERLP, which hosts the radio station within its building.
- Underwriting: There are ten underwriters for the radio station, which are paying 3,000 dollars each for the first six months the station is on the air. They include the Shooting Star Casino, a local day care center, the Tribal Police department, and the local mental health services.
- Grants: Niijii is planning to apply for some CPB funding soon.
- Community support: Niijii offers a paypal donation option on its website.
- Fundraisers: Niijii founder Winona LaDuke is organizing a benefit fundraiser for Niijii, as well as looking into linking with traditional public radio stations to fundraise in other cities.
Operational Logistics and Equipment: Smart investment
Nijii invested a good portion of their initial grant in equipment.
They have two new mixing boards, new microphones, and a new computer operating system where they organize and archive songs and programs. In addition to the on-air studio, Niijii has a small production studio where they can record and produce content.
Programming is run off of a free digital operating system called Rivendell, which is easy to use, although seems to have some operational glitches.
Niijii staff members produce radio content with free digital editing software. They were donated a Zoom digital recorder to record interviews and sound in the field, and hopefully begin producing some local reporting in the near future.
News and Media Development and Training
When Niijii launched in 2011 it did so with the intent of providing news and information as its core mandate.
“Niijii Radio is committed to providing independent news for an independent nation that promotes social, environmental and economic justice. Niijii Radio aims to create culturally appropriate news and media content which will interest listeners and encourage systemic change helping to develop a sustainable and equitable society. –Niijii’s mission statement
Niijii wants to create independent journalism on the White Earth reservation, for the first time. Local news would appear as part of programming at the radio station, and also as part of a local newswire on the Niijii website.
Niijii would like to develop a community news department that would cover and investigate local topics related to government, civil society, business, environment, and more.
Niijii founder Winona LaDuke has a journalism background, and is currently hosting a weekly news talk show covering indigenous issues,
“For me its a tool to talk about these issues, inform your community, but it’s also a tool for the non Indian community, and for other individuals, politicians, or judges, to say look, these are issues we’re going to air. We’re going to put this on the air and talk about it, these are not things we can sweep under the rug anymore.”
The Niijii website allows audiences to listen via desktop or mobile streaming. The main audience for the website are the approximately 15,000 tribal members who live off the reservation, who are much more likely to have Internet access. Niijii founder Winona LaDuke, “About 10 percent we estimate of people on the reservation have internet. If you’re working, you probably have Internet at your job. But at home, by and large, most tribal members don’t have Internet access.”
Niijii had 800 members on its Facebook page, but that was shuttered because of a public smear campaign that began to overwhelm the site.
There are only 40 followers on the Niijii Twitter page.
Most White Earth youth have cell phones, and are connected to social media through this link. No formal research has been done to see if Tribal youth are using mobile devices to listen in to Niijii radio.
People on the White Earth reservation are extremely excited about Niijii radio. Community members feel a real sense of pride that they can listen to their tribal music, and local language for the first time ever.
“When the Indian music comes on, I dance around during my work. If it’s fast I go fast, if not I go slow to the music. It really inspires you to all the stuff. They talk about everything. It’s great to hear a lot of the stuff I haven’t heard before.” –Pauline Creed, White Earth tribal member and Calloway resident
- Fundraising: Niijii is in need of funding, and fast. It is currently operating off of funds borrowed from its parent organization.
- Radio Board and Governance: Niijii needs assistance in assembling a functioning board of directors who can guide the station, and help it develop a sustainable plan for the first year of broadcasting. It needs help recruiting some new board members who are independent from the local tribal government and independent from the station’s parent non-profit.
- Staff: Niijii programming director JoDann Rousu has never managed a radio station before. He needs help in how to recruit and train staff to help him bring the radio station up to speed, and to be in compliance, both technically and financially.
- Programming: Niijii radio is on the air 24/7, but it has minimal programming developed to share with listeners, beyond its morning show. It needs some new sources of free, pre-produced programs until it can begin to develop volunteers and new local shows.
- Sustainability Plan: A detailed manual for how the station will be run, including technical, financial, programming, and management; regardless of who is in charge in the future.
- Basic training: Niijii staff and a select group of volunteers would benefit from a series of short on-site radio workshops that cover everything from radio writing, to speaking on the air, to recording interviews, to digital production.
- Newsroom: Niijii has made developing a community newsroom its primary goal, but has no means or blueprint to make that happen. Niijii’s programming director would benefit from some mentoring on how to create a small newsroom. This could be done remotely, or at the same time as the on-site workshops.
- Management: Niijii needs mentoring in creating a board for the radio station, and also developing by-laws and protocols for the station, especially in light of the fact that it has already weathered one politically driven storm that almost shut down the station.
- Funding: Niijii needs help in locating new grants, and developing both an interim, and a longer-term fundraising mechanism. This could be done through partnerships and mentoring by established public radio stations.
- Programming: Niijii staff members need to create a year blueprint for programming, and think about, in three-month increments, how they will slowly begin to expand opportunities for community organizations, and individuals to get involved.
- Community Outreach and Marketing strategy: The White Earth Reservation knows Niijii exists, but they are not clear on what its mission is, and what their role can be in making Niijii successful. The station needs to create a public service campaign that explains the basic goals of the station, and the expectations it has for the local listening community.
- New Media study: Niijii would benefit from a study to see how best they can reach tribal residents, and also tribal members living off reservation via New Media devices and strategies. This could help both in increasing listenership for the station, but also in terms of increasing fundraising opportunities.