The Impact of Radio on Tribal Communities

On February 13, the world celebrated the lasting impact of the radio. Invented in the early 1890s, the use of radio waves to send signals has shaped everything from how we consume media to how we conduct disaster response. Although the inventor is still up for debate – Tesla or Marconi? – radio’s usefulness will never be in question, which is why every year we happily celebrate World Radio Day.

The holiday originated with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), after originally being proposed by Spain. The first World Radio Day took place on November 3, 2011, and because the Olympics are being held this year, the focus of 2018’s holiday will be “Radio and Sports,” with particular attention given to radio as a means of civic participation for all humanity.

For much of Indian Country, radio is the enduring medium that connects tribal communities and citizens. Many Native Americans still await the capacity to cross the “digital divide,” or the lack of access to the internet within their own homes and communities, and radio is the lifeblood of news and connection. Native radio stations also help keep Native languages alive.

In 2009, radio host Deb Reger created the syndicated radio show “Moccasin Tracks,” which continues today as a forum for under-served people and communities to tell their stories. While Reger does not claim Native ancestry herself, she wanted to create a show to feature the stories and music of Native peoples. Her weekly guests hail from many different Native backgrounds and heritages, and the music and live performances on her show are by Native artists.

Hopi radio station KUYI, 88.1 in Northern Arizona functions as a source of connection and entertainment, but also as the emergency notification service for the residents. When a wildfire occurs, or winter brings icy roads, most hear about it first on the radio. During severe flooding in 2009 that wiped out plumbing for nearly one-third of the community, the radio station broadcasted daily basis where those affected could find clean water and functional bathrooms. And in 2010, when a snowstorm rocked the reservation, the Hopi radio station let community members know the location of food being air-dropped by the National Guard.

In Barrow, Alaska, seven villages of the Iñupiat tribe rely on radio as their source of news, weather, sports, and spirituality. KBRW station in Barrow is the only radio station for roughly 94,000 square miles, and the programming reflects the needs of the area, with much of the broadcast in both English and the Iñupiat language, as well as spiritual programming that speaks to the Iñupiat beliefs.

The radio program “Native America Calling” is a nationwide electronic forum connecting public radio stations, Internet and listeners from all across the country. They host Native guests and discuss news impacting Native tribes and peoples, to improve quality of life for Native Americans.

Radio remains an incredibly important tool for tribal communities, connecting them locally and nationally and providing a reliable social lifeline even in the most remote of communities.

Join PWNA as we celebrate World Radio Day, and praise and support radio stations on Native lands for their integral and vital contributions to Native communities.

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