Friction and smoke at Whiteriver

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The internecine warfare at KNNB, the public radio station on the White Mountain Apache reservation in east central Arizona, seems insignificant now, dwarfed by the terrifying Chediski-Rodeo wildfire that roared through the beautiful forests in June.

The fire, which destroyed hundreds of homes in Arizona, blackened nearly a third of the 1.6 million-acre Fort Apache Reservation, burning Ponderosa pine destined for the tribe’s sawmills and killing the elk and deer that bring it at least $600,000 a year in hunting licenses.

After a day of news indicating that an Apache may have set the Rodeo fire, station manager Vangee Natan says, “I turned off the radio and cried.” (Photo: Diana Claitor for Current.)

Before the fire, the 20-year-old station in Whiteriver was a focal point of power struggles among factions and tribal leaders. But when the largest wildfire in Arizona history struck the reservation, Apaches put aside those disputes and KNNB focused on essentials: telling listeners how to survive and how to help. They interrupted regular programming with evacuation orders, emergency plans and information about relief and rescue efforts for the more than 20,000 residents in KNNB’s broadcast area.

During the two-week crisis, extending the broadcast day from 18 to 24 hours tested the station’s staff of seven employees and three volunteers, says Vangee Natan, station manager. KNNB aired countless interviews with officials from the tribal, state and federal governments—more than 40 different entities, according to Reno Johnson, chairman of the reservation’s Local Emergency Response Commission (LERC) and chief of staff for tribal Chairman Dallas Massey.

Natan served on the 20-member LERC team, attending two or three meetings a day. “She did a tremendous job of coordinating,” says Johnson, who spent many hours at the station. “Our main concern was moving people, and they needed to be informed every two or three hours. . . . We would have to go there in the middle of the night to give information on how far the fire had gotten.”

At one point the station broadcast an alert to the visitors and residents at the tribe’s Hon-Dah Resort Casino, 19 miles up Highway 73, telling them to evacuate within an hour. (The casino survived.)

It was a frightening time. Smoke blanketed the valleys, roads were closed, mail service halted. People in the Apache towns of Carrizo and Cibecue, where the Rodeo fire started, were especially alarmed.

“Fire looks closer at night,” says Katy Aday, community health director. “When people in Cibecue looked at that fire at night, it looked like it was just over the next ridge.”

“People were coming on the radio in Apache, giving information on the fire,” Aday recalls. “To hear it coming from our elders in Apache, it helped a lot.”

The small 630-watt station was a source of lifesaving information as well as comfort during the crisis, but after the smoke cleared, the troubling issues that had occupied the station before the disaster were still there: broadcaster autonomy versus tribal authority and budgets that can’t meet the need for equipment, training and salaries.

‘Where you report to people’

In Apache, KNNB has better-than-average call letters. “K,” of course, is inserted by the FCC to call letters west of the Mississippi, but “NNB” in Apache stands for Ndee nitch’i’ binagodi’e. Ndee is the word for Apache and nitch’i’ binagodi’e means “a place where you report to people.”

The station’s small building stands in the outskirts of Whiteriver, surrounded by razor wire fence, just off the main street, Highway 73. Gas stations, schools, churches, a motel, a pizza parlor and the Chief Alchesay Activity Center line the highway. Near the center of town, a new one-story building houses the White Mountain Apache tribal headquarters. In the supermarket parking lot, families sell homemade Apache tacos and dumplings from their pickup tailgates. The men standing and sitting near the market are a reminder that the unemployment rate was 62 percent even before the fire. The median household income is $18,903, less than half of the state’s average.

Unless you turn off Highway 73 toward the river road you wouldn’t realize the town is bordered by the lovely tree-lined White River. Beyond that, a few small farms and green hills lead to distant mountains and the casino. Further away is the Sunrise Park Ski Resort.

Walking through town, your ears tell you KNNB is popular on the rez. A 1992 research study for CPB said the same thing. E.B. Eiselein of A&A Research found that KNNB ranked highest among 10 native stations around the country in the percentage of the population that tunes in at least once a month—an impressive 97 percent.

“I can’t tell you how valuable KNNB is,” says Aday. “When it goes off, when a storm comes, everybody complains and there’s an uproar. And they are always saying, ‘Why don’t you start earlier? Why don’t you stay on later?’”

Please call home

The station begins the day with traditional Native American music and then switches to a locally produced program of mainstream country-and-western, followed by local issues-oriented programs on education, health and crime as well as Ndee, a program on Apache culture started nearly 20 years ago by the first station manager, Ramon Riley. Music fills about half of the schedule—classic rock, reggae, country, hip-hop, jazz and blues, contemporary Christian, and contemporary Native American music. Sunday is dominated by religious programming, including Bible readings in Apache. The satellite dish brings in the talk show Native American Calling distributed by American Indian Radio on Satellite (AIROS) as well as NPR’s All Things Considered. Between midnight and 6 a.m., the station ordinarily airs an NPR feed.

Many listeners lack what most Americans consider basics—perhaps a quarter of residents lack cars and 43 percent have no phones—and the broadcasts reflect this knowledge of the audience. On Saturdays and Sundays, program hosts read 45- to 60-second obituaries over a background of the deceased’s favorite music. Deejays occasionally direct emergency announcements to individuals.

“When someone is missing or in trouble,” says Aday, “they put in on the radio. It’s not overused, so people know it’s serious when they say you should call home.”

As at other stations, listeners use the on-air hosts as a sounding board. When the authorities began to focus the fire investigation on an Apache in Cibecue, callers rang the station constantly, expressing shock. Could it be true that one of their own set the fire? Natan herself was devastated.

“This [was] really bad for me…the tribe here is a family,” she says. “When I went home, I turned off the radio and cried.”

The local Apache who was charged with setting the Rodeo part of the wildfire was identified as Leonard Gregg, a contract firefighter from Cibecue who allegedly confessed to setting the fire to get work. Natan says the radio was helpful in the investigation. Two council members came on the air and told people in Cibecue to cooperate with investigators to find who destroyed so much timber. The Chediski section of the fire is believed to have been started by a lost hiker (an unidentified white woman) who built a fire to signal for help. Nobody has been charged.

With the tribe in charge

Like many other Native American stations, KNNB is licensed to the tribe itself, a situation that can lead a tribal council to view the public station as its mouthpiece rather than an independent voice. Frank Blythe, executive director of the CPB-supported Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT), says this is a primary cause of the rapid turnover of managers and staff at many of the 27 Native American stations.

“Because there is a lack of understanding of rules and regulations and a lack of freedom of the press . . . managers get fired, managers get unfired, budgets get removed,” says Blythe.

Phoebe Nez, past KNNB station manager and now a member of the tribal council, uses the term “micromanaging” when describing her council’s relationship to the station.

Riley, KNNB’s station manager for its first four years, says his tenure was troubled. Tribal council members were afraid he would use the airwaves to influence an election in which his cousin was challenging an incumbent, he says. They kept up the pressure, “working on him” almost continuously, according to Riley. “I gave it four years—then I was gone from the station because of the politics.” Riley is convinced that the rapid turnover of managers—five in the past five years, for example—and a lack of strong leadership has prevented the station from reaching its potential.

Natan hopes to break the cycle. After doing various jobs at KNNB for 10 years and serving as acting manager for several months, she was named station manager by the station’s governing board in mid-June. She had watched at least six managers resign or be fired when they ran afoul of council politics.

Controversy shook the station after last winter’s bitter races for the tribal chair and council. Intense campaigning ended with the election of Dallas Massey as chairman by a five-vote margin in a 14,000-member tribe. Candidates got equal time during two debates on KNNB, says Kathleen Norton, moderator and a station board member, but both candidates’ unruly supporters disrupted the second debate and police were called in. Still, says Norton, it’s important to have the debates.

“It’s what public radio is supposed to be about,” says Norton, who thinks the radio station will air debates again, but in a manner that prevents the problems experienced this year.

A separate controversy has developed over the way some tribal council members use their periodic on-air reports.

“Members have misused the reports,” says council member Nez. “If they would stick to issues. . . . but they slander people . . . and that is still going on.”

Natan says staffers have had to deal with listeners complaining and berating them about airing the council members’ remarks. KNNB’s governing board will address that issue at its next meeting, according to Norton, a seven-year resident of the reservation and an executive at the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health field office. Norton says KNNB’s governing board will encourage council members to avoid slander. Norton believes that this governing board will bring stability and at the same time support station management.

“We have a strong functioning governing board now,” says Norton, “and there hadn’t been an active governing station board in several years. If you don’t have an active body to make sensible, fair-minded decisions, you risk being directed by elected officials who may or may not have conflicting interests.”

‘You can’t cut out music’

Riley says that the political infighting has been detrimental in other ways, disrupting plans for translators that would have extended the station’s reach into deep canyons and far reaches of Carrizo, Cedar Creek and parts of Cibecue that can’t receive the station and were out of reach during the fire.

Norton agrees, noting that during the fire, people in those areas without reception actually had to call into the station for information. Norton says, “That is on our agenda: How do we seek funding to put in the necessary equipment?”

She says this station, like many others on reservations, underpays its staff and doesn’t spend enough on training. “I would prefer to see us offer a better salary to our staff and some training that is accessible,” says Norton, mentioning that training offered in some far-off city isn’t helpful to stations with limited budgets.

While local people appreciate KNNB, they don’t always agree about what it puts on the air. Music is what many listeners want to hear, according to Aday. “People say there’s too much talk, talk, talk.” Riley, on the other hand, thinks there is not enough talk, at least in Apache. He and some other White Mountain Apache, especially tribal elders, see KNNB as a tool to help save the language and preserve Apache culture. Station managers on many reservations will tell you, however, that while promoting the native language plays an important role for the public radio outlet, use of the native language on air generates its own set of problems since many under-40 listeners are not fluent in it or may not speak it at all. Managers also often find it difficult to locate on-air talent fluent in the language.

The station regularly calls on elders to help translate English into Apache, says Natan. She touts KNNB’s forthcoming News in Apache. Host Finley Goklish, a counselor at the Rainbow Treatment Center, volunteered to create a program in the Apache language that reports the news and current issues important to Apaches. Natan believes she can recruit others to serve as backup and eventually hopes to add a staff position to produce this program.

Natan says she is aware, of course, of the danger of too many lessons and too much talk. “You can’t cut out music . . . people will shut us out.”

KNNB can’t afford to shut out any of its listeners, who now more than ever need a good information source and a voice to rally them through these difficult times. “We need to worry about a flood disaster now,” says Reno Johnson wearily. The summer rains have arrived and the lands are bare. Speaking from the Fort Apache, Ariz., cultural center where he is cultural resource director, Ramon Riley sounded equally dispirited after spending several hours in the canyons assessing the potential flooding and loss of archeological sites and burial grounds sacred to the Apache—a disaster of a different sort.

However, in a place where poverty is the norm and alcoholism and suicide rates are stunningly high, daily life itself is often filled with disasters, and residents appreciate having a media outlet where they can announce the loss of a loved one, hear a report from their council member or find out about possible work at the FEMA office.

88.1 is where they can hear a morning Apache song at dawn and soon after, the familiar voice of Udell Opah, host of KNNB’s Country Classics for 20 years. In the evening, they can listen to the hottest Native American hip-hop from 18-year-old D. Kim Harvey, the program manager, who recruits native performers on the Internet. The staff and volunteers and board members find a way to keep the station going on, despite the politics and misunderstandings, despite disasters large and small. It is their responsibility to keep alive the place where you report to the people.


Permits in hand for 29 new Native stations, 2008.


White Mountain Apache Tribe government.

Map of White Mountain Apache reservation.

Native Public Media, Flagstaff, Ariz., and Oakland, Calif.

Diana Claitor is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.

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