On the road with a circuit-riding Native American radio engineer

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Lakota radio engineer Alex Lookingelk rides the highways of Wyoming, Montana and North and South Dakota, covering as many as 5,000 miles a month in his Chevy S-10 pickup. In the past seven years, Lookingelk has become known as a circuit-riding engineer for the public radio stations on the reservations and an all-around advisor to the stations.

“He’ll say, ‘I have to go over to KGVA in Montana’ — that’s about a 12-hour drive,'” says Frank Blythe, executive director of Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT), based in Lincoln, Neb. “He handles most of the Upper Plains’ technical problems and he also gets involved in the politics.”

Start small and know your mission, Lookingelk preaches to new Native American stations.

On his long drives, Lookingelk has plenty of time to chew on his worries about reservation radio and the tough-to-beat circumstances and habits that afflict it.

An engineer with 11 years’ work experience in Chicago, Lookingelk returned to the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota to live a more independent life, renew ties to his people and homeland, and contribute his skills to keep Native stations on the air. Lookingelk still runs into people who bluntly question why anyone would leave a good-paying job in the city to return to reservation life. Others have no problem understanding.

“He prides himself on being an Indian engineer helping Indian radio stations,” says Gerald Stiffarm, a Gros Ventre announcer and production manager at KGVA in Fort Belknap, Mont. “Being a Native with that professional training, he’s a priceless cat.”

In his work, Lookingelk finds patience and determination are necessary virtues. His frustration with certain ongoing problems is evident even in the plain prose of his assessment reports. The question is whether Lookingelk is more frustrated with the people who run the reservations or the people inside the Beltway, who run so much else.

Sitting Bull’s place

Lookingelk was born 53 years ago at Little Eagle on the south side of the Standing Rock reservation. The same area was the 19th-century campsite for Sitting Bull, the great Lakota chief and medicine man. Sitting Bull, like Lookingelk, was a member of the Hunkpapa band of the Lakota.

As a young man, Lookingelk joined the Army and received specialized training in microwave systems and Doppler radar. After continuing his career in Chicago, he returned to South Dakota to find that most reservations were not keeping up with technology — computer, broadcast equipment or even telephone. He was even more distressed that many tribal leaders seemed unconcerned about falling behind.

“The old guard often doesn’t value or understand the importance of media or computers or modern technology,” says Lookingelk. He suggested that leaders educate themselves about advances — warning in an article that tribes that ignore the information superhighway will become road kill. The prodding irritated some.

“Instead of listening to the message, they wanted to kill the messenger,” Lookingelk says.

He is, however, seeing a gradual change in thinking. As tribal leaders and council members learn what new technology can offer, they are becoming more interested in upgrading computer access and phone lines and purchasing broadcast equipment and engineering services. In some cases, Indian casinos and resorts are generating the kind of money that attracts the attention of expensive consultants and engineering firms.

“Companies present a well-illustrated, colorful proposal that says, ‘This is what we want to do for you — build you a station,'”says Lookingelk, noting that it’s not unusual for the engineers on such projects to come in, do the installation and disappear, leaving no instructions or records. The reservation ends up with what he calls a white elephant.

“I have recently seen stations where the personnel only use the control room,” he says, “and they cannibalize the other studios just to keep on air.” In many cases, nobody realizes that stations must set aside money for maintenance and training. The station may give a job title and a pile of equipment to a beginning technician — why waste tribal funds on an engineer? Then an untrained “assistant engineer” is forced to make do. Lookingelk believes a tribe will learn radio most naturally if it starts small and builds its station gradually — while building a consensus among members about how and why they’re running the station.

Advocate for starting small

KABU serves the Spirit Lake Nation of the Dakota tribe in the hilly northern prairie of North Dakota. Like most of the approximately 40 Native American stations scattered across the country, the isolated station has no pool of experienced radio people from which to draw. Thus, tribal leaders sought advice when they decided to build a station in the mid-1990s, and Lookingelk made the 4 1/2-hour drive to give a presentation on what it takes to start a station.

“He’s been with us ever since,” says John Chaske, president of KABU’s board of directors. “What’s been most helpful to us, we had a shortcut. We avoided all the other things, the mistakes, through Alex.”

Lookingelk’s advice about starting a station was markedly different from the conventional wisdom, which holds that tribes should build a studio as big as possible and buy state-of-the-art equipment. Chaske says some station managers and “people at the conferences” pooh-poohed cost-saving measures like the idea of using an abandoned radio tower near the reservation.

“We’d hear that we should build a new tower and buy everything new,” says Chaske. “That’s $750,000 to a million dollars.”

Instead, Lookingelk says, the Spirit Lake Tribal Council was able to work a deal to use the abandoned tower and followed his advice to build their station on a shoestring without federal startup money. With a single studio, a bare-bones staff and $100,000 for equipment, KABU took it step by step, learning the FCC rules and how to operate a station professionally, says Lookingelk. It began broadcasting in 1999 and now needs to expand its staff and build an editing suite.

Lookingelk believes stations should also establish their own formal mission statement. Tribal council members change with each election, and station staffs come and go — constantly at some stations — so a formal set of rules and principles could help a station maintain its direction. Lookingelk says KABU can maintain stability because its board and staff “are traditional people . . . who are instilling the beliefs and values of the Dakota into the station — a traditional, healthy, drug-free lifestyle.”

Chaske agrees. “We are committed to restoring our language and culture,” he says, “and radio is one of the ways we can do that.”

Washington doesn’t understand

Chaske and Lookingelk doubt CPB and other Washington organizations know much about the realities of running a station on a reservation. The working conditions alone are harsh enough to discourage the faint-hearted. At KABU, for instance, the transmitter is located two miles up a steep road that is usually impassable by vehicles.

While Lookingelk was on his way to the transmitter of KWRR, the Arapaho-Shoshone station in Wyoming near Yellowstone National Park, he and chief engineer John Cunliff got trapped in their four-wheel-drive vehicle in a melting snow bank with the cold night rapidly approaching. They dug fast and hard to get out, says Lookingelk.

Lookingelk travels as many as 5,000 miles in a month from his home on the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota, maintaining reservation stations in four states.

At times, the winter storms, a general dearth of resources and the isolation from sources of parts — the FedEx office is 90 miles from KMHA, for example — force Lookingelk to get creative in solving technical problems. KMHA’s transmitter is roughly 20 years old and often needs parts that can take two days to arrive, he says. To keep urgent weather news on the air when the transmitter’s main power amplifier failed during a dangerous blizzard, he used the exciter output to broadcast at only 10 to 15 watts as opposed to the normal 100,000.

Harsh weather and rugged conditions are not, however, the greatest threat to Native radio, Lookingelk says. The heart of the problem continues to be the lack of trained managers, producers and engineers, and he believes many decision-makers in Washington, D.C., don’t understand that.

Washington doesn’t understand, for one reason, because there’s no one qualified to speak for the reservation stations to the policymakers, in Lookingelk’s view. He says CPB and other national entities seem to mainly talk to NAPT and its satellite network, AIROS. While NAPT and AIROS were set up as program sources for the stations, their high visibility and constant interaction with the national system often mean they are seen as representatives of Native stations. That simply is not true, according to Lookingelk and other Native broadcasters. Washington organizations need more direct communication with those running day-to-day operations on the reservations, so they can serve the needs of those stations, they say.

“This sentiment is puzzling when one considers these issues didn’t arise at last year’s CPB-supported Native American Summit,” says CPB spokeswoman Jean Bunton, who notes that CPB commits millions of dollars a year to help rural and minority stations increase their public service to listeners while direct supporting nearly two dozen Native stations.

Lookingelk and colleagues say CPB needs to offer more help if reservation radio is to really work.

Peggy Berryhill, director of the Native American Resource Center and longtime producer and writer for public radio, agrees with what Lookingelk and others are saying. “Alex is right in that meeting station needs is different than meeting needs of distribution systems,” she says. “Funding entities need to understand Native American radio isn’t just AIROS.”

Blythe says NAPT ends up speaking to national groups because of its national prominence. “We don’t position ourselves as the voice for Native radio, though when asked we do bring issues to the attention of CPB, Public Radio Satellite Systems (PRSS) and sometimes even to the NPR Board level.”

“CPB does not want to deal with individual stations but prefers working with large organizations that allegedly represent smaller interests,” says Michael C. Keith, author of the 1995 book Signals in the Air — Native Broadcasting in America and other books on electronic media. A communications professor at Boston University, Keith notes “CPB/NAPT/AIROS think in ‘national’ terms and are often out of touch with the remote grassroots Native stations.”

Grassroots organizing could help, says Lookingelk, who hopes to see Upper Plains stations form a regional advocacy group to influence decision-making and acquire funds more directly. Keith agrees that a regional advocacy group would be valuable in helping communicate Native needs and as a means for stations to get funding.

“Individual stations often are at the bottom of the food chain and as a result are forced to be bottom-feeders,” Keith says. “CPB/NAPT monies trickle down slowly, if at all, to the distant rural Indian outlets, which often have no viable means of support.”

Very limited resources

Berryhill says the root of the problem is that the stations have few means of support. The habit of comparing the infancy of Native radio with the infancy of public radio has confused the issue, she says. Native stations do not have the resources of universities or corporate underwriters on which to build — and they never will — but they are a viable and vital part of the culture and worthy of support, says Berryhill.

At present, she says, few policymakers understand the reality of reservation stations, where a single jack-of-all-trades often keeps the station going — with no time to attend conferences or apply for grants. Lookingelk, Blythe, Berryhill and others come together on this point: A lack of trained staff cripples the stations’ ability to make long-term plans and develop their staffs and infrastructure. Yet nobody, at any level, has found a way to solve this ongoing problem.

“There are no funds for training,” says Berryhill. “If we don’t find a way to train managers and producers and create some sort of infrastructure to keep staff at the stations . . .” She trails off, implying that these circumstances severely limit the future of Native radio.

Lookingelk gets in a final point about the lack of training and its far-reaching effects. This year the Public Radio Satellite System’s Earth Terminal Refurbishment Project must assess the needs of all 420 U.S. public radio stations to determine what equipment at each station needs to be updated before the next system is implemented. The project team originally sent out a survey, asking for an inventory of equipment and report on operations, but little information was forthcoming from many of the Native stations. Concerned that six Northern Plains Native stations wouldn’t get the equipment upgrades that they were due, PRSS chief project engineer Jim McEachern hired Lookingelk to get the information.

“He can get into stations easier than I can; I understand that and accept it,” says McEachern. “This way we have a qualified person who can communicate with Native stations and basically . . . we make sure these stations get what they’re entitled to get.”

Consequently, over the next three months, Lookingelk will add six trips to his regular route and more mileage to the 260,000 miles already on his1992 pickup. He understands what he needs to do since he already assessed satellite facilities for NAPT and AIROS.

While Lookingelk is glad to have the PRSS survey work, he points to it as one more example of the need for training. Washington couldn’t get technical information from the Native stations, he says, partly because few of those stations have anyone with enough training to fill out the survey.

The elders are listening

Following a five-hour drive from home, Lookingelk arrives at a station where an assistant engineer didn’t know how to deal with equipment failure and the station was on the verge of going off the air. In four days, he essentially rebuilds the station. Along the way, he answers questions about engineering jargon and gives advice on everything from computer software to FCC regs.

Despite the frustrations, Lookingelk says, “Doing what I’m doing now is something that makes me happy — makes me proud.”

He is also spending more time on the producing side, working with Chaske on a series of short segments about the history and traditions of the Spirit Lake Dakota.

“One elder tells about being taken away to the boarding school, about how they were punished for speaking their native language,” Lookingelk recalls. He and Chaske also interview elders who are the keepers of the ceremonies and practices. Because of the chaos of modern life, the oral transmission of tradition sometimes breaks down, and radio helps preserve the knowledge. Though public radio may seem an odd partner with traditional Native American cultures, many of its biggest supporters are the elders.

“Most of our elders spend all their time at home, and their only conduit to outside is radio,” says Lookingelk. They know, he says, that information is power. “They insist on programs about tribal governmental decisions, so they can know what the tribe’s doing.”

The stations strengthen the tribes’ sense of identity and their pride in self-governance. “Having our own stations supports the sovereign concept,” he says.

Lookingelk’s four-state territory covers much the same land once held by the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota peoples. As he rides his circuit in the pickup, he imagines covering that vast and open landscape on horseback. “I think about the hardship that our great-great grandfathers lived through and survived, and I believe that foremost, it was their spirituality that gave them strength and pulled them through.”

For Lookingelk, the road goes on forever, taking him back into the past of the Lakota people as well as forward, to the next job — keeping their voices on the air.

Headline slightly changed from original: “On the road with a Native American radio circuit rider”

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