Selections from the newspaper about
public TV and radio in the United States

NFCB seeks unit to assist Native radio

Originally published in Current, May 10, 2004
By Geneva Collins

The National Federation of Community Broadcasters has asked CPB for more than $1 million to establish a Center for Native Radio to seek out nontraditional funding sources for the approximately 30 radio stations serving Native American audiences plus national programming operations of Koahnic Broadcasting Corp. and American Indian Radio on Satellite, or AIROS.

The proposal for the center, which would provide grant-application and technical support and other services to the tiny stations, was presented at last month’s two-day Native American public radio meeting held in conjunction with NFCB’s annual Community Radio Conference in Albuquerque, N.M. It follows on the heels of a CPB-funded assessment of Native radio completed recently by two independent consultants (their commentary).

The traditional funding models of public radio stations — membership drives and underwriting campaigns — simply don’t work at reservation-based stations, said Carol Pierson, president of NFCB, explaining the need for the center. The populations are too small and too rural, businesses and industry are lacking, unemployment is usually rampant and the more educated people tend to move away.

“Maybe there are [federal and state] government funds available. . . . The Indian Health Service, for example, sends a lot of money to tribes. None of that money right now goes to the radio station. But the radio station is one of the ways IHS gets the word out to the Indians to come in for vaccinations, or promote clean water or diabetes screening or whatever,” Pierson said.

“The vision of the center is significantly more powerful than just a grant proposal. It’s a unifying, powerful concept involving resource development, partnerships and an efficient service bureau,” said Bruce Theriault, an experienced public radio exec and consultant who, with Felice Tilin of Teleos Leadership Institute, prepared the in-depth assessment.

CPB’s senior v.p. for radio, Vinnie Curren, said he commissioned the report to examine the effectiveness of CPB funding policies in support of native radio and toured many of the Native radio stations with Theriault and Tilin last year. (Similar reviews are planned for Hispanic and African-American stations; CPB recently issued RFPs for them.)

“One thing became pretty clear — they [Native radio stations] are not operating in the community the way a typical public radio station operates,” Curren said. “They’re really social service agencies in their communities, providing support in a variety of ways that is essential to the financial and cultural health and safety of these communities.”

After their road trip, the assessors held a feedback session in December with many of the station managers and other major players in Native radio to present preliminary findings of the report and “make sure we heard them right, prioritized it right,” said Theriault. The idea of the center had been kicked around for years, he said, but it crystallized during the December meeting into plans for a CPB grant request.

The proposed center will be a centralized services bureau “akin to H&R Block for Native stations,” said Peggy Berryhill, director of the Native Media Resource Center. “I don’t think it’s any secret that dealing with the online forms to CPB is daunting,” she added. Without this expertise and spare time to fill out forms, managers of Native stations often let funders go untapped. If the center’s service-bureau function proves efficient, it could become a template for use throughout pubcasting, Berryhill and Pierson note. Shared engineering expertise likewise could be a useful concept for rural stations to adopt.

“The many challenges that Native stations face are not that different from what rural stations face—they’re just more intense,” said Curren. “Rural stations operate in isolated communities; native stations operate in intensely isolated communities. Rural stations operate in areas where unemployment opportunities are few. Native stations operate in communities where half the people are unemployed.”

The center apparently would borrow a few pages from the operating handbook of Alaska Public Broadcasting and consolidate what APB Executive Director Don Rinker called “backroom operations.” In the early 1990s, the state system, faced with a series of funding cutbacks that reduced state government aid from $8 million annually to its current level of $2.3 million, made itself more efficient by “working together to help each other with fundraising, accounting, engineering,” he said. Rinker’s office, for example, filled out most of the digital radio grant applications for the state’s stations, which include 10 Native radio stations among its 26 members. The Native stations have set up and pay for an engineering cooperative so each station doesn’t have to hunt for its own technicians, Rinker said.

“I was a little skeptical at first,” said Susan Braine, c.o.o.-national for Koahnic, which produces Native America Calling, National Native News and other shows, when she heard the center proposal being discussed. “I’ve been doing this for 27 years, and throughout those years they’ve attempted three or four times to put together something like this to address the needs of Native radio,” she said, but the stations lacked the infrastructure and funds to pull it off. Now she is more optimistic because the Native community was so involved in the proposal process.

One of the primary findings of Theriault and Tilin’s report to CPB was that Native radio needs to start thinking and operating as a unified system, not a collection of individual stations, to aggregate its resources.

“We are a network of radio stations that operate under similar economic, political, and social landscapes, but we were working in isolation from one another,” said Loris Vincente-Taylor, g.m. of KUYI, a 3-year-old radio station on the Hopi reservation in Hotevilla, Ariz. “I knew if I was having problems trying to secure an engineer, surely other stations were having the same difficulty.”

Vincente-Taylor said she would go to public radio meetings and feel that “mainstream” stations had very little understanding about the problems and conditions under which tribal licensees would operate. “It’s hard when people are talking about underwriting in the hundreds of thousands and our stations are struggling to think of raising money in the thousands.”

Under the proposal, the center would operate as a part of NFCB, based in Oakland, Calif., and have two-and-a-half staff members initially. Curren, who put the price tag for the 2-year project at just over $1 million, said he expected CPB’s review of the proposal to take four to six weeks.

If CPB fails to cough up cash for the project, Pierson and Berryhill said they would shop the proposal around to other funders.

Pierson said the center’s fundraising would benefit not only individual stations but also Koahnic and other producers and AIROS, pubradio’s major national distributor of Native programming. Braine said such a center could help with tracking of program carriage and affiliation fees, survey stations regarding programming and format changes and serve as a repository for listener feedback.

It would also raise the profile of Native radio outside the pubcasting world, said Berryhill. “It would provide information we could take to national Native meetings, such as Native American educators, let them know we exist, the services we provide.”

“There are 650 federally recognized tribes in this country. Only 32 own public radio stations,” said Vicente-Taylor.
“Native radio has been kind of a secret,” said Theriault.

Web page posted May 13, 2004
The newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2004


On the road with Alex Lookingelk, a circuit-riding public radio engineer, 2002.

Friction and smoke at White River: a profile of KNNB on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona, 2002.

Public radio continues subsidy for minority satellite networks, 2000.

AIROS begins operations, 1994.

Native America Calling: a far cry from Rush and Ollie North.


Bruce Theriault and Felice Tilin, consultants who studied Native radio for CPB, say its service is at the core of public radio's values.

Elements of a Native public radio system, now including 32 stations.


CPB's annual report to Congress: Public Broadcasting's Services to Minorities and Diverse Audiences, 2003 (PDF file).

Native-controlled Koahnic Broadcasting Corp., Anchorage. Live stream of Koahnic's Anchorage station, KNBA.

Koahnic's National Native News.

Koahnic's Native America Calling.

AIROS satellite system for public radio. Live audio stream.

Native American Public Telecommunications, Lincoln, Neb., CPB-backed consortium for public TV.