Two Native tribes are first to benefit from FCC rules favoring tribal applicants

By Mike Janssen

Native tribes in New Mexico and Arizona are the first to benefit from the FCC’s Tribal Radio Priority, a provision created by the commission to help tribal entities start new radio stations.

The FCC announced March 1 that it set aside FM allotments for Navajo Technical College in Crownpoint, N.M., and for the Hualapai Tribe in Peach Springs, Ariz. Allotments serve as placeholders for future FM stations; the tribes must now wait until the FCC opens a filing window and accepts their applications for construction permits.

The commission created the Tribal Radio Priority provision in 2010, establishing standards by which Native tribes could be given priority in securing licenses for AM and FM stations. “The need for Tribal radio stations is clear,” wrote Geoffrey Blackwell, chief of the FCC’s Office of Native Affairs and Policy, in a blog post announcing the allotments. There are 566 federally recognized Native Tribes and Alaska Native Villages in the U.S., but fewer than 100 broadcast stations are licensed to Tribes or affiliated groups.

“We have visited many parts of Indian Country and we have seen how people in Native Communities can benefit from radio – to prepare for and recover from emergencies, to preserve Native culture, language and music, and to convey important information to Tribal members,” Blackwell wrote.

To qualify, each tribe demonstrated that at least half of its station’s proposed principal community contour would cover its tribal land; that its proposed community of license is on tribal land; and that the proposed facility would be the first local Tribal-owned service in the community.

For one of the applicants, the allotment provides a second chance at starting a station. Navajo Technical College had received an FM construction permit from the FCC in 2008, but it missed a 2011 deadline to get the station on the air and lost the permit. The college asked for more time, but the FCC denied its request.

The college blamed its delay on its relationship with an unreliable engineer. Although the engineer wasn’t named in FCC documents, the tribe had worked with John Bittner, a former engineer who was charged with embezzling federal funds while working with another Native radio applicant. Bittner has pleaded guilty to the charges in the District of Arizona U.S. District Court and now awaits sentencing.

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