Native American net to launch next month
Originally published in Current, Sept. 1, 1994
By Jacqueline Conciatore
Indian country's first satellite radio network is set to launch Oct. 31 , with a weekday hour-long anthology of native programming from producers around the country.
Supported by a 27-month, $459,000 grant from CPB, American Indian Radio on Satellite (AIROS) will link about 25 tribal stations in 10 states many on reservations where radio is the sole telecommunications service. AIROS directors see the network as a first step toward an ambitious goal: building and linking stations on 250 Indian reservations.
"It's historic,'' says Susan Braine, an Assiniboine Sioux, who has been the network's one-woman staff since January. "It gives us the ability to communicate with each other in a way mainstream America has taken for granted has used and abused! It opens so many new doors for native communities to talk to each other, to learn from each other, to help each other.'' Besides one annual conference and occasional regional meetings, there are scant opportunities for Indians from different parts of the country to unite for discussion, Braine says.
The satellite service will also offer a first-ever product: a flow of programming tailored to the needs of native listeners. Beyond occasional features or news items on the national networks, the only native-content fare on national radio is National Native News, a daily five-minute report produced by Alaska Public Radio Network. Earlier this year, after airing a pilot of Native America Calling, a talk show AIROS will distribute, the show's staff discovered "people are very hungry for this material,'' says Co-executive Producer D'Anne Hamilton (also producer of National Native News). "They've never had a chance to hear people in Alaska, [for example]. They want to hear other native people on the air, hear about the way they do things, make that connection . . . It's one of the things native people have been starving for.'' During the five-day period KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska, aired the Calling pilots, listeners called the station to voice their opinions. Says Station Manager K.C. Jackson: "They didn't want to be on the air, but they wanted me to know they didn't agree with what was said.''
By beaming programming to stations, AIROS aims to free up local staff so the stations can produce more content for the satellite. ``That's the main goal getting stations to start producing,'' Braine says. Toward that goal, AIROS directors recently decided AIROS would be strictly a distributor and stay out of the production business.
AIROS is jointly sponsored by the Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium (NAPBC), based in Lincoln, Neb., and the Indigenous Communications Association or ICA), a New York-based network of native-owned stations that has set as one goal the building of 250 native-owned stations.
Objectives: programs, hookup
Initially, AIROS will uplink one hour of programming five days per week a compilation of material from archives Braine started building in January. Sometime before February, AIROS plans to launch Native America Calling. Also in the pipeline is Indigenous Voices, a weekly magazine to be produced by Peggy Berryhill (Spirits of the Present). And, Braine is considering uplinking an hour of special-interest programming not necessarily intended for live broadcast, such as Sioux-language programming.
To date, AIROS has uplinked the Calling pilots broadcast from this summer's Unity journalism conference in Atlanta; and its own pilots a broadcast of a Winter Council meeting on sovereignty, and a meeting of tribal leaders with President Clinton.
In addition to delivering programming, AIROS is completing the technical interconnections needed to distribute programming to tribal stations. Last year, NAPBC won a Public Telecommunications Facilities Program grant to put in downlinks at four stations; by the end of October, when AIROS goes up, the last of the four will have an operating dish tunable to the C- and Ku- bands. Of the total group of stations, "there are a varying number that have a downlink that may be not working for some reason or another, or because they can't afford the D/I [distribution/interconnection] fee and are not using it,'' Braine says. She estimates at least 20 of the 25 stations will be able to pull programming off the satellite once AIROS hits the air.
Although AIROS stations may eventually use the less expensive Ku-band, their dishes initially will be tuned to the C-band, because most of them have C-band dishes, Braine said.
Will seek fee waivers
Some observers say AIROS and online services developed over the past few years by Indians herald the start of a new industry and way of life for native communities. ICA head Ray Cook sees radio as a first-wave technology, paving the way for telecommunications centers in native communities, and for individuals to gain access to the career fields of telecommunications or performing arts. ICA is helping 18 native communities get federal grants to build stations.
The organization is also working with the Public Radio Forum, an organization of 16 public radio organizations that serve minorities and rural listeners, to ensure native communities are not left behind in the rush to stake out space on the national information infrastructure.
In the fall, Cook and and Latino radio satellite service Satelite will propose that NPR's D/I Committee waive interconnect fees for stations that carry primarily non-English language programming.
There are fewer than 15 such stations serving Hispanic communities and only a handful of others, according to Hugo Morales, executive director of Radio Bilingue, a California station group that operates Satelite. "These stations are out of the main programming loop, and the way to bring them into the system is to make the satellite service be as least costly to them as possible,'' says Morales. "It's in the interests of the entire system to have a diversity of services.''
Ultimately, the two networks would like NPR to subsidize two satellite channels for their use. Before making that proposal, however, public radio'sLegislative Forum which recently approved the idea must resolve the question of how to justify subsidies for Satelite and AIROS, but not other groups. ``There are a lot of issues,'' said Morales. ``Who else could fit in? Are we opening gates to everybody? Where do you draw the line?''
With its own channel, AIROS might broadcast programming intended strictly for indigenous peoples, as well as the broad-appeal content funded by CPB, says Cook. It might sub-lease space on the channel as well, he said. For Cook, a channel is a matter of rights: "Radio signals are now becoming resources like . . . coal, water, uranium. Indians have reserved rights to be the first people to take advantage of [resources] in our region,'' he said. "We've got NPR, PRI and ABC bombarding our territories with their signals. Now there's a movement afoot, saying, `We better make them pay for it.' Like the telephone company, they can't put lines across our territory just because it's easy, without giving us a cut.''
"Just put good stuff on"
One of the challenges facing AIROS will be acquiring enough programming. Cook estimates there are fewer than 20 native producers at the local level. There are probably a dozen or so people who produce national programming on native topics, he says. Beyond the dearth of programmers, tribal stations are so poor that they can barely afford adequate staffing, never mind production, Braine says.
The tremendous geographic and cultural diversity of the native population in the United States could present a different sort of challenge, making it difficult to develop a programing package with wide or universal appeal. At KABR in Magdalena, N.M., Patsy Apachito, for example, says her listeners were lukewarm about Native America Calling pilots because they felt the programming was "too much out there'' not relevant to their concerns. Instead of programs on gaming or the use of Indian ''mascots'' (such as Washington, D.C.'s "Redskins'' football team), her community needs to hear about topics such as welfare reform, she says. Apachito's KABR, Magdalena, NM, serves 6,000 listeners.
Braine acknowledges that the diversity is a factor, but says ultimately she's not concerned. She questions whether it's possible to come up with a true listener profile that can determine program schedules. ''You just put good stuff [on the satellite] and try to make it as diverse as possible so you appeal to a wide range of interests, and if people don't like it they can turn the damn radio off, and if they like it, they'll listen . . .''
Although AIROS wants to foster connections among indigenous peoples, it is targeting nonnative listeners as well, and nonnative stations have expressed an interest, Braine says. AIROS programming will help nonnatives develop knowledge and understanding of Indians, she says. "Native Americans tend to get clumped into all the rest of minorities, and we're really a lot different because of the sovereignty issue,'' she says. "That's one thing Americans really [have] a responsibility to understand a lot better because of those treaties.''
To Current's home page Later news: The committee that governs public radio's satellite system extended subsidies to AIROS and Satelite into 2003. Outside link: AIROS' website.
Web page posted July 28, 2002
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