Native America Calling talk show: a far cry from Rush and Ollie
In Native Americans' long oral tradition of talking circles, people in the circle are given an opportunity to say what's on their mind or tell a teaching story or just tell a joke. Each talker enjoys the luxury of being heard to completion, no matter how many pauses for thought or emphasis are needed for the full telling. Public radio's Native America Calling has adapted this format for the airwaves.
With a style of thoughtful and respectful debate rather than provocation, this is the antithesis of Rush Limbaugh and Ollie North. Most non-Native call-in programs set up a topic of the day, bring in one or two experts, then take calls one at a time. In comparison, Native America Calling sometimes admits more than one caller to the talking circle at a time and no one interrupts or steps on the words of another. "The pace is more respectful to callers," said the host, Tom Beaver (Muscogee Creek tribe). "Non-Indians are about half the callers and they show the same respect."
Fourteen months after its start up, Native America Calling is going strong and getting better, according to its new producer, Harlan McKosato (Sac and Fox). The daily, one-hour call-in program for and about Native Americans airs in cities and on reservations through 14 stations in the lower 48 states and seven in Alaska. The show is heard live in some places, tape-delayed in others.
The geographic and cultural diversity of the audience requires a diversity of topics that initially caused some grumbling from listeners. The breadth of topics has quelled the noise and bred tolerance, according to Suzy Erlich, g.m. of KOTZ in Kotzebue, Alaska.
The program is a production of Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT) and is distributed on NAPT's American Indian Radio Satellite network (AIROS). With major funding from CPB, Native America Calling airs from studios at KUNM-FM at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Since July , the Friday hour has been devoted to health issues, hosted by Sharon McConnell (Inupiat Eskimo), originating at Koahnic Broadcasting Corp. in Anchorage. Each weekday episode begins with a five-minute National Native News, also from Anchorage.
The producers also incorporate feature segments of three or four minutes, coordinated by Bernadette Chato (Navajo) at KUNM. They address topics such as effects of the new immigration bill, or home schooling in the Native community. All the features are produced by Native reporters.
McKosato, Beaver and Chato, with Associate Producer Michelle Cody (Navajo), choose the issues for 250 shows a year. They follow tribal newsletters from all over the country and work closely with National Native News, which has its own team of field reporters. Major topics range from mainstream news to Indian affairs. Bosnia, the Unabomber, the O.J. Simpson verdict, the legend and birth of the white buffalo, tribal colleges, the Internet, endangered species. Only certain aspects of Native spiritual practice are off-limits.
The topics that draw the most callers and the most passion are the Indian Child Welfare Act and tribal sovereignty. "We always seem to go back to the issue of sovereignty and the treaties," McKosato said. "We aren't necessarily advocating it, but it keeps coming up."
Next month's election gets the lowest response, though some listeners are following the campaigns of the three Native Americans running for Congress Georgiana Lincoln in Alaska; Bill Yellowtail in Montana and Joe Bowen in Washington state. Beaver ends each show with the admonition to register and to vote.
A big part of the diversity of listeners' interests is the gap between Alaskan Natives and those in the lower 48. Alaskan listeners initially felt the show was designed for the Indians to the south, said KOTZ's Erlich. Legal, tribe-sponsored gambling is an issue down there, but not in Alaska. Even the sovereignty issues are different. "We are about 88 percent Inupiat, and their sovereignty issues are different because they were [arbitrarily] divided into an excess of 200 tribes by the U.S. government," Erlich said. She concedes that Native America Calling is becoming an institution and that the programs have been getting better. "The challenge is for them to really find issues that hit the general Native chord," Erlich said.
For Steve Hamlin, g.m. of KBRW in Barrow, Alaska, the challenge is for Native America Calling "to maintain objectivity ... and not get into advocacy ... to explore issues, not to be an advocate of the issues." KBRW airs the program live every day, and Hamlin believes that it does less advocacy now than in the early days.
Urban and rural listeners, whether in Alaska or elsewhere, appear to come to radio with different priorities. According to McKosato, the rural listeners are starting to see economic growth as more of a necessity, while the urban population listens as a way to stay in touch with traditions.
Some stations on reservations don't carry the program, however, for financial and technical reasons. Frank Starkey, g.m. of KIDE in Hoopa, Calif., said the station carried the show until January, when NPR switched the public radio satellite system from analog to digital transmission. He hopes to bring the program back to his schedule soon.
Ray Cook (Mohawk), an original proponent of AIROS, predicted that it would not meet the needs of reservation Indians as originally intended because public radio's priority was to serve its own community of listeners first. Cook had wanted the Indian satellite service to be based on the reservations and used as a community development and learning tool. He wanted Indians talking to Indians until they had the broadcast sophistication to send programming out to the broader community. He saw it as a way for Native Americans to learn income-producing skills which they can do now only if they leave the reservations. CKON, the Mohawk station, doesn't receive the program because they can't afford the downlink.
KRCL, Salt Lake City, doesn't carry the program live or on tape delay because of the time constraint with music programming. Donna Land, program director for KRCL, said that she sometimes tapes selected programs of Native America Calling to insert in a regular (Sunday, 7-10 a.m.) Native American music block. Interestingly, that program happens to be one of the station's big fundraisers. She hypothesizes that its attraction is because there are many local Native Americans and Salt Lake City is "such a 'New Age' mecca."
At first blush, the convergence of Native American tradition and New Age interest would appear to be a match made in heaven, but it isn't. Cook explained that the Native Americans resent what they see as "plastic shamans" lifting just the spiritual part of the Indian experience without giving back anything to the ordinary life of Indians. But he believes AIROS and Native America Calling eventually will be able to give back to the reservations. "It will just take longer," he said.
At least NPR has approved giving the 24 hour channel to AIROS without charge for another year. According to NAPT's newsletter, AIROS' primary mission is to serve Native stations and, secondarily, the national public radio system. Native America Calling serves both audiences by addressing Native issues in ways that non-Indians can learn to respect. For Tom Beaver it is important "to change [people's] focus of Indian country being out of sight out of mind." He "would like for a Washington, D.C., station to carry it so that lawmakers could hear the issues," he said.
While CPB still provides funding, McKosato acknowledges that Native America Calling will have to develop alternative revenue at some point. Shirley Sneve, a contractor with NAPT and AIROS, is developing marketing tools to help the show secure additional underwriting and to encourage public stations to see that they do have Native Americans in their cities and listening audiences. (Don't forget the dues-paying New Agers.) They are currently targeting stations in Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and South Dakota, among 40 potential outlets.
Web page posted July 28, 2002
Copyright 1996 by Current Publishing Committee