Skip to main content

Apache radio reports to people in spite of wildfire, politics

WHITERIVER, Ariz. ? The internecine warfare at KNNB, the public radio station on the Fort Apache Reservation in central Arizona, seems insignificant now, dwarfed by the terrifying Chediski-Rodeo wildfire that roared through the region's beautiful forests in June.

The fire blackened nearly a third of the tribe's 1.6 million-acre reservation, destroying more than 400 homes and businesses on the edge of the reservation but also burning Ponderosa pine destined for the tribe's sawmills ? the major source of income for most White Mountain Apache.

Before the fire, the 20-year-old station in Whiteriver was a focal point of power struggles among factions and tribal leaders. But when the largest wildfire in Arizona history hit the reservation, Apaches put aside those disputes. KNNB focused on essentials, telling listeners how to survive and how to help. It interrupted regular programming with evacuation orders and information about relief and rescue efforts for the more than 20,000 residents in KNNB's broadcast area.

During the two-week crisis, says Vangee Natan, station manager, extending the broadcast day from 18 to 24 hours tested the station's small staff. KNNB aired countless interviews with officials from the tribal, state and federal governments ? from more than 40 different entities. At one point, the station had to broadcast an alert to the visitors and residents at the tribe's Hon-Dah Resort Casino, 19 miles up Highway 73, telling them to evacuate within an hour. (The casino survived.)

It was a frightening time. Smoke blanketed the valleys, roads were closed, mail service halted. People in the Apache towns of Carrizo and Cibecue, where the Rodeo fire started, were especially alarmed, but the radio reports were reassuring.

"People were coming on the radio in Apache, giving information on the fire," said Katy Aday, secretary in the tribal council office. "To hear it coming from our elders in Apache, it helped a lot."

After the smoke cleared however, the troubling issues that had occupied the 630-watt station before the disaster were still there; questions still remain about broadcaster autonomy versus tribal authority and about how much programming should be in the Apache language.

In Apache, the call letters KNNB carry a certain weight. "K," of course, is inserted by the FCC to call letters west of the Mississippi, but "NNB" in Apache stands for Ndee nitch'i' binagodi'e. Ndee is the word for Apache and nitch'i' binagodi'e means "a place where you report to people."

The station's small building stands in the outskirts of Whiteriver surrounded by razor wire fence, just off the main street, Highway 73. In the supermarket parking lot, families sell homemade Apache tacos and dumplings from the tailgates of their pickups. Men who stand around the supermarket are a reminder that the unemployment rate was 62 percent even before the fire. The median household income is $18,903, less than half of the state's average.

Walking through town, your ears tell you KNNB is popular here. A 1992 research study for CPB said the same thing, and Aday goes along with that

"When it goes off, when a storm comes, everybody complains and there's an uproar," says Aday. "And they are always saying, 'Why don't you start earlier? Why don't you stay on later?'"

The station begins the day with traditional Native American music and then switches to a locally produced program of mainstream country-and-western, followed by local issues-oriented programs on education, health and crime as well as a program on Apache culture. The satellite dish brings in Native American Calling as well as NPR's "All Things Considered" from outside, but music fills three-quarters of the schedule. Sunday is dominated by religious programming, including Bible readings in Apache, and on the weekends, program hosts read 45- to 60-second obituaries over a background of the deceased's favorite music. Deejays occasionally direct emergency announcements to individuals.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

As at other stations, listeners use the on-air hosts as a sounding board. When a local Apache was charged with setting the Rodeo part of the wildfire, callers rang the station constantly, expressing shock. Natan herself was devastated.

"This [was] really bad for me ... the tribe here is a family," she says. "When I went home, I turned off the radio and cried."

Leonard Gregg, a contract firefighter from Cibecue, allegedly confessed to setting the fire to get work. According to Natan, two council members went on the air and told people in Cibecue to cooperate with investigators to find who destroyed so much if their timber.

Like many other Native American stations, KNNB is licensed to the tribe itself, a situation that can lead a tribal council to view the public station as its mouthpiece rather than an independent voice. Frank Blythe, executive director of the CPB-supported Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT) said this is a primary cause of the rapid turnover of managers and staff at many of the 27 Native American stations.

"Because there is a lack of understanding of rules and regulations and a lack of freedom of the press ? managers get fired, managers get unfired, budgets get removed," said Blythe.

Natan has seen all that and more in her ten years working at the station. Named station manager just before the fire, Natan says she is determined to break the cycle of crisis and chaos. She had watched at least six managers resign or be fired when they ran afoul of council politics.

Last winter, the station was shaken by events surrounding the bitterly fought races for the tribal chair and council. At one candidate debate broadcast on KNNB, unruly supporters were so disruptive police were called to the station. Still, members of the governing board say that it's important for the station to air those kinds of debates, especially for those outside the political center of Whiteriver.

A separate controversy has developed over the way some tribal council members use their periodic on-air reports.

"Members have misused the reports," says Phoebe Nez, past KNNB station manager and now a member of the tribal council. "If they would stick to issues ? but they slander people ?"

Slander is not the only kind of talk that causes trouble for the radio station. Some of the White Mountain Apache listeners say they want more music, not talk. Ramon Riley, on the other hand, thinks there is not enough talk, at least in Apache. Elders and others view KNNB as a tool to help save the language and preserve Apache culture. Natan says she is trying to develop and encourage the use of the Apache language on air and that KNNB regularly calls on elders to help translate English into Apache, says Natan. She is aware, of course, of the danger of too many lessons and too much talk. "You can't cut out music ? people will shut us out," she said.

KNNB can't afford to shut out any of its listeners, who now more than ever need a good information source and a voice to rally them through these difficult times. In a place where poverty is the norm and alcoholism and suicide rates are stunningly high, daily life itself is often filled with disasters, and residents appreciate having a media outlet where they can announce the loss of a loved one, hear a report from their council member or find out about possible work at the FEMA office.

At 88.1 on the FM dial, they can hear a morning Apache song at dawn and soon after, the familiar voice of Udell Opah, host of KNNB's "Country Classics" for 20 years. In the evening, they can listen to the hottest Native American hip-hop from 18-year-old D. Kim Harvey, the program manager, who recruits native performers on the Internet. The staff and volunteers and board members find a way to keep the station going on, despite the politics and misunderstandings, despite disasters large and small. It is their responsibility to keep alive the place where you report to the people.