After 16 years listening to radio host Harlan McKosato at the helm of Native America Calling Monday through Friday, people feel like they know him personally. In a recent conversation with McKosato in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he said he's no stranger to the spotlight. As part of the Sauk, Fox and Ioway tribes, McKosato formed his identity and found community growing up in the small Oklahoma town of Perkins. By the time he was 12, he knew he wanted to attend the University of Oklahoma to become a journalist.
At OU, McKosato was widely known as the "Sooner sideline guy" who called football games on the local access TV channel. The youngest of five kids, he followed his siblings into sports fame and excelled at basketball. After college, he played ball and worked with a national youth organization that allowed him to travel and meet Native people from all over the country.
McKosato was writing for Indian Country Today's Scottsdale, Arizona bureau in the mid-90s, just as a live talk-show called Native America Calling was launching in Albuquerque. McKosato initially was passed over for positions as producer and host, but when the host left a few weeks later, he got the call and moved to New Mexico. Besides, he said with a smile, Miss Indian USA lived in Albuquerque.
Since 1999, he's written a column for the Santa Fe New Mexican and now regularly contributes to Native Peoples magazine, among other media outlets. McKosato was asked to serve as chairperson for the NEA-New Mexico’s Read Across America program and he and his son were featured in promotional posters.
He continues to do voice work for radio spots and recently flew to Washington, D.C., to record several commercials for the Center for Disease Control. Another venture in progress is a website for downloading books with Native-related content.
When ICTMN visited McKosato at his home to conduct an interview, he was discovered cooking stew and listening to an Iowa radio show discussing the documentary "The Lost Nation of Ioway." "We're not lost," he said. "We know exactly where we are. We know exactly how we got here." In typical form, he voiced his concerns with the directors when they passed through New Mexico last year, resulting in an interview with him for the second and third parts of the documentary.
After working with Native radio for so many years, what would you say is the state of radio now?
Native radio is as vital and as important as ever. I was just talking to guy in Hopi, and when you’re out there, sometimes that's all you have. It’s been growing. In '95 when we started Native America Calling there were maybe 15 tribal stations, and now there's over 40 tribal stations, which is evidence that it’s something tribal communities value.
Harlan McKosato. Photograph by Cristina Olds.
What are you most proud of from the time you worked with Native America Calling?
We made a decision when I first started working there to support tribal sovereignty. I said, 'we can’t sit on the fence.' For most media in this country, it's debatable. We were trying to pattern ourselves after Talk of the Nation, and I said, 'we've got to go all in or I’m not doing it.' …We never wavered on that as long as I was producing the show… Certain questions came up during the show, like is this tribal sovereignty or is this taking it too far when it comes to disenrollment, and that's a good question. Maybe we should have an Indian supreme court to decide on questions like that.
What do you see in the future of Native radio?
It’s gonna be tough. Those little stations have to get by with volunteers and small budgets. It takes dedication working in those small reservations in Minnesota, Montana, Alaska. It’s always going to be a struggle for them, but it will survive. They have to be able to get federal funds. It's got to come from the local level, but I believe in Indian people, I really do. We all have our faults, but if something apocalyptic was to happen I would go to my Indian people because we’d know how to survive.
You've talked publicly about creating a Native television channel. What's happening with that?
I’ve been working with this guy out in California. We need a channel, Native Americans. I don’t think casinos are the answer as far as the money… I think if we got tribal money involved in it, it would turn political somehow, and I’ve tried to avoid that. It’d be great if Oprah dropped a couple of million and said, "Run with it."
The argument [against a Native channel] is you’re only two percent of the population, but in some of these major markets in the West we’re six or ten percent. In Anchorage, it's 13 percent, Santa Fe is a top 50 market and we’re looking at eight to nine percent. If we could just get a third of that market and add in from non-Indians, if you could get five or six percent of a television market, that's big time.
The programming is out there. I’ve cataloged about 780 hours of short films, documentaries, videos, feature films, not even going into the Youtube and pow wow stuff. It wouldn’t be a network; it would be channel. No affiliates, we’d put it out through Comcast or DirectTV. I have big aspirations, but I don’t get too caught up in it.
What else is cooking for Harlan McKosato, post-Native America Calling?
I never thought I was going to become this voice of Native America Calling, but it happened for a reason. I counted them all up — I hosted about 3500 shows and I produced about 2900 or so. I've always been a people person, a storyteller. I've always kind of liked that notoriety and accepted it, but I really like … knowing something that makes me an expert. They used to call me Harlan Cosell when I was little.
What I'm doing right now is taking care of my son. …I want to go back home [to Oklahoma] and raise my son there because I want him to have the ties, the connection. I want him to be able to go fishing with his uncle, to ride his motorcycle to school… Because of the housing market right now, my plans are on hold with that, but I want him to have his formative years at home because we have family there and everything's there culturally. I want him to have that foundation, it's very important to me.