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Yakama tribe buys radio station

TOPPENISH, Wash. - The Yakama nation has made its first move toward creation of a tribal media center with its recent purchase of KENE AM radio in Toppenish.

Once the tribe's Federal Communications Commission application for a call-letter change is acted on, KENE will transform into KOTY - "the voice of coyote," and a favorite legend of the nation will be honored.

The station recently was purchased as part of the tribe's 10-year vision, an economic plan dedicated to developing businesses and career opportunities for tribal members. Since the vision was formally passed by the general council two years ago, members of the Economic Development Department have scouted all over eastern Washington for an existing FM radio station to buy. They soon discovered the cost of FM stations was prohibitive and that few ever reached the market.

Like Dorothy in the "Wizard of Oz," it turned out opportunity was right in the tribe's backyard. The 1,000-watt KENE just outside of Toppenish came up for sale and the price was right.

"Basically we stole it from this guy for $300,000," says Simon Sampson, director of economic development for the tribe. "He needed money and we had the cash available. Then we financed it ourselves and saved $65,000 by not going to a commercial lender on it."

An official ribbon cutting and ceremony was held Nov. 28 , and soon a different kind of music was wafting over the 1.3 million acres of the reservation 24 hours a day.

"Now that we're on the air, people all want to say something," says Alfonzo Garcia, economic project manager. "We had a guy who called up and said 'Hey, today's my wife's birthday. Can you say something about it on the radio?'"

Still trying to determine its programming, the economic office distributed surveys to tribal government and the general community to find out what people want to hear. Tribal government asked for programs that would supply the tribe with information about numerous tribal programs. From health and education to wildlife, fisheries and forestry, Garcia says the tribe has about 100 different programs running, each of which has a different message to convey to the community.

By the end of the month, station personnel plan to have a program schedule ready for the first quarter of next year. The station already has received dozens of calls from people wanting to volunteer to work or learn how to become disc jockeys. Tribal students at the local Yakama Valley Community College asked if they can develop an intern program at the station for media credit.

The tribe is interested in building a multi-media center and eventually hopes to be able to train Yakama members in newspaper journalism as well as audio and video production - even movie production.

"We desire to create a media center that may be part of an entrepreneurial development center for Yakama members to get training in education and assistance in finding jobs in the local area here and in Olympia, Seattle and Spokane," Garcia says.

More than anything else, the tribe sees the station as a good foundation in community service.

"Here we have comedians, songwriters, poets, people who want to do things," Garcia says. "This basically creates a window of opportunity for different members of the community to expose themselves and get their business going."

A non-commercial station, KOTY will depend on community sponsorship from local Toppenish businesses and banks like Western Bank and Bank of America, as well as companies and agencies like the local telephone company, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies. Then there are tribally owned enterprises such as the casino, gas station, land and credit services, forest products company and the cultural center and restaurant.

Sampson says he hopes the local tribal high school will "step up to the plate" and sponsor its own football, basketball and baseball games which have never been broadcast before.

"Believe it or not, even though it's a non-commercial station there's grant money out there available for these radio stations," Sampson says. "The FCC has construction money and some operational money. For now the tribe will operate it out of tribal programs under indirect costs as a community service."

Eventually the tribe plans to build a transponder up in the mountains so tribal members farther away from the Toppenish area will be served. At 1,000 watts, coverage area of KOTY is approximately a 50-mile radius.