American Indian radio news grasps for air as funding falters

HATTIE KAUFFMAN, now a correspondent with ``Good Morning America,'' began her broadcast career in 1972 doing five minutes of American Indian news each day on the University of Minnesota's radio station. ``The [Indian] movement at that time was really charged,'' says Ms. Kauffman, a member of the Nez Perc'e tribe. ``I was the only person doing Indian news that I knew of.''

A few years later, Kauffman sat down with several other Indians and put together a radio program of American Indian news. The show evolved into a weekly half-hour program of news and features called ``First Person Radio.'' Close to 1 million people listened to the show during its peak year in 1982 when 52 stations subscribed to the program.

Today, Indian radio throughout the United States is struggling financially to stay on the air.

``First Person Radio'' is surviving on a month-to-month basis. Many stations owned by Indian tribes have had to cancel their subscriptions to the program to cut costs. The audience now numbers half a million, with only 29 stations picking up the program.

Susan Braine, executive producer of ``National Native News'' in Alaska, notes that the number of radio stations owned by Indian tribes has increased from five in 1979 to close to 20 today. ``And every one of them - bar none - is having financial difficulties,'' she says.

As Indian radio stations falter before mounting bills and shrinking donations, many people worry that a link holding the Indian community together will break.

``Nobody else is telling the story,'' says Lynn Chadwick, president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.

Broadcasts by Chippewa-owned WOJB in Hayward, Wis., create a bridge between the 1,500 Indians living on the reservation and their non-Indian neighbors, says Dick Brooks, the station's general manager.

``We want them [non-Indians] to perceive us as a high-quality station run by Indians. It smashes the uneducated, lazy, or drunk stereotypes when they hear educated, articulate people on the air,'' Mr. Brooks says.

This bridge to the non-Indian community is vital right now, as a treaty dispute heats up over hunting and fishing rights of the Chippewa. The station's programs give non-Indian listeners a chance to learn about Indian culture privately, says Sandy Lyon, WOJB's program director.

Between two and four dozen letters a month arrive at WOJB from non-Indians. ``They're practically love letters,'' Ms. Lyon says. ``A lot of them explain, `I don't have a car or a phone, but I'm out here listening - keep it up.' Some of them sound almost apologetic that they are just now learning what Indian people are like.''

Indians don't usually write or call the station, she says. Instead they drop in for a cup of coffee or to ask for help. Sometimes an elder stops by for a ride to the doctor. The station has even put up people for the night.

Although ``First Person Radio'' centers on Indian-related stories, Laura Waterman Wittstock, a founder of the show, estimates that 75 percent of its listeners are not Indians.

A recent show started off with seven minutes of national news headlines, followed by two features. The first feature examined the challenge to Indian hunting and fishing treaties in Wisconsin. The second looked at Indians in the art world.

Federal budget cutbacks have hit American Indians hard, leaving little tribal money to support a reservation's radio station, says Ms. Chadwick.

``Tribal leaders say, `Radio is nice, but we have a school to build, roads to build...,''' she says. Although radio seems like a frill, Chadwick says, ``it's the first place that raises people's consciousness and lets them know that the clinic down the road even exists.''

The constituency Indian radio serves is probably the most rural in the country, says Brooks of WOJB in Wisconsin. This presents special problems when it comes to funding, he says.

Underwriting, by which a corporation or organization pays to have its name mentioned during a broadcast, is almost impossible to find in a rural community, Brooks says. The dispute over hunting and fishing rights has made local companies reluctant to underwrite the Indian program. In 1984, when the treaty rights became an issue, underwriting for WOJB began to decline and then leveled off, he says. Brooks and other tribal stations are appealing to national corporations and organizations for funding.

Native-owned stations in Alaska are the most stable, says Ms. Braine of ``National Native News.'' Alaska ranks third in state subsidies to public radio, she says, allowing Indian stations to do long-range planning.

``National Native News'' is the only radio program other than ``First Person Radio'' that draws on stories throughout the country. Each day it provides a five-minute newscast of breaking American Indian news.

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