On the high desert mesas of the Navajo reservation, known for its
pedestals of sculpted rock, the amenities of modern life are few.
Half of the reservation's declining population, which now numbers
172,000, live in wood-heated houses without indoor plumbing. Roads are
unpaved. There are telephones in fewer than a quarter of the homes, which
are scattered over an area that takes in portions of four Western states
and is roughly the size of West Virginia. Only the tribal government's
health service, in Window Rock, Ariz., is online.
Strapped for resources and limited in its ability to provide services
its rural population, the newly elected Navajo government is turning to a
Tin Lizzie medium. The tribal leaders are among the scores of individuals
clamoring for access to the airwaves on a low-power FM radio signal under
a plan the Federal Communications Commission opened for public comment
Low-power radio could reach an entire population without the cost or
technology headaches of a full-power signal, M. Teresa Hopkins,
information technology coordinator for the Navajo nation's legislative
branch, said at an FCC hearing last month in Albuquerque, N.M.
The proposed change would relax the regulations to allow new
broadcasters to transmit in areas from 2 miles to 18 miles. There is
need all over the country for micro-radio, said Cheryl A. Leanza, a
lawyer for the Media Access Project, a nonprofit telecommunications law
The proposed loosening of the FM band has come under attack by the
National Association of Broadcasters and Rep. William J. Tauzin, R-La.,
who is chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications. Among the
issues the FCC must resolve is whether to allow low-power stations to sell
The Navajo plan has raised concerns among local broadcasters. "We feel
it's going to be a real detriment to small-market radio," said Paula M.
Maes, executive director of the New Mexico Broadcasters Association, which
has 150 stations in its membership. She said it was likely even so-called
micro-broadcasters would sell advertising.
Divvying up the meager advertising revenue in small towns, where a
30-second spot sells for as little as $6, will hurt small broadcasters
like Susan Coe, who owns an AM-FM operation in Lovington, N.M. "She does
the morning show, does the news and in the afternoon sells ads," Ms. Maes
said. "Put a microstation in a community that small, and one of them will
Ms. Maes said the commercial broadcasts that reach into the reservation
provide adequate local information. She pointed out that four stations
provided live broadcasts of the recent state championship basketball game
between top high school girls teams. "Localism is the key to our success,"
Ms. Maes said.
At first glance, a low-power station would seem impractical on the
25,000-square-mile reservation. Yet economic self-determination is what
underlies Navajo interest. The nation already owns KTNN-AM and KWRK-FM, a
high-power, traditionally run country-western music station in Window Rock
that reaches the reservation and surrounding areas.
Ms. Hopkins envisions a low-power sister station on the public radio
model, with broadcasts in the Navajo language tailored to concerns like
health (diabetes is a major issue), education and culture. Programming for
such a station could be rebroadcast at school-based stations on the
reservation and by Indian centers in Phoenix, Albuquerque and Los Angeles,
The month-old Navajo administration of Kelsey A. Begaye has pledged
develop a digital infrastructure, and low-power radio is a first step. "We
see it bridging the gap," Ms. Hopkins said. "Because we don't have
technology on the reservation, it's hard to attract business. We have to
educate people about what technology means."
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