Indigenous Radio Stations Provide Comfort During Pandemic

Angelica Cabral

Journalist based in the Bay Area. She has her bachelor’s from Arizona State University. Her work has appeared in Slate Magazine, The Bold Italic, The Mary Sue, The Arizona Republic, and more.

Image of Angelica Cabral
Image of Angelica Cabral

Angelica Cabral

Journalist based in the Bay Area. She has her bachelor’s from Arizona State University. Her work has appeared in Slate Magazine, The Bold Italic, The Mary Sue, The Arizona Republic, and more.


OVID-19 shifted priorities for everyone, bringing to light which businesses might not have a future — or which may have their operations reduced after the pandemic is over. Starbucks and Victoria’s Secret, for example, have both closed stores around the country.

On the other hand, the pandemic has also shown what is essential — what people really and truly want in their daily lives. For many indigenous communities, this means fighting to keep their radio stations alive, proving just how much they need and want their own source of media.

Indigenous languages are still around, sometimes with speakers who don’t know English. But the majority of these first-language speakers are part of an older generation. It can be a struggle to keep these languages alive, and many radio stations in the United States do the work that’s necessary to ensure people continue to learn their indigenous languages, and celebrate their culture in a way that’s not always possible with mainstream media.

KYUK in Southwest Alaska has been translating their daily news program to the local indigenous language, Yup’ik, to help those who don’t speak English. That translating work is done by Julia Jimmie, their radio programming director.

“Since the pandemic, the news department has been inviting guests with a focus on the pandemic,” she said. “The guests have been doctors or community leaders, trying to keep everybody safe and healthy.”

Even before COVID-19, they had a couple talk shows in Yup’ik, but their translation efforts have ramped up to include public service announcements from the local hospital about wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing, and instructions on how to get tests done. Jimmie wants to ensure that people have what they need to stay in the know. “KYUK has been playing a critical role during this pandemic,” she stated.

For the Hualapai radio station in Peach Springs, Arizona, KWLP, their work has brought a form of healing to their community during the pandemic by broadcasting wake ceremonies at the request of families who have had someone pass away.

“There’s a process of moving from sadness and grieving to being joyful and helping send their loved one’s home,” Terri Hutchens, station manager at KWLP, explained. “They were still able to do that and there was still a connectedness even though they’re separate and apart in lockdown in their homes.”

They’ve had restrictions placed on large gatherings, and they haven’t been able to have their traditional ceremonies, but they were still able to dress in their regalia and sing and dance along with the wake ceremony from the safety of their own homes and together as a community.

The station has also been working hard to update people in the area on anything they need to know regarding the pandemic. Though they are a commercial station, they operate as a community station in regard to content, using community volunteers as DJs and radio show hosts. Since they’ve been limited to just essential employees, Hutchens has had to make do, adapting to complete the work with their volunteers remotely and digitally.

Another thing that community members tune into at their station is the tribal council meetings. Now that the meetings are closed to the public due to social distancing, they’ve started broadcasting them live so people at home can follow along. They can have as many as three meetings a week. Additionally, council members provide on-air content.

“We’ve had council members coming on the air regularly if there’s a particular resolution related to COVID, stay at home orders, shutdown orders,” Hutchens said.

Their community calendar, which has always been a regular feature that plays on the quarter hour, has been dedicated to COVID-19 updates since March, and they’ve been coordinating with the Indian Health Service (IHS) and the tribe’s incident command team. They’ve been running hundreds of public service announcements and alerting the public to changes they should be aware of.

“How the meals were being distributed was a major issue when the elderly department that kind of did a Meals on Wheels for elderly community members [changed] how those [meals] were going to be distributed differently and when,” Hutchens said.

In addition to providing information, the station has also been giving radios to community members who need them. Some people in the tribe do not have access to the internet in their homes to be able to listen online either.

“We’ve had so many requests for radios, and we have provided radios to a lot of the community members, especially those that are in isolation or quarantine because of COVID,” Hutchens said. “It’s like their only connection to the actual community is listening to the radio.”

While they do incorporate the Hualapai language into some of their programs, that process has come with its own set of challenges. There are different dialects of the language, and some tribal members disagree on how the language should be spoken.

“Because of the signal range, people who aren’t Hualapai will hear it, and so they may misuse it or misunderstand it or misspeak it,” Hutchens explained. “[Some believe] that the stories and language should only be shared and taught personally within the family or particular limited community circles.”

Like many other areas of the world, the station has been hit personally by COVID-19 and has lost a few of their Hualapai language speakers during the pandemic.

Over at WGWE, the Seneca Nation’s commercial radio station in Little Valley, New York, Brett Maybee, a production assistant, is working on starting a program on the show that uses the Seneca language, but he faces challenges just like Hutchens. So, he wants to make sure he does it right. There are issues to take into consideration, including who will have access to the information once they put it out into the world and ensuring that they receive the valued opinion of those in their community before proceeding.

“We want to do it right, as opposed to just jumping into something that [would] be insensitive to some of the concerns,” he said. “You know there are people of the opinion that it shouldn’t be shared in that format.”

Despite these concerns, Maybee still has a vision of what the show might look like: it would have multiple segments including one that is geared more towards basic conversational things that the kids can understand.

“The idea being to be able to engage the entire family almost, and it might be a little nostalgic of me to think, the good old days when people sat around and listened to programs like that,” Maybee explained.

They even have enough recorded, archival material so they can include stories from elders that have since passed on. Maybee is also hoping to work with immersion students, who he calls the “rock stars” of the language.

Maybee said that when COVID-19 hit, their number one priority “was to get that correct information out there for people to know which resources [were available] and where to turn.”

As with many smaller media companies, funding will always be a concern for the upkeep of a commercial radio station, especially, as Maybee mentions, when the station has to rely on revenue from nonnative businesses around the area as well. Their level of advertising has been affected by recent events surrounding COVID-19.

“As most people found, when the pandemic hit, we saw a nationwide or international shutdown,” he said. “When people stop wanting to advertise at that point, we have a lot of time [to fill].”

It will take some time to see how the funding comes through and how their radio station continues on.

“Most communities are kind of afraid right now that perhaps some of that funding just won’t be available in the near future,” he said. “We’re all to some degree or another invested in some of our own setups as well, and I think once that fire is lit and we’re able to kindle that more and more, it’ll take on a movement of its own.”

Maybee is hopeful about what the future of the station brings, even if it means some things take a little bit longer.

“Even though the COVID-19 pandemic might alter the course of what we’d originally planned, I think by definition, by nature, by that traditional kind of reckoning and thinking it will find ways to work around this and do the best with what we have,” he said.

From the East Coast to Alaska to Arizona, Maybee, Hutchens, and Jimmie are hardly alone in their work. These radio stations all over the country are broadcasting and keeping their communities informed by helping people receive the critical information they need. From wearing masks to whether or not businesses are opening to the latest from the World Health Organization, they’re sharing it all.

“These indigenous radio stations are vital to the community and vital for indigenous nations to be able to frame the conversation,” Maybee emphasized. “I think these are great bridges, especially as some of the more mainstream media sources have always tackled indigenous topics in an unfair or negative light; this really presents opportunities for us to, again, humanize who we are.”