'All Navajo, All the Time' : With a Homely Mix of Music, News and Gossip, KNDN Binds a Far-Flung Indian Community


This just in: Dorothy Benally of Beclabito needs a reliable sheepherder. He must be willing to take the flock up into the mountains for at least two months. Call collect . . . .

The squaw dance for Frank Woody at Ojo Encino has been postponed . . . .

And to anyone who's listening, Elmer Bigben would like the people of Red Mesa to leave messages at the chapter house.

Rise and shine.

It's another day in the communal life of the Navajo Reservation, courtesy of KNDN, 960 AM on the radio dial, where it's "All Navajo, All the Time."

Have a meeting to announce? Need help gathering a dead person's relatives to perform and pay for funeral rites? Are a neighbor's sheep trespassing on your grazing allotment?

KNDN will air your message free, sandwiched between slices of country-Western heartbreak, squaw dance chants and the occasional Phil Collins tune. And odds are, someone is listening.

The only all-Navajo radio station in the United States, KNDN echoes across the bleak mesas and canyons of the Four Corners region. Its 5,000-watt signal blankets 60% of the 24,000-square-mile Navajo Reservation, reaching 85% of its 160,000 residents.

KNDN does radio the old-fashioned way: no shock jocks, Rush Limbaugh or dial-in cash giveaways here.

The deejays are all Navajos and, except for some song titles, untranslatable terms (like "Good afternoon") and hourly FCC-required station ID announcements, they speak entirely in their native language.

The homely mix of music, news and gossip is a trading post of the airwaves, an electronic gathering place where Navajos exchange information and catch up with what is happening in their world. For these far-flung residents of the global village, KNDN is a conduit to the outside world, bringing word of crisis and calamity at light speed--just as soon as an announcer can translate a news bulletin.

Curators at the Smithsonian Institution were sufficiently impressed that they use snippets of KNDN's programming in the new American Encounters exhibit at the National Museum of American History.

In an era when many small radio stations draw cheap, canned programming from faraway cities via satellite, why offer a live home-grown product?

The short answer: Navajo buying power.

"It's a tremendous market," says Jim Gober, the station's managing partner, who occasionally takes potential advertisers up in his private plane to give them a feel for the vastness of the listening area. KNDN's rate brochure estimates the collective annual income of the nation's largest Indian tribe at $881 million.

Gober, an Anglo, has been bringing Navajos together on the radio since 1957, when he, his wife, Ruth, and two other owners built the tan brick KWYK studios on the outskirts of this northwestern New Mexico town. In those days, they ran a Navajo program from 5 to 6 a.m.

When KWYK switched to an all-English format on the FM band in 1977, Gober and his partners, who are also Anglo, started KNDN-AM, featuring Navajo disc jockeys from 6 a.m. until midnight.

"The demand was obvious, and it grew," Gober says. "That's why we went to an entire broadcast day in Navajo."

Gober, a balding, blue-eyed Texas native who is president of the local Chamber of Commerce, has grown acquainted with some of the complexities of language and culture of the American Indians who call themselves Dine: "The People."

Some years back, he took a course in beginning Navajo. He retains just enough of what he learned to say, "I don't speak the People's language."

Navajo is so difficult to master that Navajo soldiers operating radio posts throughout the Pacific theater during World War II communicated American military secrets in their own tongue. The Japanese never deciphered the messages sent by the "code talkers."

The Navajo language--with its halting cadence, closely related to Apache dialects and somewhat more distantly to Athabaskan languages spoken by Indians in Alaska--lacks words for many aspects of modern technology.

For example, KNDN broadcasters use a phrase meaning "air that speaks" for the word radio. That staple of Navajo life, the pickup truck, is referred to as "metal with a tail."

The station's income derives from commercials for vehicles and tires, farming implements, food stores, motels and building supply outlets. But KNDN has offered its listeners free air time from the start.

It is a boon in a region where only 10% of the homes have telephones and home postal delivery is unheard of. Gober views it as a public service, but it's also a canny way to keep listeners glued to the dial.

In the studio lobby, just outside the soundproof booth where the deejays cue up CDs and spin old 45s, two microphones are available for anyone who wants to broadcast a message. One goes live, while the other is connected to a tape recorder.

That mike, says program director Wilbert Begay, is for people to record death announcements.

"Most of the workers here are reluctant to broadcast funeral announcements, because they have to go through a cleansing ceremony," Begay explains. But a taped announcement of someone's death, broadcast over KNDN, gets word to relatives and clan members over a large area in time for them to attend the funeral.

For those who can't drop by, KNDN's disc jockeys spontaneously translate the many English-language announcements that arrive by mail or fax. Area hospitals use KNDN to let relatives know when patients are ready to be picked up.

"There are still people without electricity, so they use battery-powered radios," Begay says. "These shepherds are well-known for that. They carry their radios while they herd their sheep."

He is getting ready to translate the daily world news roundup for his listeners. "This is their source of information," says Begay, who has worked at KNDN on and off for nearly 30 years and is attuned to the tastes of his audience.

Listenership is highest among older Navajos, many of whom are uncomfortable speaking English, Begay says. Many tune in religiously each day for regular features and stop by the studios when they come to town.

About 60% of the station's playlist is country-Western music. The rest consists of Navajo groups like the Turtle Mountain Singers and the Chinle Valley Boys, religious titles, oldies from the '50s and '60s and some rock and contemporary music.

"The only thing we don't play is hard metal," Begay says.

Over at Navajo Tractor, half a dozen people are lined up for "Dine Speak," a daily 15 minutes (though it usually stretches longer) during which folks can speak their minds via a remote hookup to the radio station.

They might drive 100 miles or more to do so, according to tractor company employee Caroleen Padilla. "Sometimes they take a long time," she says. "They go into detail and tell their whole life story before they get to what they're talking about."

Back at the studio, it's time for "The Larry Emerson Show."

The outgoing 34-year-old host pops in a cassette of an Elvis sound-alike belting out "Johnny B. Goode" accompanied by a killer guitar. The singer is Emerson, who moonlights as an entertainer.

"I get lots of requests for my music," says Emerson. He believes the radio audience skews toward younger listeners during his show.

Although he's been on the job only a year and a half, KNDN's youngest disc jockey is at home in the sound booth, with its lime green floor tile and yellow desk. When using the mike he adopts the resonant "broadcast voice" of a seasoned radio pro.

But because Emerson, like many Navajos, was raised an evangelical Christian, he was unfamiliar with older Navajo ways.

"When I first came here, not knowing the traditional stuff, to me it was, like, all the same," he recalls.

"During the summer, right after I started, I tossed in a yei-bei-chai song. As soon as I did, the phone started ringing. They said, "What are you doing, dude? That's a winter song and it's not supposed to be played in the summer."

Emerson pops in the D. J. Nez cassette, "My Heroes Have Always Been Indians," and listens to the lyrics to "Veteran's Honor." It is, he explains, a song about Navajo veterans from the world wars.

He translates seemingly without effort, although he admits it's sometimes hard to find the right term.

"A lot of times, you have to make up your own," he says. "You don't have words for certain things, so you have to explain."

. . . And this goes out to 9-year-old Dave Jackson of the Chaco Plant area: There is an end-of-season Willie Mays Picnic. They would like you to attend.

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