Community-based programming in a perfect world: Small budgets, big dreams

It was a Thursday afternoon in mid-May when I spoke with Sue Matters, station manager of 91.9 KWSO.  The tribal radio station is owned and operated by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Oregon and is one of at least 53 operations of its kind found in Indian Country – the mostly rural territories across the U.S. where tribal nations are situated.

On this day, Matters was discussing the day’s content that had been broadcast— the hour-long block of pow-wow music that started the morning; the four-minute newscast including the latest headlines stemming from the reservation.  Featured among those news stories was the recent tour of Warm Springs taken by Brian Cladoosby, the current president of the National Congress of American Indians.  Matter’s was discouraged KWSO was unable to book the tribal leader for a studio interview.  “He visited our local sixth graders at school, instead” she said. “So at least we were able to run a news story about that on our air,” she explained.

Since 2003, Matters has led a small staff who run a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week radio station.   Their primary audience is the estimated 4,000 tribal members living on or near the reservation. To build listener loyalty, Matters told me she feels like she has to compete with regional commercial outlets, even though KWSO’s broadcast license is non-commercial.

The station’s been on the air since 1986, long before dot-coms, Twitter, or selfies entered the scene.  But all of those seem to bear significance at KWSO.  The station recently updated its website.  On its home page, a series of photos flash on the screen featuring tribal elders, Native toddlers and a young Indian princess wearing a beaded crown.  Below the slideshow are links to community calendar events and local news stories.  One headline announced a new Facebook page launched by the tribal government.  Matters said KWSO’s online facelift was part of the station’s goal to stay “multi-digital.” “We’re doing things with very limited tools,” she said. “And that means we’re thoughtful about driving eyes to our website.”

In a perfect world, Matters says she would like to enhance KWSO’s community driven content on the air as well.  Her dream project: a 30-minute week-in-review news program produced locally and featured on the weekends.  “I like to push the bar,” she said. “But there just aren’t enough hours in the day.”  Or money. Like many tribal radio stations, the budget at KWSO is small.  Her staff of seven also receives assistance from a roster of unpaid volunteers.

As we wrapped up our conversation, Matters gushed about how some tribal radio stations broadcast entire segments using Native speakers.  It’s the kind of specific community programming she said she’d also like to see at KWSO.  And it’s an endeavor that may easily fit into the station’s restricted spending. I look forward to following up with Matters later this summer when NFCB will host a regional summit in Olympia, Washington in July.

Until then, NFCB will also hold a conversation about community-based programming at our next regional summit in Albuquerque, New Mexico June 11- 13th.  Registration closes June 2nd and you can sign up here.   We’ll also be hosting a regional summit in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul, Minnesota in late June. Looking forward to sharing more along the way.


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