Red Lake tribe starts Internet radio stationby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
The Red Lake Band of Ojibwe in northern Minnesota has been interested for years in starting an FM radio station. But the tribe has struggled to meet the rigorous and time-consuming federal requirements to get a station off the ground.
In the meantime, the Red Lake tribe has started a radio station on the Internet. The Web-based station plays a variety of music, but soon will offer tribal news and Ojibwe language classes.
Red Lake, Minn. — You'd be hard-pressed to find any radio station in Minnesota that regularly plays pow-wow music. Red Lake's Internet radio station is doing it every day. Local drum groups from Red Lake and contemporary Native American artists from Minnesota and across the country have found regular rotation on the station.
It was started by Red Lake tribal member Gary Jourdain, better known to his listeners as "Rez Dawg." Since January, Jourdain and a handful of volunteer DJs have operated the Web radio site out of the spare bedroom of Jourdain's home on the shore of Red Lake.
Jourdain sits at a small desk as he announces the next song by a drum group called Eyabay.
"You're listening to Red Lake Radio live on a Tuesday afternoon, here. Rez Dog hanging out with you in the studio," Jourdain says. "Coming up I've got music from Eyabay, also some Buddy Redbone mixed in there, some more beautiful music from Ulali, also Robbie Robertson, Crooked Lake, Red Lake's very own Black Bear Crossing ... You got something you want to hear, you can email me at email@example.com, or you can hit us up here at the studio."
Gary Jourdain, or Rez Dawg, would have preferred to be broadcasting this kind of music on a tribally-owned FM radio station. The tribe at one time had a broadcast license from the Federal Communications Commission but the process to get a station up and running takes years. Over the course of several tribal administrations, the effort fell by the wayside and the FCC license expired.
For now, Jourdain is content to run the station on the Internet. He asked tribal leaders for help to get it started. The tribe provided about $7,000 to buy computers, a mixing board and a desk.
"They told me it's my baby," said Jourdain. "I can basically do what I want with it. Looking at our program schedule, we pretty much do anything we want with it."
Jourdain picked up the Rez Dog monicker during his years as a student hip-hop DJ on Bemidji State University's campus radio station. His love of radio grew at BSU. Jourdain decided then that he would one day start a radio station on the Red Lake Reservation.
"I'm doing it because it's always been a dream of mine, and I think it's something the tribe really needs," he said.
By day, Jourdain works as a marketer for the tribal casinos. So during the daytime hours of the work week, there's an automated playlist. It includes nothing but Native American drum groups, contemporary artists and Native comedians. In the evenings and on weekends, Jourdain is on the air live about 15 hours a week. Other DJs do more live shows and Jourdain says the number of live hours will expand as the volunteer list grows.
Jourdain says the station has become popular in the offices of tribal programs.
"Now when I go up there sometimes and I walk in I can hear them listening to the station," said Jourdain. "And it makes me feel good hearing other people listen to it. That's my ultimate goal is just to give this kind of voice to Red Lake. It's something that we've never had and I think it's something that could really bring the community together."
You'll hear just about everything on Red Lake Radio, country, heavy metal, rap and hiphop. Jourdain says it's a showcase for local talent. One of the artists getting lots of play is Red Lake tribal member Elwyn Jourdain, Jr. He's Gary Jourdain's cousin, better known to his fans as Emcee Edge.
Emcee Edge is also a volunteer DJ. He does a weekly show that features underground rap, rock and hiphop artists, including many from the Twin Cities. Sitting on a guest bed in the studio/spare bedroom of Jourdain's home, Emcee Edge says the station provides an outlet for people who love music.
"I love this," said Emcee Edge. "I love coming over here, jumping on the air, getting on the Internet, telling all my friends on there to tune in and listen. I'm talking to everybody. It doesn't matter where they're from. A lot of the Red Lake listeners, I'm hoping to turn them on into a different variety of music."
So far, Red Lake Internet Radio has only a modest number of listeners. Red Lake is one of the most fiber-optically wired Indian reservations in the country. Most everyone here has access to high speed Internet. But Gary Jourdain says there's lots of poverty on the reservation and not everyone can afford a home computer.
Jourdain says typically between 30 and 50 people log on each day. Most of those are tribal members. But others are listening, too. Jourdain says the station has had listeners from across the U.S. and Canada, and as far away as Italy, Egypt, Venezuela and Liverpool, England.
There are more than 550 American Indian tribes in the U.S., but few of them operate radio stations. According to the Center for Native American Public Radio, there are 33 tribally-run public radio stations, and only about seven commercial stations owned by tribes. There are a few Indian-owned stations in the Dakotas and Wisconsin.
In Minnesota, there is only one broadcast radio station owned by a tribe. Last year, the Boise Forte Band of Ojibwe bought a commercial station in Ely. But the Band has made few changes to the station's eclectic mix of programming.
Loris Ann Taylor, director of the Center for Native American Public Radio, a fledgling non-profit agency established in 2004 says the center's mission is to expand tribal radio in Indian Country. The center recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Taylor says Red Lake is among the first Native American tribes in the country to offer an Internet radio station.
"I think the future is in the Internet, in terms of radio distribution," said Taylor. "And so Red Lake is ahead of its time as far as Indian Country is concerned."
The Center for Native American Public Radio doesn't provide funding to Native stations. But it helps with programming, accounting, engineering and fundraising. It also guides tribes through the maze of FCC regulations for securing frequencies and starting radio stations. Taylor says communications is now among the most important priorities in Indian Country. She says Native radio has become an essential institution for tribes. Taylor says radio has become a tool for revitalizing Native American languages and culture.
"It's the hub of communication for a lot of these communities," said Taylor. "It's very powerful. It's instantaneous. These airwaves are in the homes of people on a daily basis. So hearing their own Native language gives them a sense of connection, identity, and it's also very tied into the nation-building efforts of Indian Country."
For now, Red Lake's Internet radio station is focusing on the music. But creator Gary Jourdain plans to soon begin airing hour-long CDs of Ojibwe language instruction. He's also advertising for volunteer newscasters. Jourdain says he wants to provide more news that will make Red Lake tribal members feel good about themselves.
"My complaint with the media around this area is that it's all, everything people see in Red Lake is negative stuff," Jourdain said. "In my newscasts, when I start them, I want to focus on the positives."
Jourdain says he wants to develop a station that's focused on the tribal community. If someone is interested in doing a radio show, he's open to the idea.
The Red Lake tribe has big plans for radio. Tribal Chairman Buck Jourdain says the new Internet station is a great way for the tribe to reach its 10,000 members, many of whom live far away from the reservation. The chairman says the tribe's new Boys and Girls Club will include a small recording studio. Jourdain says there are many talented musicians on the reservation. He says the studio will be a place for young people to share their talents.
"You know, a lot of younger people are not able to dunk a basketball like the big basketball stars and those types of things," said Jourdain. "There's a wide array of interests. And it's just lagging for other things for kids to do besides sports. And radio is a fabulous opportunity that we look forward to providing for people."
Buck Jourdain says he hopes the recording studio will one day become a studio for the tribe's own FM radio station. That would be fine with Gary Jourdain, the Rez Dawg. He's reopened the tribe's old FCC file and has already begun work on securing a radio frequency for a tribal broadcast station.