COMMENTARY: Turn your radio on.

by Aug 4, 2023OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


The tribe needs a radio station. Many think that AM and FM radio are antiquated, a thing of the past that has outlived its purpose. In a world where information is increasingly a pay-to-access proposition, AM/FM radio broadcasts remain available to anyone with a receiver. In vehicles, it may be the only immediate access to emergency information there is. Cell phones may be set up to alert you to things like EAS transmissions and such, but radio broadcasters are bound by law to interrupt their regular broadcasts to provide emergency information, and that is nationwide.

During an Emergency Alert System (EAS) transmission, broadcast radio and television stations become one gigantic station communicating vital information on weather and other hazards. The system used to be called the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) beginning in the early 1960s and before that in the 1950s Emergency Action Notification (EAN). The bottom line is that should there be a regional or national crisis requiring action by the community to ensure its safety, EAS would be a critical link between the government emergency services and the community to quickly convey critical, possibly life-saving information. “The system was upgraded in 1963 to become the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), where emergency messages could be sent directly from the National Warning Center in Colorado. Once activated, the EBS would allow the President of the United States to address the entire country within ten minutes.”

In addition to being able to alert people in their cars, standard AM/FM radios of every shape and size are available in portable, pocket-size “transistor” units that may be used in the most remote areas of the Boundary, particularly those with AM bands. AM quality is not necessarily what you would want to listen to your favorite tunes on, but for the purposes of talk and information, it may have a worldwide reach.

I noted in my latest vehicle purchase that there was no cassette, compact disc, or wired external auxiliary input on the entertainment system (the only auxiliary connection was through Bluetooth), but the radio was still there and available. Many electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers have indicated that they are removing AM radio from their electric motor cars because of the conflict caused by static electricity generated by the motor’s interference with AM radio. Some members of the U.S. Congress have introduced legislation to prevent carmakers from abandoning AM radios in cars because of the value of that media to emergency service notifications. Car makers are exploring ways to shield the radios from the radio frequency generated by those electric motors so that if the government mandates continuing to provide AM to its customers, they will be ready with the technology to make it so.

In an article written in May 2023 by Tori Tellem titled “Here’s Why Everyone Is Freaking Out About AM Radio in New Cars,” the following was included: “’Broadcast AM radio is an essential part of our emergency alert infrastructure, but the responses to my letter show that far too many automakers are ignoring the critical safety benefits of AM radio. Although many automakers suggested that other communication tools-such as internet radio-could replace broadcast AM radio, in an emergency, drivers might not have access to the internet and could miss critical safety information.’ That’s Democratic Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), summing up the current controversy that inspired new legislation called the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act of 2023. So far, loss of AM radio has been largely an electric vehicle issue. The proposal included directing the ‘National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to issue a rule that requires automakers to maintain AM broadcast radio in their vehicles without a separate or additional payment, fee, or surcharge.’”

Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel released a statement that said, “There is clear public safety imperative here. Having AM radio available in our cars means we always have access to emergency alerts and key warnings while we are out on the road. Updating transportation should not mean sacrificing access to what can be lifesaving information.”

Like the Cherokee One Feather, a tribal radio station could be used for entertainment as well as conveying important community information. There are many ways to produce audio material for radio and there are even services that provide content like music, news, sports, and weather in packages on a regional or national basis. With a radio station, language education could be enhanced; history and cultural content could be shared, and youth sporting events could be broadcast. With radio, Tribal Council sessions and governmental information could be broadcast to the furthest reaches of the Qualla Boundary, providing access to tribal members who are so remote that they do not have cell, cable, and internet services.

There have been studies and recommendations made for the potential purchase of radio frequencies and facilities in the past.  I am not certain why this potential added resource didn’t get traction. It is very likely difficult for leadership to see the benefit of what is generally perceived as a dying medium. But traditional radio’s death has been predicted for several years and yet it still keeps generating jobs and revenue. Local radio, in particular, is a thriving business in some close municipalities. Depending on how much the tribe would want to invest in equipment and licensing, the possibilities are endless as to the potential of a radio broadcast operation.

Whether the tribe decided to go the public radio route, using grant dollars and corporate donations to sustain the broadcast entity, or create a commercial tribal radio presence, there is a good possibility of a self-sustaining operation. Owning frequencies and our own station gives us additional control of messaging and the image we want to project to the outside world. There are literally thousands of examples and models to use from across the country of successful operations.

I have often thought that a tribal radio station would be a great fit for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. I am not sure if the Cherokee Youth Center still maintains a radio lab, but I know that there was interest from our young people. Broadcast sales classes are still being taught in local colleges. And the tribe has the potential to broaden its horizons in an entirely new direction with minimal startup costs.

There are those better than I and more qualified to provide details on what research the tribe has done on the possibility of buying frequencies, equipment, and stations for the tribe. But I do know the great advantages to public information and safety that radio is suited for on the Boundary. Nothing beats AM/FM for common availability for communication to the public, and particularly for our community. For years, in the absence of a tribal broadcast station, our people have bought scanners to listen to police and emergency services frequencies to hear critical information. The community knew the importance of having a scanning frequency radio to get their timely information. From flooding to traffic accidents to medical emergencies, we have struggled as a people when it comes to getting urgent info to all people.

How great would it be to have a tribal amber alert system tied into a tribal radio station? Instead of losing critical time waiting for the public to check their cell phones or randomly run across a satellite radio notice, our community could immediately be mobilized to “be on the lookout” for an abducted child or catch a human trafficker. We could have access throughout the Boundary whether in our cars or in our remote homes, to urgent weather alerts. And we would be tied into regional and national networks to be made aware of whatever medical, governmental, or military alerts so that we might react faster to protect our families and communities.

Broadcast radio is worth consideration for our community, if for no other reason, to have another tool in our arsenal to protect and inform our tribe. Let your Tribal Council representatives know that you would support an effort to establish a tribal radio station.