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


FARMINGTON, N.M. — 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.

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