Crystal clear: Yankton Sioux radio station expands reach

A version of this story appeared in Indian Country Today in August 2011.

Let’s all get in the pow wow mood!” says on-air personality Chaske Rockboy, a.k.a. DJ Big Daddy Rock, Yankton Sioux, leaning into his microphone at KDKO’s studio on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota (pictured, below, with station manager Rolene Provost). “It’s pow wow weekend, and grand entry is tonight at 7:30. And remember, buckle up—it’s the law!

KDKO, which has streamed here since 2006, recently began simulcasting and now broadcasts at 89.5 FM. The noncommercial station reaches 10,000-plus listeners from a studio tucked under the eaves of a private-home-turned-women’s-center on a tree-lined street in tiny Lake Andes, South Dakota. Downstairs, at the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center that occupies most of the building, children arrive for Dakota-language classes, and a mother cooks up a mound of frybread for a sports camp. Long braids of dried prairie turnips, a traditional Dakota favorite gathered in early summer, hang on the kitchen wall.

Like the services offered by the center, the station’s round-the-clock schedule is targeted to the needs of area residents. Locally produced news and health segments alternate with nationally syndicated shows on relevant topics, and Native American music is interwoven with contemporary rock—which makes KDKO strikingly different from the area’s big commercial stations, with their minimal news programming and sound-alike nostalgic music. (More Bee Gees, anyone?) During elections, KDKO works to get out the vote.

Education is a priority: Yankton Sioux tribal member Diane Merrick offers on-air Dakota-language lessons, and public-service announcements by Rockboy on critical issues facing the community—including AIDS, drug addiction, fetal alcohol syndrome, and date rape—would “blow away” most people with their frank, straight-from-shoulder delivery, according to center director Charon Asetoyer, Comanche.     “This is an exciting moment,” says station manager Provost, who’s Yankton Sioux as well. “We’ve got state-of-the-art equipment and can apply to our broadcasts the skills we developed creating shows for the Internet. And we have a wider listenership than in our Internet-only days, because people can find us on home and car radios, not just via computer.”

 KDKO’s 1,000-watt signal, beamed from a transmitter atop a tower at the tribe’s hilltop Fort Randall Casino, is crystal clear for miles. “You can even hear us down by the Missouri River in areas where cell phones don’t work,” says Provost, a former editor of the tribal newspaper, the Yankton Sioux Messenger. “That’s important when we do emergency broadcasting and warn of such things as flooding and tornados. The reservation used to get emergency information from a station 50 miles away, so by the time we found out about the danger, it was upon us.”

The station also offers much-needed work experience in an area where unemployment tops 80 percent and job skills of any kind are hard to acquire. Currently, KDKO utilizes high-school interns, and Provost is setting up a volunteer program, so more people can learn broadcasting, which they can take anywhere their imagination leads them. KDKO’s next step is fund-raising for equipment that will allow remote broadcasting for things like sporting events, which in turn means it will soon be able to offer instruction in sportscasting.

Rockboy, member of the pow wow drum Yankton Sioux Singers, is archiving traditional Yankton and Native American Church music for the station’s library as well as producing studio interviews with local performers. “There’s a lot of talent on our reservation, and the station can let everyone know about this and, in general, can open communications among tribal members,” says Provost. “Radio is such a fun way to be a good neighbor and a good relative.”

Provost and Rockboy are part-time employees of the station. The rest of their time is spent working for the women’s center, which advocates for health and human rights nationally and internationally and operates, among many projects, a food pantry and a shelter.

As a noncommercial facility, KDKO can’t accept advertising. Instead, it relies on the center’s backing, support from the Yankton Sioux Tribe, partnerships with stations on Pine Ridge and Rosebud, and fund-raising. A $219,000 grant from the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP) underwrote the broadcasting project. According to Provost, PTFP identified the Yankton reservation as one of the last areas in the country without public broadcasting services and awarded the money to close that gap.

It’s a dream come true,” Provost says. “I’m looking forward to years of bringing people together and helping instill pride in our language, our culture and ourselves.”

Text and photograph c. Stephanie Woodard.

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