Fond du Lac Band gets approval for radio station

A new radio station that organizers hope will strengthen the voice of the Fond du Lac Reservation has been approved by the Federal Communications Commission.

Tribal radio
Zac La Ronge, who is an occasional announcer at WOJB-FM in Hayward, announces during a program last year. Supervising is Sidnee Kellar, station manager. WOJB is one of only a handful of American Indian-operated radio stations east of the Mississippi. Another, 89.1 FM WGZS, the voice of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, went on the air Wednesday. (2008 file / News Tribune)

A new radio station that organizers hope will strengthen the voice of the Fond du Lac Reservation has been approved by the Federal Communications Commission.

It's the second Minnesota American Indian reservation to receive approval for operation.

The station will have the call letters WGZS, from the Ojibwe word "giizis" for moon.

"People are very interested ... in young people having a voice and being engaged in the media," said Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, "and some of our elders will be able to get out their stories and interests."

Approval was granted in the fall, after three years of feasibility studies and planning by the band. The station, at 89.1 FM, will be in a public, noncommercial educational format. The band has until September 2011 to find money to build a tower and secure equipment, estimated to cost $800,000. The band has applied for grants from the FCC and the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, said Jason Hollinday, the band's planning director.


The station will be housed in the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School, and plans include involving students from both that school and the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College. People already are talking about participating, Hollinday said.

The band's greatest challenge will be funding the station, said Susan Braine, chief operating officer of National Koahnic Broadcast Corp., which offers the "National Native News" heard at KUMD.

She said it takes at least five experienced people to operate a station, and most stations have more than that. Smaller stations need to rely on volunteers to cover air time, outreach and fundraising. That shouldn't discourage native stations, she said.

"With less than 40 native stations currently on the air, each one faces the same problems with funding but they all manage to keep broadcasting somehow," she said.

The Wisconsin Lac Courte Oreilles and Red Cliff bands of Lake Superior Chippewa have radio stations, and the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa in Nett Lake received approval to start a noncommercial station last spring. It also owns WELY in Ely.

"There are very few [American Indian stations] east of the Mississippi," said Sidnee Kellar, general manager of Lac Courte Oreille's well-known WOJB-FM in Hayward.

She said native radio is important to reservation communities because they are often isolated from bigger markets, and it gives them a format for news about their own areas.

"We can do interviews relevant to our community that probably wouldn't be of interest in larger markets," she said.


"There's a big difference between getting news and events from somewhere a couple of hours away and a couple of miles away."

Braine said American Indian stations strive to play a variety of music, and if listeners don't like it, "they'll stop the station manager or DJ at the post office or clinic and let them know their opinions," she said. "There is definitely a sense of ownership."

The signal for the 25,000-kilowatt Fond du Lac station won't reach over the hills of Duluth, Hollinday said, but it will travel south toward Moose Lake and north toward Floodwood. Proposed programs include Ojibwe language, culture and music, along with local news and nationwide shows such as "National Native News," "This American Life" and "All Things Considered." A mix of paid staff and volunteers probably will be sought, Hollinday said.

Training may be needed, Kellar said, but with the tribal college and the reservation's fluent speakers of Ojibwe, the station should get off to a good start.

"This is huge for Fond du Lac," she said. "When you have your own radio station, it helps define who you are as a community."

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