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White earth news Niijii Radio now on air in Callaway

RICKY SMITH is the chief operator and on-air talent for Niijii Radio, and is now working on pre-recorded material and live cut-ins.1 / 2
Radioheads: Keith Thelen, Ricky Smith, Dr. Betsy McDougall, Joe Dan Rousu, and Linda Buckanaga-St.Clair are all used their own talents and knowledge to get Niijii Radio off the ground.2 / 2

If you had your radio dial turned to 89.9 FM Thursday morning, this is what you might have heard:

"Good morning, you're listening to KKWE Niijii Radio, and we're coming to you live..."

That was radio personality Ricky Smith, who is also the chief operator for a brand new station broadcasting from Callaway, Minnesota.

Niijii Radio recently hit the airwaves after being only a conversation piece since before 2000.

The brainchild of White Earth activist and writer Winona LaDuke, the station generated enough buzz, excitement and volunteers to become reality.

Its parent organization is the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP), through which it obtained a nearly-$500,000 grant from the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program.

But it doesn't have the slogan "Independent radio for an independent nation" for nothing.

"Nobody owns it but the community," said Niijii's Program Station Manager Betsy McDougall, who says the station is a product of a grassroots effort. "The station has it own board and is its own entity."

Aside from McDougall, who works for WELRP, 100 percent of the people you'll hear are community volunteers who want nothing more than to see the station take off.

Niijii has become an affiliate to both Pacifica (a public radio group that shares content) and Native Voice One.

"That has a lot of shows like native call-ins, and we just started becoming networked with all of these wonderful people who really offered their time and energy into helping us develop as a radio station," said McDougall.

Because the station is relying on volunteers, there are no particular playlists or genre hammered out -- the music and content are set to be a direct reflection of the community and its volunteers.

"It's not just about being Indian," said McDougall, "it's about the diverse cultural make up of this community. It's not going to be all powwow music -- it's going to be a mix of anybody who wants to come up here and volunteer."

Smith is one of those volunteers who has already put in significant hours to get the radio station up and running.

"Right now I've been doing some pre-recorded stuff and then just plugging in the weather, some local news; I did the Callaway traffic report the other day," he laughed, "I just looked out the window and was like, 'We had a wide-load semi come through...'"

Fellow radio enthusiast Joe Dan Rousu, who has been dubbed the production director, has spent the past couple of years in Thief River Falls working as a radio announcer doing weather, news and sports.

"When they finally got FCC clearance to do this, I moved back here," said Rousu, "and now I'm making my living off the land chopping wood, because I'm a volunteer -- that's how passionate I am about this."

In fact, the entire two- studio facility, located on the upper level of the old elementary school, has also been put together by volunteers and the donations they've been able to solicit.

"This is my green room," Smith said looking around the production studio, which is literally painted green, "I brought the paint from my basement, Linda got the windows, Betsy got the door ... the ownership is right here. The people whose heart is here and the people who are investing time into it."

That ownership is set to expand, though, as Friday roughly 25 other volunteers gathered at the station to begin training -- whether it be for on-air work or behind the scenes.

Linda Buckanaga-St. Clair is studying under McDougall how to do underwriting for the station, which is how funds will be raised in place of advertising.

Niijii Radio has an FCC license for commercial- free public broadcasting, so advertisers can't purchase airtime -- they can only donate money for a mention on the radio.

"It's public radio, so we're soliciting people just like you'd see on public TV," said Smith, "We're going to have to raise funds and ask for donations whether it's uncle Larry and Grandpa Jerry gave us $15 and they're going to underwrite this hour of powwow music for you!"

McDougall says having a native-based radio station isn't just about broadcasting their cultural voice, but it's about archiving history for the tribe.

"You have obituaries; you have anniversaries, celebrations and events that we can go and record and play them. We can have elders telling stories from long, long ago."

McDougall says they hope to use the airwaves to help with communication and education for tribal members and the serious issues they face.

"My hope is that the diabetes clinic or domestic abuse programs really start to put out information that can help," said McDougall, "or even go and interview people on working with bees, making maple syrup, growing gardens or working with solar and wind power here -- it's going to generate content that's educational."

Another focus of Niijii Radio will be to preserve and hopefully revitalize the Ojibwe language.

A recording studio is currently on their wish list (when funds become available) for community members to come in and share their writings, their songs and their art.

At night, however, plans are looking a little spookier.

"I'm looking at getting a late night show where we talk about aliens and ghosts because there's a lot of interest in this area for that type of thing," said Smith, "and a lot of native folks because of their spirituality embrace the supernatural, so to me our target audience would enjoy something like that."

Much of what happens in the studio will, of course, depend on funding.

Station management went with the plan of buying second-hand items for the unimportant things (furniture and aesthetics) while putting their real money into the equipment that broadcasts them.

KKWE's transmitter is a leased spot on a cell tower in the Shell Lake area, and broadcasts as far west as the Fargo-Moorhead area, all the way to Fergus Falls, Brainerd and Cass Lake.

In fact, with live streaming on their website, they can reach anywhere in the world.

"We've had a White Earth veteran listening from Afghanistan, a lady from Sweden, New Zealand and Pakistan," said McDougall.

To hear that live-stream, logon to

Their request line is 218-375-2012.