The struggle and excitement of music discovery has vanished with streaming services. Unearthing Native American music was even more of a challenge in the bygone days of cassette tapes because there was very little tribal programming in the 1980s. Sheila Nanaeto knew the struggle all too well.
“I love to powwow. I would go to powwows all the time with my aunts, but how do you practice dancing if you don’t have access to that music?” Nanaeto said.
She was fortunate to have Ignacio’s KSUT Tribal Radio’s weekend programming. Her step-dad was a diehard public radio listener so she was familiar with the channel as a 9-year-old girl. Her Debbie Gibson cassette was no match for the drumming transmitted on radio waves into her mom’s basement, where there was space to dance. The bubblegum pop was taped over with the Native music so she could practice dancing at her convenience.
Today, Nanaeto is the station manager for Tribal Radio and has access to all the powwow music she could ever want to hear. She is part of the crew of 11 who have been operating in the cluttered and outdated space at 123 Capote Drive where the station has been housed since the early 1980s. It was originally a medical building that was part of the Native boarding school. Stacks of CDs, old-school posters and an unidentifiable mix of materials fill the offices and production rooms in a sort of organized chaos. The carpets and equipment have yet to be upgraded.
“We joke, ‘Don’t look at that control board wrong.’ It’s held together with duct tape and glue essentially because they don’t even make the parts for it anymore,” said KSUT Executive Director Tami Graham.
Nanaeto said when she gives tours of the station, she tells people the only other place they can see the ancient equipment is at the Smithsonian.
Graham has been in her position since 2016, but she had a stint at KSUT in 1990, prior to becoming the station manager for KDUR Durango Community Radio from 1990 to 1997. She can attest to the station staying frozen in time, although they have been able to keep up with the digital world to a degree.
“There are computer screens in the control rooms now where there used to not be at all. It was just a paper log,” Graham said.
The station launched in June 1976. It was conceived by Eddie Box Sr. and chairman of the Southern Ute Tribe at the time, Leonard C. Burch. The goal of the station was to deliver Native news, educational programs – some in the Ute language – and music to an underserved community through a 10-watt signal that only reached 20 miles. It was one of eight tribal stations in the entire nation. It may seem obvious, but Graham said people often fail to realize SUT stands for Southern Ute Tribe.
The new station was tasked to train new staff. A 1975 article from the Southern Ute Drum headlined, “Hey! Wanna Be An Indian Disc Jockey?” was a call for applicants to join the new station with potential to earn up to $4 per hour.
People who helped establish the station through the years include Box Sr.’s son Eddie Box Jr., station manager Lillian Seibel, tribal member and long-term staffer Sage Remington, station manager Beth Lamberson, and another long-term manager, Carlos Sena. KSUT’s endowment fund is in Sena’s name.
In 1984, KSUT became an NPR affiliate. That led to the station branching into a second stream, Four Corners Radio, in 1998. The two streams were meant to reach a broader audience but maintain Tribal Radio’s original mission of serving the Native American population. Tribal radio kept the original station number, 91.3 FM, while Four Corners Radio adopted 90.1 FM.
Both stations syndicate NPR shows and produce local programs. Graham said Four Corners Radio has always highlighted what they call triple A music – adult, acoustic, alternative.
“It’s not roadside assistance,” Nanaeto said.
Michael Franti, Indigo Girls, Cowboy Junkies, Sam Bush, and R. Carlos Nakai are a few of the artists who have squeezed into the production space for live performances. Local shows include Tales of the New West, San Juan Sunrise and Barrelhouse Blues, among others.
Tribal Radio provides national Native programming through Native Voice One and produces their own shows, such as The Morning Show traditional powwow music, Rez-olution Radio, local coverage of Ignacio sports and others. Its services reach northwest New Mexico, Southwest Colorado and large portions of the Navajo, Jicarilla and Ute Mountain Ute nations.
“We provide 42 hours (per week) of Native programming on Tribal Radio and I am very proud of that,” Nanaeto said. Many other stations provide just a few hours a day, she said.
She’s had to get creative finding new music since many labels don’t send CDs anymore. Native music also isn’t released on a consistent basis and sometimes they are even directed to purchase songs off iTunes, which is difficult for a nonprofit.
“We head to powwows and we basically just stand there and record music as it’s happening live,” Nanaeto said.
They recorded five albums, Roots and Rhythms, that are compilations of in-studio performances as well. The station will have opportunities to record more music in-house by early 2020.
The station was able to lock down $2.5 million for a new facility. The Southern Ute Tribe provided the new 5,000-square-foot space on the tribal campus at 14826 Highway 172 for $1 per year.
The estimated value of the 30-year lease is $1.8 million. The tribe also matched $1 million in funds during the capital campaign for renovations and new equipment.
Nanaeto said: “There will be four production rooms, on-air studios and a performance space that will hold a drum group and not shake ...”
“the CDs off the walls,” Graham said, finishing her sentence.
She said the transition is more sweet than better, even though there is a lot of history in the old building. She said many people are feeling nostalgic about the place that will be grounded after the move.
“If these walls could talk,” Graham said.