Locally-owned radio stations offer unique community-oriented programming

Sam Ribakoff
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON – Lydell Rafael starts the workweek off with a little Waylon Jennings, or maybe some Johnny Cash, or occasionally a little Bill Johnson and his hit, “They Don’t Call Me Indian Cowboy for Nothing.”

But whatever music he picks, Rafael always starts his morning broadcast with “yá’át’ééh abiní,” good morning in Navajo.

Rafael is the program director and morning show DJ at KNDN 960 AM in Farmington, a radio station that since 1957 has broadcast completely in the Navajo language, and up to this day has been owned and operated by the same local family, the Gober family.

For a town of roughly 45,000 people, Farmington has quite a few radio stations serving the area. But a majority of those stations are owned by large mass media companies that own similar radio stations throughout the country, or even throughout the world.

Many of those stations owned by major media holding companies may have a handful of local DJs and local talk show personalities, but they might not have the opportunity to control programming on the station beyond a few scant hours of the day. That makes it difficult to tailor news or music programming to the needs and wants of the community they are located in.

Hyperlocal programming and music, in the Navajo language

Program director and morning show host Lydell Rafael next to KNDN's radio transmitters in Farmington on Nov. 18, 2019.

KNDN lives and breathes to tailor its programming to the needs of the community, the Navajo community in particular.

All of KNDN's programming is in the Navajo language, which means DJs like Rafael have to translate English language advertisements live on air into Navajo.

KNDN also has a large library of what Rafael guesses is the largest collection of Navajo rock, country, gospel, and traditional music in the world, which community members add to every day with tapes and CDs of new bands and rediscovered community classics from the past.

In addition to that, KNDN literally acts as a microphone for the Navajo community.

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The "open mic" booth at KNDN 960 AM in Farmington on Nov. 18, 2019.

Parallel to the station’s main studio is a small carpeted booth with a single microphone. At any point during the station’s broadcasting hours community members can enter into the room, flag down the DJ in the studio via a window that connects the two rooms, and halt their program to make an announcement regarding community gatherings, news, funerals, and other things happening in and around the Navajo Nation.

KNDN also hosts a regular live broadcast from the High Country Buick-GMC car dealership in Farmington where community members can make the same kind of announcements on air, live from the dealership.     

“The internet and TV might not really get out to the Navajo areas that much,” said Jordan Duncan Osborn, the account executive for Basin Broadcasting, the local media corporation owned by Kerwin Gober, “But AM radio goes everywhere.”

Rafael estimates that the station has about 100,000 listeners spanning over a 150-mile radius.

“People trust you. They trust the information you tell them,” Rafael said, “and that’s what we take pride in.”

Hear them online at www.kndnradio.com

Campus radio at FHS

Farmington High School teacher, and founder of FHS Live and Scorp Radio James Curry at Farmington High School on Nov. 21, 2019.

Around an hour later, at 7 a.m. on weekdays, Farmington High School students start their own morning show on Scorp Radio.

Unlike KNDN, which is a for-profit radio station, relying on advertisements, Scorp Radio is non-commercial, funded through Farmington High School and grants. The station is broadcast only over an internet stream, not over terrestrial airwaves.

In the morning students host, produce, and engineer their own radio shows, playing all independent and unsigned bands and musicians, occasionally having live interviews with other students, teachers, or visiting guests, and occasionally, reading silly news stories with their co-hosts. 

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Scorp Radio was started by Farmington High School teacher Johnny Curry in 2016 as an outgrowth of FHS Live, the school’s platform for student produced video and audio coverage of the school’s various sports games which started as a component of Curry’s mass media class in 2013.

“I liken it to a little ESPN for students,” Curry said, “six years later and here we are with nine NMBA awards.”

The NMBA is the New Mexico Broadcasters Association, which gives out awards for excellence in radio broadcasting every year. FHS Live and Scorp Radio were judged in categories against college and university radio broadcasts.  

Curry stresses that he wants students involved with FHS Live and Scorp Radio to be able to use the skills they learned at the station, and take them out into the radio and media industry.

Go to https://bit.ly/2DdfRFr to hear it live.

College station a 'gift to the community'

The painted exterior of the KSJE 90.9 FM studios on the campus of San Juan College on Nov. 21, 2019.

Scott Michlin started out doing radio at his high school radio station, since then he’s served as the general manager and talk show host on San Juan College’s KSJE radio station for the past 12 years. 

Like FHS Live and Scorp Radio, KSJE is a non-commercial radio station, relying mostly on grants, underwriting and listener donations to survive, with a small amount of its budget coming from San Juan College itself.

On his weekday morning show, The Scott Michlin Morning Program, Michlin interviews local political and community members in a program he calls “the only one of its kind in what we call prime radio listening hours in the mornings.”

KSJE general manager, and talk radio host, Scott Michlin during a prerecorded DJ for a Day radio show at the KSJE studio on the campus of San Juan College in Farmington on Nov. 12, 2019.

With tight budgets, Michlin is one of only two full-time employees at the station, not including the handful of student and community volunteers running through the station, some who also produce music shows and help out with other shows.

It’s a lot of work, but Michlin takes a lot of pride in doing what he does.

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“We think local information is really important and local media can play an important role in getting the word out about issues that are facing our community,” Michlin said, “I think there will always be room in the world for good radio stations and radio stations that are meeting a need in their community, whether that’s community radio, or public radio, I think as long as they’re meeting a need in the community, there will always be a place for them.”

Go to http://www.ksje.com/player/ to hear the station on its live player.

Sam Ribakoff is a visual journalist for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-333-5283 or via email at sribakoff@daily-times.com.