Volunteers come together for North Dakota radio station
Written by SHANNON MARVEL, Aberdeen American News
Published: 28 March 2017
Tom Wilson | Courtesy Aberdeen American News
SISSETON, S.D. (AP) – Nestled on the Coteau des Prairies on the outskirts of Sisseton stands a radio tower that was once adorned with a lone eagle feather, placed on top of the tower to symbolize good fortune.
The eagle feather was one of five left to Tom Wilson by his elders. Wilson gave the other four to people close to him throughout the years, but he held onto the last one, knowing it was meant to go somewhere special. He realized that place was atop the tower that would give life to the first community radio station on the Lake Traverse Reservation.
In June 2011, KXSW 89.9 FM went on air for the first time with Wilson as the main DJ and manager.
The Aberdeen American News reports that the station office is on the Sisseton Wahpeton College campus, but Wilson sets no limits when it comes to where he’ll broadcast from.
At the start of each day, he smudges the microphone with sage and greets listeners in the Lakota language.
“I smudge the microphone so positive things will go through the airwave,” he said.
From 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., the station plays powwow music, which is Native American singing, drumming and dancing from spiritual social gatherings.
“People get to hear that while going to work,” Wilson said. “School buses listen to it, even the Head Start (program), because it relaxes the kids when they hear the powwow music.”
Current hits and those from decades past, including blues, alternative rock, country and pop, are played throughout the rest of the day and night between scheduled programs.
Technology allows anyone with an internet connection to tune in. And KXSW will livestream or broadcast just about any community happening.
“We just started the livestream this last month. Otherwise, we were doing Facebook Live, but that has its limitations,” Wilson said.
When a fire broke out Feb. 10 in the Sisseton High School gym while classes were in session, Wilson was on scene to report on the incident via Facebook Live, letting parents and residents know the children were safe as the scene played out.
The station has an eclectic blend of programs to appeal to as many local listeners as possible.
“(Last) summer, in late August, I was at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, and we did an afternoon broadcast interviewing some of the workers there,” he said. “It was pretty neat, because they said it was the first time a radio station ever did that.”
Wilson also livestreams local sporting and other events.
He and eight volunteers work at the station.
One of those people is Sam Williams, a junior at Sisseton High School.
Williams, 17, is Wilson’s right-hand man and has been volunteering for four years.
“I can rely on him,” Wilson said of Williams. “I can call him and say, ‘Can you record this onto the computer right away?’ I had the chairman call me once to put out a statement during the storm this past winter, but I was in Connecticut. (Williams) got it on right away.”
Williams credited his work ethic and knowledge to his mentor.
“(Wilson) showed me everything that he does, and I just kind of picked it all up from what he’s taught me. He’s a pretty good teacher,” Williams said.
Williams began volunteering when he was only 13.
“It’s really affected my life in a positive way,” he said. “It’s kept me out of trouble, it’s kept me busy and it’s something I love to do.”
One of Williams’ fondest memories was when a special person called to request a song.
“When I first started going on the radio, my mom called in a song for me on my birthday, and it was pretty touching,” he recalled.
The song was “Imagine” by John Lennon.
Now, Williams has his own music program Monday nights from 6 to 8 p.m., during which he plays the latest chart-topping hits.
The variety of music played is what Williams said makes the radio station unique when compared with others.
“I think the most enjoyable thing out there is just the music, you know? We play a wide variety of music, and there’s a lot of different programs that we play, too. It’s nice to hear different things once in a while,” he said.
Wilson laments the lack of interest in volunteering at the station, especially among the youth.
“The students and the volunteers we have now are all experienced, and it’s like the community is scared to be on the radio,” he said.
“I always go around and say, ‘Hey, you should volunteer,’ to high school students and college students, because that looks good on your resume. That has a lot of pull, believe it or not,” Wilson said.
He has made the station a homey place. A large Native American star quilt hanging on the wall is the first thing to greet visitors. Along another wall, shelves display Wilson’s collection of antique radios and record players next to a Beatles poster.
Now, almost six years in, Wilson keeps working to expand the stations offerings.
“We’re actually going to livestream our council meetings for the first time so people can actually watch,” he said.
“I’m not a big fan of prerecording things because I like things raw. Everything I do is live. If somebody comes in and wants to sing or perform, it’s done live.”
“We do have specialty shows on here, like (Thursday) morning we had ‘Getting Real With Life on the Rez,’ and this boy walks in and said he had cancer,” Wilson said.
The teenager had stopped by the station after hearing Wilson discuss racial and social issues with author and American News columnist Lawrence Diggs of Roslyn. The discussion prompted the boy to share his story.
“He found out he and his brother had the same type of cancer that killed their dad. So, they had the option of getting their stomach removed or be dead by the time they’re 22,” Wilson said.
“He told us that he was pretty heavy before he got cancer and they removed his stomach and now he’s thin. Now everybody wants to be his friend, when he had only three friends before. So he said, ‘I see the difference now.’ He talked about coping with cancer and losing his dad, then he sang a song.”
Impromptu storytelling happens often on the radio’s airwaves, which helps foster connections within the community on topics that might otherwise be considered taboo.
“At random, I’ll just bring somebody in who wants to talk,” Wilson said.
“I brought one of my cousins in who was hooked on meth, and I wanted to ask her the questions that everyone is afraid to ask. So I said, ‘Sit there, we’ll do video on livestream too,’ and I asked her questions like how easy is it to get meth. And she said it’s easier to get it than pot,” Wilson said.
He asked his cousin to share her story and inform the community about meth with the hope that it might help someone else who is struggling with meth addiction.
“She’s been off it for eight months now, so I brought her on for other people to watch,” he said. “I told her, ‘If only one person gets inspired from you talking about this then it’s well worth it.”’
No stranger to hardships, Wilson recalled being homeless in Minneapolis when he was a teenager in high school.
His said his parents were missionaries who died when he was young.
Wilson fondly reminisced about the music scene and artists in the Twin Cities, which are commemorated by a portrait of Prince that hangs high on his office wall.
Although Wilson will never get a chance to livestream a performance by Prince, who died last year, the DJ continues to explore different ways to connect with listeners.
So far, the station has provided a positive and uniting experience, which Wilson credits to one simple rule: “We do not discuss politics in any of our programs,” he said.
The station was the idea of a group of community members affiliated with the college who wanted community radio. A board was created in 2007, with Wilson as a member. But it took years to complete the Federal Communications Commission paperwork for a license.
With KXSW established and ready to embrace even more technology, there might be a next step. Wilson said there are plans to start a local TV station.
Information from: Aberdeen American News