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Rez Radio brings Cupeño music, culture and history to the world

A small radio station on the Pala Band of Mission Indians territory in northern San Diego County broadcasts music and cultural programming that interests and reflects the history, culture and language of the Cupeño people.

PALA, Calif. (CN) — If you still listen to the radio, you know it can be a stifling if not depressing place. Annoying ads, consistent repetition of the same songs, lots of bloviating talk radio. It’s a breath of fresh air to run across a station that plays anything else, much less the wide array — everything from '70s outlaw country, to southwestern Native American bird songs, to reggae, to thoughtful interviews with community elders about the culture and history of the Cupeño people — that is 91.3 FM KPRI, better known as Rez Radio, broadcasts.

Rez Radio broadcasts from the sovereign territory of the Pala Band of Mission Indians, a territory that includes Cupeño and Luiseño tribal members, in an area in the northern part of San Diego County, just past the latest outpost of ever-expanding suburban sprawl where the county starts to open up into mountainous rural country.

Financed by the Pala tribal government and run without advertisements, the station was first conceived of as a way to broadcast emergency information to tribal members after a series of wildfires struck the area in 2007. Since they started broadcasting in 2011, the station’s two employees — station manager John Fox and assistant Eric Ortega — have turned it into something of a cultural institution. 

“We’re Native American owned and operated. We have Native American interests,” Ortega said. 

Those interests include things like playing bird songs — story songs using voices and rattles from Indigenous tribes in the Southwest — which Ortega, who grew up in Pala and is a tribal member, plays on his show "Songs of the Southwest." The station has also aired shows hosted by mother-and-daughter duos where stories and traditions are shared, and shows consisting of interviews with elders in the community, where history, and culture can be shared with listeners.

Fox, who is not a tribal member, extends the station’s mission of serving the interests and needs of Pala residents to the music the station plays, a mix of the aforementioned Native American music, country, rock, reggae, soul and blues. Fox came up with the heterogeneous mix after doing a kind of market testing in the community by playing different kinds of music for people and seeing which genres people liked.

John Fox, the manager of Pala Rez Radio, reads the day's news live on air on February 16, 2023. (Sam Ribakoff/Courthouse News Service)

Jazz music came in last place. Fox and Ortega say that they know Pala’s one dedicated jazz fan by name. 

The station’s most popular show is a three-hour broadcast of the music of Bob Marley that airs on Sundays.    

Fox accepted the job of station manager following a break from radio after working in the industry for decades in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego. He loved radio, but the industry had gotten significantly worse with stations being consolidated and wages sinking.

After seeing an advertisement for the job when he returned to his hometown of Fallbrook after the death of his mother, Fox decided to apply after stopping at the Pala Casino Spa Resort, the tribe’s casino built in 2001. The dessert special at the resort was bananas foster, one of his mom’s last requests.     

Fox convinced the tribe to run programming on the station 24/7, using a combination of live programming that he and Ortega produced, shows produced and hosted by volunteers, and automated music playlists Fox compiled. He also convinced the tribe to stream the station’s programming online.  

At first it was just Fox, until Ortega first pitched the idea of covering a local softball game on air. Fox agreed and Ortega went on to host a number of shows, including "Songs of the Southwest," a weekly recording of Sunday Mass that he started during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and a show called "Pala Life Past and Present," which consists of stories and interviews with community elders. 

Before joining the station, Ortega had no experience hosting or producing radio programming. But soon he — and the station— were winning multiple awards from the San Diego Press Club. Overall, the station has won 20 press club awards, Fox said. 

“The point is, we’re doing quality shows, even though we’re small,” Ortega said.

Before working for the station, Ortega was already recording interviews with community elders. He also works as a teacher of Cupeño, or, Pa’enexily, the language of the Cupeño people. For decades, Cupeño children were forced to attend boarding schools in places like Riverside and forbidden from speaking Cupeño and practicing their traditions, so the tribe is trying to reteach and revitalize the use of the language. 

At the beginning of every hour, the station has been announcing the time, along with their station identification, in Cupeño the past few years.

Ortega said the station’s use of Cupeño has been an integral part in keeping the tribe’s language revitalization program going for both Pala residents and for tribal members who live outside of Pala. 

The Cupeño people lived for centuries around the hot springs that are now called Warner Hot Springs, centered on a village called Cupa, about 35 miles southeast of Pala.    

In the 19th century then-California Governor John Downey began buying up property in the area. Downey eventually filed a series of lawsuits against the Cupeño, asking the court to evict them from Cupa and their surrounding land. One of the suits went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1901 that the Cupeño did not have a right to live in their homeland. In 1903, the Cupeño were forcefully removed from Cupa and ordered to move to Pala in what became known as the Cupeño Trail of Tears.

Since then, boarding schools, the lack of jobs and opportunities especially before the tribe’s casino was built, a lack of housing, and other dislocating forces caused many tribal members to leave Pala. 

Rez Radio’s terrestrial signal only reaches out 6 miles, but with the station’s internet streaming capabilities tribal members living around the world can stay connected with Pala and Cupeño history and culture. 

But now Rez Radio is poised to expand their reach even further. 

Recently the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association, a consortium of different tribal groups across Southern California received a license from the Federal Communications Commission to build an intertribal “super station,” as Fox called it, for both emergency services broadcasting and cultural programing serving San Diego’s 18 Native American nations — more than in any other county in the country — and other nations in the Southern California area, which Rez Radio will contribute to. 

It’s the first station of its kind in the country, Fox said. 

Plans are still in the works, even with a tight deadline to build the station dictated by the FCC’s building permit, but they’re now looking at building a tower for the station on top of Hot Springs Mountain on the territory of the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeño Indians.

It’s the highest point in San Diego County, and right above Cupa. 

Pala Rez Radio's psychedelic school bus painted by high school students for the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, sits in the parking lot of the radio station on the Pala Band of Mission Indians reservation in Pala, California on February 16, 2023. (Sam Ribakoff/Courthouse News Service)

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