Workday done, wearily dragging home, bumper to bumper on a Riverside freeway, spinning the radio dial, hoping for traffic distraction... and what's this? Soft rhythms of gourd rattles, voices raised in a chant-like song. It's a Cahuilla Bird Song — chances are you've landed on 88.3 FM, KUCR's Indian Time Radio.
For 20 years, Indian Time Radio has been the place on the dial for American Indians to find their music, their talk. For 19 of those years, Robert Perez, 44, Apache, has been a mainstay voice behind the mic.
Over the years, the program has amassed a collection of more than 4,000 songs, and Perez, a University of California, Riverside professor of Native American Studies, stays topical with indigenous issues of the day. The program broadcasts from the UCR campus, but also streams on the internet, so it can be listened to anywhere there is an internet connection.
It started more than 20 years ago, with Louis Vandenberg, station manager of University of California, Riverside's radio station, KUCR, envisioning a station of cultural diversity. Vandenberg had already launched programming for Hispanic and African American students, so it was only natural for him to include American Indian students. Vandenberg extended a welcome to Earl Sisto, then coordinator of Native American Student Programs, to come up with a program for Indians. Indian Time was launched, every Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
The name "Indian Time" plays off a cultural phenomenon — the propensity for Indians to occasionally be late. It's kind of a running joke in Indian country. You can walk in late to a meeting with other Indians, point to your watch, and say, "Sorry, guess I'm running on Indian Time." Everyone laughs, knowing what you mean. You can even buy "Indian Time" T-shirts. You can buy "Indian Time Radio" T-shirts as well.
T-shirts not withstanding, the main thing is the sense of identity the station provides Indian people. For too long, Indians have been invisible, largely ignored by the media. "It gives Natives something that belongs to them in pop culture," Perez said.
KUCR doesn't subscribe to an auditing service, so Perez doesn't know the exact audience size, but he did catch wind of some numbers several years ago that said 15,000 to 20,000 listeners regularly tuned into Indian Time. "Some have been with the program since the beginning," Perez said. He guesses most of his listeners are Indian, but there's a married couple in Switzerland that has been calling in for years to chat — so he gathers there are plenty non-Indians listening as well.
Perez knows radio isn't what it once was. The days of the family gathering in the living room, waiting for the tubes of the old Philco to warm up are gone. But the airwaves continue to be a conduit to the hearts and minds of listeners. Perez speaks of his listeners as part of an extended family, regulars who call in and request songs have become old friends.
As if on cue, an assistant signals to the booth that there's a caller with a request. Perez takes the call, and it's Dean Webster, a powwow dancer who frequently calls and asks Perez to play Eyabay Drum Singers from Red Lake Minnesota. They talk like old friends. "He's been calling and requesting Eyabay ever since I can remember," Perez said. "It means a lot to native people to hear Indians, to hear their music on the airways. It gives a lot of pride to Indian people."
Sherman Indian High School boarding students, many of them Navajo from Arizona and New Mexico, often tune in, so Perez plays music to remind them of home as well.
"There were predictions that our culture would become extinct, that we were going to die out. But our radio program is a small part of resistance to eradication. It's a place for Indians to go, a way of thinking about the old ways, a way to participate in the culture. A place where out-of-state Indians who relocate to Southern California find a voice that conjures a sense of home," Perez said. Indian Times is a community of people who believe in traditions. There is support in learning languages and performing ceremonies.
Perez's busy schedule doesn't allow for as many live shows anymore. He likes live shows though, "when a guy would call in a request for a love song for his old lady, or folks would request healing music for people who were sick, or favorite dance songs," Perez said. He hopes to return to the live shows soon, once his academic life settles down. Perez is busy making last-minute revisions to his book "Incomplete Conquest of Sonora: History of Spanish Colonization and Indian Resistance" before it goes to the publisher.
In the beginning, Indian Time was a student-run operation. Even Perez was a history grad student when he started. And others students have co-hosted the program with him over the years — Chris Ynostroza, Apache; Paul Miranda, Kupa; John Smith, Chemehuevi; Hunwut Turner, Luiseno. Perez likes it best when there is a co-host. It sets up give and take, banter, dialogue, and laughter that makes for a livelier program, he says. But it's difficult for students to find time, or to make the commitment needed for the gig. "It's not as easy as it looks," he said. He's brought in some students who froze before the mike, "about as exciting as a log," he said. So Perez as been handling it solo. But there is a student who looks promising.
He also likes it when he can bring live acts into the studio. There is a freshness when performers — drum groups, musicians, spoken word artists, and others — showcase their talents in front of a live microphone. Once his book is put to bed, he hopes to do more of those kinds of shows as well.
Perez has been at it long enough to emerge in the Indian community as a minor celebrity, but he tries to keep his profile low. He's been stalked by women, talking crazy, telling him he's their soulmate. "It's weird fan stuff that I try to avoid," he says.
But he looks back over the years at the countless interviews, the thousands of songs he played, conversations he's had, lives he's touched, and feels a sense of privilege.
"It's made me feel good," he said.