It’s late Sunday night on Diego Garcia, a tiny atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean where the U.S. military maintains operations. With the click of a mouse, a sailor tunes in to Brunch with Bob and Friends streaming live from a San Diego station. Reggae fills the lonely sea air.
For Marines and sailors stationed on the isolated island, the show is not about the music — it’s about the connection to San Diego they feel when host Tommy Hough talks about the town where many have families, or where they trained before shipping out.
Brunch with Bob broadcasts from RezRadio 91.3 (KOPA) on the Pala reservation in northern San Diego County. The 100-watt signal reaches only about five miles. Due to topographical factors — the antenna sits amid a ring of mountains that includes Palomar — that’s as far as it goes. But with the help of internet streaming, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn, RezRadio has a worldwide audience.
Aside from servicemembers on Diego Garcia, armed forces personnel have tuned in to Brunch with Bob from posts in Germany, Iraq, Afghanistan, and “pretty much anywhere the U.S. military has a presence,” said Hough. He tells of an email he received from aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, where the show regularly cheered up the chow hall and helped the sailors through mess duty. Civilian listeners in the Cleveland, Ohio, area make frequent requests, and a listening party has sprung up in São Paulo, Brazil. Tommy gets emails from Great Britain and France and once received a note from Sarajevo, Bosnia. The show’s app draws listeners from English-speaking Liberia and other locations in West Africa. Some South Africans are fans, too. That means people thousands of miles away are tuning in live to a signal from Pala: the voice of a 3000-member local community heard around the globe.
And there’s a good chance far-away listeners really do hear the voices of the Pala Band of Mission Indians: station identification and hourly time checks are done in Pa’enexily, the Cupa language. Short for Kuupangaxwichem, or “people who slept here,” “Cupa” is the name the Spanish gave to the people who in 1903 were forcibly relocated from what is now Warner Springs to Pala. They joined the Luiseños on the reservation but remain a distinct band. Their language survives thanks to native speaker Rosinda Nolasquez, the last survivor of the 1903 relocation. Recordings of her voice teach speakers of this generation. Now RezRadio is teaching the next.
But to be on the radio, the ancient language needed an update: the concept of digital time did not exist in Pa’exenily, so station manager John Fox and assistant Eric Ortega had to figure it out. A native speaker recorded all the numbers, and then the pair wrote software that strings the words together to tell time at the top of each hour. Ortega also produces “Word of the Day,” featuring Pa’exenily vocabulary.
“I had one individual tell me,” said Ortega, “they never learned the language, but hearing it on the station they would very much like their children to learn it.”
Ortega, whose family name graces a street that intersects with Pala Mission Road just west of the 1816 church, had no previous radio experience when he met station manager Fox. But he learned quickly: his show, Pala Life: Past and Present,, won the 2013 San Diego Press Club award for Best in Show. Known in local circles as the “Radio Guy,” Eric said he pretty much goes around “knocking on doors” to find participants to visit the studio and talk about their lives.
After the 2007 Witch Creek and Rice fires, members of the tribe recognized the need for a signal on which they could rely in emergencies. During the fires, cable and the two TV signals that reach the Pala valley went out, leaving residents little access to information as they watched the smoke and flames get closer. But the tribe was not in agreement about the necessity: the radio station failed its first tribal council vote.
Eventually convinced, the council applied for one of a few non-commercial/educational licenses issued by the Federal Communications Commission. The license allows the station to broadcast at just 100 watts (FM radio can go up to 100,000) to keep the signal from interfering with other frequencies. The tribe built a 60-foot antenna on a hill and converted a former wastewater treatment facility into a state-of-the-art studio. Fox said he cannot discuss tribal business and specific budget, but “in general, construction of a two-studio radio station, transmitter, and tower would start in the $80–100k range,” plus cost of the facility to house it and licensing fees.
The tribe made the investment, likely with monies accrued from casino profits that fund civic improvements in Pala, but they weren’t quite sure what they wanted to do with the new signal. Creating hours of non-emergency content was not on the list of priorities. Then along came Mr. Fox.
When the Pala Band put out an advertisement for a station manager for 91.3, John Fox was retired from radio. After a 30-year broadcasting career that included gigs in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Bernardino, he thought he was finished. But the Pala station seemed to be calling him. At the end of a road trip to honor his mother’s memory, Fox and his wife stopped at the casino. One of his mother’s last requests — Bananas Foster — was the dessert special. Answering the ad seemed like the right thing to do, especially considering the fact that his mother had lost her Fallbrook home, where Fox grew up, in the 2007 Rice Fire. Fox’s application caught the attention of tribal council member Kilma Lattin, who headed the broadcasting effort for the Pala Band. It so happened that, as a kid growing up in La Jolla, Lattin had listened to Fox on B100 in th ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s.
Since Fox assumed management in 2011, RezRadio has won nine awards. Not too shabby for a station with a signal that doesn’t go over 100 watts. The non-commercial designation means Fox doesn’t have to court advertisers to meet budgetary needs, so he can focus on programming. The tribe pays for everything — no advertising, no donors, no private funds.