Friday, October 17, 2008

Welcome to my thesis!

When I was doing research for my history thesis, I often found myself cruising the stacks of the library, poking around in dusty corners. As I slaved away for a year on this 70-page research paper, I often found myself struck with terror at the thought of my thesis becoming just another dusty research paper. I would often take something to check-out and the librarian would chuckle, "Wow! This one hasn't been checked out since the 1950s!"

That's a frightening thought. So in fear for the mortality of my poor, little history thesis, I am posting the whole thing here on the internet in the hopes that someone might be interested. I am splitting it into sections and I will post the complete PDF should you prefer it in that format.


The web page that started it all

It is a terrifying prospect to come up with a thesis topic. This is something to which you will be DEDICATING YOUR LIFE for the next year. It should not only be interesting to you, but interesting to other people, also a hot topic in academia, a stepping stone in your academic career, something for which there is some research - but not too much - and preferably with lots of juicy primary source material. That's a tall order.

My starting point: something to do with Mexican-Americans in California. And hey, I really like media and communications.

Naturally I started out by blindly googling. I somehow found this tantalizing page featuring this one little photo:

Thus began the research journey that would take me from rainy Portland all the way to California's Central Valley. Here's to the National Park Service!

A quick introduction to Spanish-language radio

For nearly as long as there have been radio broadcasts in the U.S., there have been broadcasts in foreign languages, everything from German, Polish, and Italian to Native American dialects to Japanese. These ethnic radio programs, usually not lasting more than two to four hours, would generally run about once a week either on primarily English-language stations, or on stations that carried a number of other ethnic programs. The shows served their communities by advertising ethnic businesses, spreading news, playing familiar music from the homeland and helping ease the transition to life in America.

A great number of these early ethnic variety shows were broadcast in Spanish, especially in the southwestern states where there was constant immigration from Mexico. In fact, the market was so strong that by 1960, Spanish-language shows accounted for two-thirds of foreign-language broadcast time in the U.S., with many stations broadcasting exclusively in Spanish-- something that could not have been predicted based on the population of primary Spanish-speakers nor on Spanish-language press circulation, which accounted for a mere 8.6 percent of ethnic press circulation. It seems that Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans had a special affinity for radio far exceeding that of any other ethnic group and of the general populace. This was still the case in 1978; one survey found that Spanish speakers listened to twice as much radio as the rest of Americans on average, about four hours a day.

Despite the unusual popularity of Spanish-language radio, there has been little scholarship explaining this phenomenon, especially in terms of how the stations have changed over time. The work that has been done has largely consisted of snapshots of particular places or times, with the exception of one narrative that only covered from early beginnings to 1976. The goal of my research is to study the particular-- radio station KGST “La Mexicana,” the oldest station in California’s Central Valley-- in order to understand the broader history of Mexican-American radio in the Southwest in the context of both Mexican-American and radio history.

Over the past 50 years, KGST has played an important role in strengthening the Mexican-American community of the Central Valley, by bringing together listeners spread across hundreds of miles through the airwaves, at the station itself, and at sponsored events. The station has kept people connected to Mexican culture while simultaneously integrating listeners into American culture as consumers. Its programming has reflected changes in both the Mexican/Mexican-American population and in the radio industry, initially functioning like other ethnic radio, but moving toward a more mainstream sound in the decades after it became a full-time Spanish-language commercial station, with more listeners permanently settled in the area. More than promoting American mass culture or Mexican culture, in the late 1960s through 1980, the station gave focus to a local Mexican-American ethnic culture that was distinct in musical tastes, interests, values and lifestyles, even as the identity of the station remained “La Mexicana” (the Mexican one).

A review of the literature: In which I find very little and decide Felix Gutierrez and Jorge Reina Schement are my heroes

Although the topic of Spanish-language radio resonates not only in historic terms, but is of interest for the fields of communication, ethnomusicology, ethnic studies, linguistics, and Chicano studies, secondary literature on the subject is limited. Only a handful of scholars have treated it in any way and all have emphasized that it is a topic meriting more attention. Ethnic radio is lucky to get a few paragraphs in most of the mainstream radio histories, which wax nostalgic about radio’s golden days. In its most comprehensive treatment, Theodore Grames’ survey in 1973 for the American Folklife Center, Spanish-language radio was belittled by the author, who found it so commercial he hesitated to call it ethnic. Felix Gutierrez and Jorge Reina Schement’s 1976 dissertation, “Spanish-language radio in the Southwest,” is the definitive narrative on the topic and is referenced by all later scholars. The communications dissertation gives a historical overview and has a detailed case study of one station, as well as statistical charts based on Broadcasting Yearbook showing national trends unique to Spanish-language broadcasting. This source is invaluable, as well as a chapter in Clemencia Rodriguez’s Fissures in the Mediascape, which has original interviews with early Mexican-American radio deejays, many of whom have since died. In addition, there are a few other theses, mainly from the field of communications, treating Mexican-American listening habits in certain cities.

It is evident from existing literature that Spanish-language radio is different from mainsteam English-language stations and much ethnic radio programming in a number of ways, and warrants its own treatment in the scope of both radio and Mexican-American history. Immigration from Mexico has been different from much immigration from European and Asian countries in the sheer numbers of people that have come, the close proximity of the homeland, and the continuous nature of the immigration, which has distinguished Mexican-American radio programming from other ethnic radio programming in some important ways.

Theodore Grame surveyed U.S. ethnic radio programs for the American Folklife Center in 1973. He was the first person to look at the topic on this broad level and define commonalities between radio programs. He felt at the time of his survey that the vibrant ethnic radio tradition had been overlooked by scholars, and also that it was in danger of disappearing as second and third generation immigrants stopped speaking the language and lost ties to their home country. He said that most of the ethnic brokers that he interviewed did their shows because they wanted to serve the community, and that they made little money doing so and were lucky to break even. Unlike deejays, brokers were not salaried by the radio station, but instead paid for radio time, usually just a few hours a week outside of prime time on primarily English-language stations. They recouped costs by selling advertising time, usually to businesses within the community as their audience was usually not big enough to attract national advertisers. The shows usually featured music with commentary and commercials in between. There was news from home, but also information and advice to help new immigrants adjust to life in the U.S. By 1973, many of these radio programs were long-standing, attracting primarily older, first-generation immigrant listeners, and Grame said that the brokers sometimes seemed stuck in a time warp, playing music that was popular at the time they left their home country and maintaining an outdated speaking pattern. The only exception to this was Spanish-language programming, which not only comprised the majority of ethnic programming, but was continuing to grow, so Grame largely left it out of his analysis.

Why Mexican-Americans? Why radio? Why KGST?

As opposed to other ethnic radio, Mexican ethnic programming was constantly renewed by new immigration and immigrants still had close ties to Mexico. The newest Mexican recordings easily made their way to stations in the Southwest, whereas an ethnic broker from Scotland or Italy might find it more difficult to stay up on popular music in the home country, relying mainly on his or her own record collection. Furthermore, Mexican radio brokers had a much bigger audience and could attract national advertisers, to the point that the market could support commercial radio stations that broadcast only in Spanish. The radio stations also did not have as much competition from newspapers as did other ethnic radio programs, especially in rural areas with high illiteracy. Mexican-American radio’s commercial nature has caused it to develop differently from other ethnic radio over the years, becoming more and more like mainstream English-language stations in its sound, format and role in the community.

The Mexican-American community has long preferred radio over print and even after the introduction of television, radio has held its own. Since the 1920s, Spanish-language stations have been viewed and used differently by their listeners, often to make up for a lack of social services or newspapers. The radio stations have served as the formal announcers of events, births, deaths. They have been the classifieds, the source for government information, and often the only outlet for news. Furthermore, they have been very directly involved in the communities, sponsoring events and rallying listeners for charity drives which have helped to build the idea of a Mexican-American and, to some extent, Latino, community. In Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, Susan Douglas writes about the ability of radio to form imagined communities that are separated in space, but united through the broadcast, not unlike the Spanish-speaking community spread hundreds of miles around Fresno.

Even as it has forged its own way, Spanish-language radio has been affected deeply by the changes in the American radio industry over the past six decades. Its history is that of a complex relationship between serving the community and satisfying commercial forces. Sometimes the two line up well; carrying advertisements for local Mexican-American businesses is a service for listeners who want to know where they can buy certain products, and it makes money for both the station and the business. KGST must turn a profit to survive and the more advertisers the station has, especially national brands, the better programming it can offer. Carrying a lot of beer and cigarette ads may not be healthy for the community, but the money they bring in also makes better programming possible, particularly news programming. It is expensive to support a newsroom, whereas music programs are very cheap and more popular with listeners. It is even more expensive to have an in-house reporter, but local and regional news is the information most likely to directly impact listeners. Most English-language stations have carried little news as their listeners can look to newspapers and, more recently, television for that purpose. However, Spanish-language stations have often been the only place in an area that listeners could find news and information, giving them a somewhat greater responsibility to listeners than mainstream English-language stations.

There is no better way to understand this marriage of service and commercialism than a case study. Radio station KGST “La Mexicana” is an interesting station to study for a number of reasons. It was the first full-time Spanish-language station in the Central Valley and the second in California, the first station with Mexican-American ownership, and the first and only with programming of its kind for a decade. KGST broadcasts from the heart of California’s Central Valley, an agricultural area that has always been heavily Mexican-American giving to the migrant farmworkers who pass through seasonally and over the years sometimes choose to stay. Furthermore, it is in a more rural area than KCOR in San Antonio or KALI in Los Angeles, which have both been treated academically. The research about California stations has mainly dealt with Los Angeles, which has long been the hub of U.S.-produced Mexican and Mexican-American music. There has also been some treatment of Cuban exile radio out of Miami, as well as Puerto Rican or Ecuadorian radio in New York City, but these have developed differently from Mexican-American radio in the Southwest.

The importance of doing this research now cannot be understated. Unlike newspapers, which create an impressively detailed paper trail, much of the content of radio stations goes out into the ether never to return. Stations keep some records, but they are only required to hold onto papers such as official correspondence for a few years, and many documents disappear when the station moves facilities. Often the only sources of a station’s history are the people that have worked there. Nearly all of KGST’s deejays and owners from the 1950s have passed away. Others have moved and cannot be found. Their stories have been lost forever.

The people behind the station - the whole history in a single paragraph

At the start of my research, I contacted the current general manager of KGST, Dan Crotty, who was eager to help. He directed me to Ben Gutierrez, who worked at KGST from 1968 to 1991, initially as station program director, then as general manager, who gave me the number of the original station accountant, Jack Kazanjian. I found Stella Romo’s name in some early newspaper articles and was amazed to find she is still news director at KGST, nearly forty years after she beat out over thirty other job applicants to become a translator and announcer. These people were the sources that made this project possible, bringing the story to life, patiently telling me their own stories and the history of the station.

It is quite a story how a small station broadcasting out of an upstairs apartment on Broadway in Fresno became a top station in one of the country’s strongest radio markets, pulling in $100,000 a month in advertising. The first section of this thesis places KGST in a broader history of radio in Mexico and early Spanish-language stations in the Southwest, so as to give an idea of the musical and radio traditions with which KGST’s first broadcasters were familiar. There is quite a bit of continuity between radio broadcasts in the 1930s and 1940s and KGST’s first decade of operations. The second section of this thesis details KGST’s start in 1949 as an “international station,” up until it was sold and moved toward a full-time Spanish format in 1961. During its first decade, it ran on a broker system according to which deejays were not salaried, but instead paid for radio time. Brokers had complete control over the tone, theme, music, and language of their shows, and programming at this time was much like other ethnic radio programming in its close ties to the community, that it was amateur, and not initially profitable. The third section deals with the station’s heyday—the 1960s and 1970s, as KGST grew both financially and as a force within the local Mexican-American community. There is discussion of what it was like to work at the station, as well as how KGST was involved with the community beyond the airwaves. As more listeners settled permanently in the valley and there were more second-generation immigrants, programming began to reflect distinct local tastes, rather than simply playing the top hits from Mexico. The fourth section details the period from 1980 until today, particularly the aftermath of the 1980 census, which showed the Latino population to be the fastest growing in the U.S., piquing big business’ interest and leading to more pointed targeting of this “new” market. Coupled with the Federal Communication Commission’s loosening of station ownership limits, Spanish-language stations became increasingly corporate-owned with programming more dictated from national music charts, rather than local preferences. Spanish-language stations started to sound and act more like mainstream English-language radio and the addition of over a dozen more Spanish-language stations to the market led to tight competition and a move toward format radio in which each station played one kind of music targeted at an age-specific demographic. Responding to these forces, the first public Spanish-language stations in the Valley, Radio BilinguĆ« and Radio Campesina, were both founded in this period with radically different ideas of what radio could be. They are treated as a counterpart to commercial Spanish-language stations. Over this period, KGST’s role in the community diminished, and some of its functions as an entertainment and informational outlet were taken over by other entities.

Antecedents to KGST- 1920s to 1950: early radio in Mexico

KGST did not go on the air until 1949, but it was part of a tradition of Spanish-language broadcasting reaching back to Mexico’s first stations in the 1920s and Spanish-language programs out of Los Angeles in the wake of World War I. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Mexican state was finally recovering from the 1910 revolution and was institutionally organizing. The government saw broadcasting as a powerful tool for “modernizing the country, establishing political order, and building national cultural integration.” It was particularly suited to Mexico’s landscape. Most Mexicans at that time were rural peasants spread over a huge and varied terrain with little access to national institutions. Although there were strong regional affiliations, there was not such a strong feeling of a Mexican national identity. Broadcasting in Mexico began as a combination of state-run stations and commercial stations that were friendly to the state and were not allowed to criticize the government on the airwaves. The state stations broadcast educational programs, history and cultural documentary features, poetry readings, government announcements, and music programs that promoted the government’s idea of official national culture. The music the stations played tried to be authentically “Mexican,” but at the same time, the bourgeosie of Mexico City wanted Mexican culture to be respected and taken seriously in the international sphere, so they tempered the presentation of popular folk music. Recordings from the various regions of Mexico were decontextualized, presented as generic folk music alongside songs by natives of other nations, or in a historic context. Sometimes popular songs were reworked so they could be played by professional musicians and orchestras. The stations also played a lot of classical European music or art music that drew on folk melodies, but adhered to the classical forms and instrumentation.

The government stations were not the only ones at this time; there were also many commercial stations that played the music that was popular outside the capital. To make sure that its programs reached the citizenry most distant to national institutions, the Mexican government distributed radios to poor rural areas that were tuned only to the state station and locked. Investigators sent out to assess the program months later found that nearly all the radios had been broken into so that they could be tuned to the more popular commercial stations. The commercial stations played almost exclusively music and nearly eighty percent of the music programs featured an orquesta tipica- typical folk ensembles with violins, psaltery, guitars, mandolins and contrabass that played pasadobles, polkas and waltzes, integrating mariachi and marimba music and other regional forms. The number of hits on these stations that were distinctly Mexican (written and performed by Mexican musicians or of a Mexican music form) hovered around forty percent, with the rest coming from the U.S., Europe or other parts of Latin America. The rise of commercial stations in Mexico paralleled a similar trend in America. In both countries, radio had initially been seen by the elite as a way to force feed official culture to the masses. They thought that broadcasters could shape the tastes of listeners, but it turned out to be the opposite. Listeners would usually only tune in to the programs that catered to their tastes, so the commercial stations that gave people what they wanted reached far more of the populace. By the early 1940s, the Mexican government had abandoned its efforts in radio and let commercial broadcasters take over.

The Mexican government’s failed early efforts at broadcasting are revealing of musical tastes outside of the capital in greater rural Mexico. Most of the immigrants who were to work in the fields of California came from rural areas and brought their tastes with them. Broadcasters in the U.S., freed from the regulations of the Mexican state, tailored their broadcasts to this demographic. Rather than orchestra music from the capital, they played what their listeners wanted: Mexican folk music, regional forms like mariachi or norteƱo, and corridos, a type of ballad usually based on true events. A lot of radio was live at this time so deejays invited musicians from the community, some amateurs, to play on their shows; these musicians were very much of the community, usually working day jobs in addition to their night-time gigs. Some performed original corridos about working life in Los Angeles.