Friday, October 17, 2008

1949-1961: Beginnings as an “international station,” the broker system

“There’s a lot of Mexican people. That’s what kept it going all the way- they listened to station KGST.”-Jack Kazanjian, station accountant 1949-1961

KGST was not a Spanish-language station when it went on the air on February 13, 1949. It was the fifth station in the Fresno area, right in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. Representing a $50,000 investment, the station was owned by five men, most of them radio veterans. It was not affiliated with any of the networks, unlike three of the stations in town, which were connected with ABC, CBS, and NBC, and KGST featured musical programs, special events and news broadcasts between the hours of 7 AM and 6 PM. Day-time only broadcasting was common at this time as AM radio signals carry further at night and stations on the same frequency can interfere with each other even across hundreds of miles after sunset.

By 1950, due to tensions between the owners, KGST was sold for $55,000 to Sidney Mandel, Milton Gerloff and Morris Mindel, “all radio people,” who had been eyeing the station. The new owners said they would “emphasize community minded programming.” Whether or not this was their intent when they mentioned community, KGST did indeed reflect the Fresno community, calling itself an “international radio station” with programs in Armenian, Portuguese, Serbian, Italian, Japanese and, of course, Spanish, reflecting the immigrant backgrounds of the valley’s fieldworkers.

The first Spanish-language broadcasts on KGST had much in common with ethnic radio programs across the country. At many stations in the 1950s, including KGST, airtime was sold in blocks on a broker system, so programming varied drastically from hour to hour. Unlike deejays, who are salaried by the station, the radio brokers paid the station for a time slot, then were responsible for finding their own advertisements, arranging music and guests and putting together their programs, which usually lasted between one and four hours. Station owners did not have the capital to salary people and produce full-time programming, so they found it easier to sell time slots, particularly less-lucrative early morning slots, to brokers. Spanish-speaking brokers were often the only ones willing to take a slot from 3 to 6 AM, when fieldworkers would listen while they got ready for work. Indeed the first Spanish-language program in the state was called “Los Madrugadores”—the early-risers. Most of these brokers were amateurs and the system allowed particularly enterprising personalities to get into radio and even make a name for themselves without any formal training. Ethnic brokers maintained their day jobs, but hosted radio programs for fun, to serve their community, build their prestige and advertise their own or their family’s businesses. Station owners did not care what language they spoke or what they broadcast for the most part, as long as they paid their fee. Thus, KGST’s commercial nature was what initially allowed Spanish to reach the airwaves. Although there had long been racism against Mexican-Americans and suspicion against anyone speaking a foreign language, particularly during the world wars, radio station owners placed their economic interests over any personal misgivings.

Communications scholar Dr. Clemencia Rodriguez interviewed many early Latino radio brokers for her book on community radio, most of them Mexican or Mexican-American, others from Cuban-American or Puerto Rican backgrounds. She found many of these brokers to be very personally and directly involved with their communities. Advertising was not solicited through a national office; brokers went door-to-door talking to local businesses. Most brokers also worked day jobs to support themselves, side by side with their listeners. Rodriguez argues that this early period of Spanish-language broadcasts was a “fissure in an Anglo-dominated media system,” when there existed a true community radio. She wrote that broadcasts at this time were a direct cultural expression of the community, not based on marketing analyses as they are today, leading her to call early broadcasts “Latino” radio rather than the more ambiguous “Spanish-language” radio used in recent years. Rather than a product created by outsiders, the broadcasts came from within the community, featuring local deejays and musicians, with advertisements for local businesses. They reflected the tastes and views of a specific community, Mexican-American farmworkers in the case of KGST, and they did not just target the community as potential consumers, but arose to fill a role of spreading information and keeping the community in touch with news and music from their home countries.

Brokers carried as much advertising as they could get; if they did not have enough to cover their fee to the station, they took the loss. Initially most advertisers were local, often from within the ethnic community. In those days, owners were still trying to figure out how radio could be profitable. The first wave of radio stations in the 1930s had been run by existing newspapers, churches, organizations and stores, but soon proved to be too expensive to maintain. The public was largely against paid advertisements at this time, especially spot advertisements that interrupted programming. Even as advertisements became more common, businesses preferred to sponsor specific programs that carried their name. As a result of the early broker system, the airwaves were ruled by an often surprising diversity of local voices up until the late 1930s, when the big networks muscled in with nation-wide programs. These programs were often corporate-sponsored; the networks claimed they were of superior quality that would elevate the masses by taking the sophisticated sounds of the cities to the most remote regions of the countryside. The U.S.’s elite believed that such programs would raise the country’s music and culture to a superior national standard, replacing backwards folk music that had developed in isolation from city norms. The broker system continued for quite a while, however, as owners liked selling off less lucrative time slots, which continued to go to ethnic brokers. Jack Kazanjian, KGST’s accountant in its early days, said of KGST’s owners, “they made it so that it was a common people’s radio station.”

One of the first brokers was Jeanne Bacher, who hosted a women’s program. In 1951, with the help of her father, who had a wholesale radio and electronics business, she bought out Sidney Mandel for $12,000. By November of 1952, Milton Gerloff had sold out his interest to Bacher and Mindel, who went on to marry and acquire a second station in Bakersfield. Meanwhile, the Spanish programming on KGST steadily increased and, unlike most ethnic programming, started to become profitable.

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