Thursday, October 16, 2008

1961-1980: KGST’s hey-day: From broke to profitable

International Radio Corporation, which owned two other California stations, took over KGST in 1961; by 1968, when Ben Gutierrez came on as programming manager, it was in bad shape partially owing to the policies of former manager, Ben Ramirez, who resigned. Gutierrez received a call from Pacific General Electric his first week on the job with the threat of the power being turned off if the outstanding bills were not paid within 24 hours.

“I went to work and when I say went to work I mean really went to work. I got up at five o’clock in the morning, [to] get the office work out of the way, be on the street (soliciting advertisers) by nine o’clock in the morning, back by four or five to make commercials, get the orders in and really just kind of attend to the staff,” Gutierrez said.

It was eighteen months before the station was breaking even, twenty four before it was turning a profit and after that, “it was up and up and up.” From an average of $8,000 a month in advertising, it went up to $90,000 a month over the next twenty years, averaging between $95,000 and $100,000 a month when the station was sold in 1985.

It was initially an uphill battle; Spanish-language radio was not an easy sell in the 1960s.

People would tell me, “We aren’t interested in Spanish-language radio.” Or someone would tell me, “See me in two years,” y’know hoping that in two years I’d be dead or something. But the following week I’d be in their store. I’d say, “Hi, I know you told me you’re not interested but this week I’m working this block and I just thought I’d stop by and say hi, and now that I said it, goodbye, thank you.” I’d do that every week until I broke them down and they bought. They began to have confidence in me. They said, “This guy’s here to stay. He means business. Let’s give him a try.” So they would and I made customers that way. That’s how I built up a customer base that was very loyal to us eventually.

A lot of the advertisers were local: auto dealerships, lower-end furniture stores, markets. Gutierrez said it was hard to get the department stores on board, although they eventually gave in along with many businesses that saw the rising numbers of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans coming into their stores. National accounts were tough to win as well, but even back then, KGST landed accounts with companies like Budweiser. This was rarely the case with other foreign-language radio programs, which relied mainly on local advertisers within the ethnic community.

Spanish-language radio was and is commercially viable; in the eyes of management, this has to be the first concern. Gutierrez stressed,

You’ve got to realize, a radio station is a business and it needs to make money. It needs to make money for its investors, for its owner. It entertains and educates the people, it informs the people, but it’s still a business that makes money. I would say [educating, informing, entertaining] are equally important but if you can’t make money, you can’t do these other things. It is a business.

KGST succeeded as a business, but it had many broader functions for the Mexican-American community far beyond carrying ads for cars and beer. Over the 1960s and 1970s, more Mexican immigrants began to settle permanently in the area and KGST’s commercial nature made it particularly responsive to these changes in the listener population. There are a lot of forces shaping identity: the culture of a person’s parents, the language that person speaks, where he or she lives, his or her employment, popular culture, religion. George Sánchez mentions many of these factors in Becoming Mexican-American, his book on identity formation, culture and ethnicity in the Mexican-American community of Los Angeles from 1900 to 1945. He talks about the role of the expanding music industry there, radio, and dance halls. There has been a lot of research on the barrios in urban areas, particularly Los Angeles. Mexican-Americans have tended to live in neighborhoods segregated from white English-speakers, due to overt racism and because new immigrants usually live in poorer neighborhoods. Scholars have detailed the negative effects of the barrios: isolation from local politics, poor infrastructure and schools, more difficult for many immigrants to learn English, as well as the positive effects: strongly maintained cultural ties and the development of a distinct Mexican-American ethnic culture. There was a barrio or colonia (literally colony) in Fresno, but a lot of KGST’s listeners lived in smaller towns and settlements throughout the valley and did not have as many opportunities as city-dwellers to go to movies, hear live music, go to dances, or otherwise participate in the culture of the barrio. In rural areas, the radio could serve an important funtion to include more physically isolated individuals in the greater Mexican and Mexican-American community, keeping them up on the music, latest events and news, even broadcasting the Catholic mass on Sundays.

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