Friday, October 17, 2008

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 norteño, 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.

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