Thursday, October 16, 2008

Creating an imagined community: KGST and Mexican-American identity

The development of Spanish-language and Latino media can best be understood by looking at the early days, when radio ruled the airwaves. The stories of KGST and other similar stations show the early commercial nature of Spanish-language radio, how it functioned within the community it served, how it was a force in creating that community’s self-identity, and how these listeners used radio differently from mainstream American audiences. Evident in these stories is the complex dynamic between ethnicity, commercialism and technology. Where broadcast media was first envisioned as a great leveler, uplifting the masses by bringing the same programs to everyone, as it became increasingly commercial, it found itself instead catering to those masses. The result was ethnic radio, bringing listeners together in a community that transcended physical distances. In its first decade, KGST’s Spanish-language programs were like most ethnic radio. The deejays were amateurs who made little money doing their shows in the off-hours, were deeply involved in the community, had complete control over the language, tone and music of their programs, and got into radio mainly for fun or to gain prestige in the community. The programs featured some local artists and certainly promoted local events and ethnic businesses, but were mainly concerned with keeping people in touch with Mexico. The ties with the home country were strong as many listeners had family south of the border and crossed back and forth to work each year. As more people settled permanently in the Central Valley, KGST reflected the tastes of this growing local community, playing more U.S.-based, especially Tejano artists, as well as music popular in the states from which people migrated. When KGST proved its commercial viability and became more established, it started to move away from the ethnic radio model, although it was still heavily involved with the community and provided a lot of information and services. In the 1960s through 1970s, KGST brought together local Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, creating an imagined community among listeners spread across several counties and helping to form a local identity that was neither entirely Mexican nor American, but distinct. The targeting of the “Latino” market in the 1980s, technological innovations, and competition from other media outlets drastically changed KGST’s role in the community, with many of its earlier functions being taken over by other outlets. Technology also made possible a true transnational media with KGST now offering local programming only six hours a day and filling the rest of the time with Mexican-produced satellite radio targeted at recent immigrants.

Although KGST is not as vibrant today as it once was, it holds an important place in the collective memory of Mexican-Americans in the Central Valley. “Well-known” and “well-respected” are often used by locals to describe the station. “Longtime Valley residents remember when KGST 'La Mexicana' 1600 AM was the only Spanish-language radio station, and KFTV Channel 21 UnivisiĆ³n was barely on the air,” one Vida en el Valle reporter wrote in an article detailing the growth of Latino clout in the area. His point was that today there are dozens of radio and stations and newspapers; however, KGST was the reference point he used to show how far Latinos had come. The founding of KGST is also included on a timeline of “Chicano” history posted online that was created by PBS. The timeline begins with the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and includes anti-immigrant legislation, notable court cases, and activist organizing. The old KGST building is also one of a hundred historic sites included on a National Park Service website detailing Mexican-American history in California. The way that KGST is referenced by these three sources indicate the way Mexican-Americans/Latinos in California have come to conceive of themselves as a distinct community, most notably by their claim to their own history separate from U.S., California and Mexico’s histories. KGST and radio stations like it helped in the identity formation of this community that now claims them as part of a collective past.

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