Thursday, October 16, 2008

Juan Mercado: From popular DJ to owner

The growth of the Spanish-language programs was due not only to increasing immigration from Mexico, but to the dynamic Juan Mercado, a popular broker since the station’s inception who played “lots of good Mexican music.” Mercado’s origins are unclear; he got his start as the Spanish-language programming director at a Visalia station and before then may have worked as farmworker. These were the days of personality radio, when listener allegiance was to specific broadcasters rather than to the station itself. For his show, Mercado brought in live acts from the area, playing records during the off hours. Described as flamboyant, Mercado had a way with people. “He was good, conversing. He spoke their language- and I’m using that as a phrase [not just stating the fact that he spoke Spanish]. He gave them the kind of programming they wanted,” Kazanjian said. In the summer and fall, he would buy out a block of the best seats in the house and take twenty to thirty advertisers and associates out to the horse races. Mercado made money in radio. “He was loud and he was proud. He was a winner…He was joyful. You had no trouble going up to Juan Mercado and saying hello on the street. That was the success of his business. Everything grew depending on how Juan Mercado grew.”

Through the 1950s, KGST was broadcasting in Spanish as much as forty percent of the time, with one to three-hour shows in other languages, as well a seven-hour block of black programming which it carried through 1959. Some people came to be salaried at this time, others were still on a broker system, “whatever worked,” Kazanjian said, and work it did. Bacher’s good business tactics and Mercado’s charm built up the station to such a point that it was worth $250,000 when Mercado bought it from Bacher in 1959. Unfortunately, Juan Mercado fell ill and passed away just two years later and his estate sold KGST for $281,000. A group of locals led by A.A. VonVillas and John Sonder, the former KGST sales manager and an associate of Mercado’s, had bid $285,000, but the estate ultimately chose a pair of men from San Jose who were already running KLOK, a successful Spanish-language station in that area. They said the decision was based on the men’s superior experience and that the estate would be exonerated from any liability. The new owners “ran [KGST] like a business. [They] still had Spanish-speaking Mexican employees, but they knew how to do business big. They came down and ran it like a business,” said Kazanjian, who continued to do the accounts. John Sonder went on to found the full-time Spanish-language station KXEX just over a year later, KGST’s first major competition.

Spanish-language radio was a powerful enterprise. Unlike the six English-language stations in the area, KGST had no similar competitors when it went on the air. Over the 1950s, there were a few hours of Spanish-language programs here and there on other stations, but it hardly had any competition from the Spanish-language press as there were initially no local papers. There simply was not a market. It is hard to find statistics on the literacy rates of Mexican immigrants, but it is clear that illiteracy was common in the rural areas of Mexico from which most emigrated. Benjamin Gutierrez remembers one store selling the Los Angeles-based La Opinion, but does not remember them having more than 30 copies at most. It seems a few papers were published in Fresno in the early 1970s, but it is unclear how long they ran and how many people they reached. El Informador, a six to ten page bimonthly from this time period, claimed to be the Central Valley’s first Spanish-language paper in 1967, and boasted a circulation of 150,000. It was a limited publication with very little local news, mainly national and international reports off the wires and editorials.

KGST had thirty-five hours of Spanish-language programs weekly in 1959, about 40 percent of its broadcast time as it could only broadcast during the day-time. By 1963, only one hour of English was heard a week, on a black program. Spanish ruled the airwaves 85 percent of the time, with a few other foreign-language programs still carried through 1965. By 1968, only one hour of Italian remained. In fact, nation-wide Spanish-language radio grew so strong, so fast, accounting for two-thirds of foreign-language broadcasts in 1960, that it was often resented by other ethnic broadcasters, who felt they had been pushed off the airwaves. In Theodore Grame’s 1973 survey of ethnic radio in the U.S. for the American Folklife Center, he quoted one Greek immigrant in Denver, “I don’t like all this chicano power stuff…What about Greek power? Look at us poor bastards, living down here in this crummy slum.” Most ethnic broadcasters had little recourse if they lost their time slots. They lacked the considerable capital necessary to open their own stations and did not have high enough numbers of listeners to attract investors from outside the ethnic community.

Grame said of Spanish-language stations in comparison to other ethnic programming, “Language and ethnicity, after all, are not the same thing.” Throughout his paper, he was quick to distinguish that Spanish-language radio was profitable where most ethnic radio was not, giving it a different cast than broadcasts done by brokers who could only hope to break even and claimed serving the community as their primary goal.

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