Friday, October 17, 2008

A quick introduction to Spanish-language radio

For nearly as long as there have been radio broadcasts in the U.S., there have been broadcasts in foreign languages, everything from German, Polish, and Italian to Native American dialects to Japanese. These ethnic radio programs, usually not lasting more than two to four hours, would generally run about once a week either on primarily English-language stations, or on stations that carried a number of other ethnic programs. The shows served their communities by advertising ethnic businesses, spreading news, playing familiar music from the homeland and helping ease the transition to life in America.

A great number of these early ethnic variety shows were broadcast in Spanish, especially in the southwestern states where there was constant immigration from Mexico. In fact, the market was so strong that by 1960, Spanish-language shows accounted for two-thirds of foreign-language broadcast time in the U.S., with many stations broadcasting exclusively in Spanish-- something that could not have been predicted based on the population of primary Spanish-speakers nor on Spanish-language press circulation, which accounted for a mere 8.6 percent of ethnic press circulation. It seems that Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans had a special affinity for radio far exceeding that of any other ethnic group and of the general populace. This was still the case in 1978; one survey found that Spanish speakers listened to twice as much radio as the rest of Americans on average, about four hours a day.

Despite the unusual popularity of Spanish-language radio, there has been little scholarship explaining this phenomenon, especially in terms of how the stations have changed over time. The work that has been done has largely consisted of snapshots of particular places or times, with the exception of one narrative that only covered from early beginnings to 1976. The goal of my research is to study the particular-- radio station KGST “La Mexicana,” the oldest station in California’s Central Valley-- in order to understand the broader history of Mexican-American radio in the Southwest in the context of both Mexican-American and radio history.

Over the past 50 years, KGST has played an important role in strengthening the Mexican-American community of the Central Valley, by bringing together listeners spread across hundreds of miles through the airwaves, at the station itself, and at sponsored events. The station has kept people connected to Mexican culture while simultaneously integrating listeners into American culture as consumers. Its programming has reflected changes in both the Mexican/Mexican-American population and in the radio industry, initially functioning like other ethnic radio, but moving toward a more mainstream sound in the decades after it became a full-time Spanish-language commercial station, with more listeners permanently settled in the area. More than promoting American mass culture or Mexican culture, in the late 1960s through 1980, the station gave focus to a local Mexican-American ethnic culture that was distinct in musical tastes, interests, values and lifestyles, even as the identity of the station remained “La Mexicana” (the Mexican one).

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