Thursday, October 16, 2008

Radio Bilingue: Spanish-language public radio comes to the valley

Even as Spanish-language radio became increasingly more commercial, two new stations were founded in the Valley with very different conceptions of what Mexican-American or Latino radio could be: Radio Bilinguë and Radio Campesina. Radio Bilinguë’s first broadcast on July 4, 1980 kicked off with six straight hours of Mexican folk music featuring, among others, Lola Beltran and José Alfredo Jimenez. “Nobody had ever heard that on Spanish radio,” said founder, Hugo Morales. “People would call up crying saying ‘This is incredible.’” KSJV was the first non-profit station serving Spanish-speakers in the Valley. It was also the first Spanish-language station on the FM dial. Although KGST played more traditional music than KXEX, which catered to most recent arrivals with Mexican pop music, large blocks of folk or Tejano music such as that of Jimenez and Beltran were unusual. KSJV also played salsa music, a genre more popular among Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants and not widely accepted in the Central Valley at that time.

Kicking off the station on America’s Independence Day was no coincidence. “We wanted to affirm our right as Mexicans and Mexican Americans to our free speech rights—our American rights as citizens.” That meant not just their right to speak, but to speak in their own language.

Hugo Morales was teaching at Fresno State when he put out fliers in the barrio in Spanish and English calling a meeting for everyone interested in founding a bilingual public radio station. Eight people showed up for that first meeting and they became the first members of the board. The goal of the station was to produce radio that originated with and informed Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and was not ratings driven.

Four years of preparation went into that first broadcast; Morales’ involvement with radio had started much earlier, however. “In general, the reason I got into radio was because when I lived in farm labor camps when I was younger, listening to a commercial radio station, I noticed how powerful it was. We all listened to the radio as we prepared our lunches, our tortillas, got our tools… Whatever came out of the radio went to all of us—kids, adults, everyone. I got a taste for the hunger for relevant cultural information, relevant cultural music, being connected to some news. Anything in Spanish was enough.” The AM station he listened to in the early morning was KLOK, which came out of San Jose, 200 miles away from the fields of Sonoma and Napa counties, above San Francisco. Incidentally, it was owned by the same man who owned KGST. Due to the nature of AM waves, the signal was lost after sunrise. Morales’ brother went on to host a Spanish-language program that an English-language station carried on Sundays. “He used the radio as a way to help people, to help us Mexican farmworkers help ourselves,” Morales said. His brother went on to found the first Radio Bilinguë in the nation, an AM station out of Santa Rosa.

Morales spent 1968 to 1975 at Harvard and Harvard Law School, where he hosted a bilingual radio program on the campus station. He said that in that Ivy League setting, he realized one could own and control a radio station, not just buy time. With Radio Bilinguë, the importance of Latino ownership was foremost. Morales felt that KGST, KXEX and television station KFTV were not serving the community as best they could because they were all owned by Anglos, even though most employees were Mexican-Americans. “[Ownership] matters in terms of content, relevance to the community, in terms of the cultural aspect, the direction of the service, the editorial content. A person who is connected with the community will have a different take than someone coming in from New York,” said Morales, referring to the many Spanish-language stations which are part of chains with headquarters far removed from their listening audience.

In the early Fresno Bee articles about Radio Bilinguë, two themes beyond Latino ownership come through: the importance of local control and the importance of access to information for Spanish-speakers. Both of these speak to nation-wide trends in both commercial and public radio over the 1980s and 1990s.

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