Friday, October 17, 2008

A review of the literature: In which I find very little and decide Felix Gutierrez and Jorge Reina Schement are my heroes

Although the topic of Spanish-language radio resonates not only in historic terms, but is of interest for the fields of communication, ethnomusicology, ethnic studies, linguistics, and Chicano studies, secondary literature on the subject is limited. Only a handful of scholars have treated it in any way and all have emphasized that it is a topic meriting more attention. Ethnic radio is lucky to get a few paragraphs in most of the mainstream radio histories, which wax nostalgic about radio’s golden days. In its most comprehensive treatment, Theodore Grames’ survey in 1973 for the American Folklife Center, Spanish-language radio was belittled by the author, who found it so commercial he hesitated to call it ethnic. Felix Gutierrez and Jorge Reina Schement’s 1976 dissertation, “Spanish-language radio in the Southwest,” is the definitive narrative on the topic and is referenced by all later scholars. The communications dissertation gives a historical overview and has a detailed case study of one station, as well as statistical charts based on Broadcasting Yearbook showing national trends unique to Spanish-language broadcasting. This source is invaluable, as well as a chapter in Clemencia Rodriguez’s Fissures in the Mediascape, which has original interviews with early Mexican-American radio deejays, many of whom have since died. In addition, there are a few other theses, mainly from the field of communications, treating Mexican-American listening habits in certain cities.

It is evident from existing literature that Spanish-language radio is different from mainsteam English-language stations and much ethnic radio programming in a number of ways, and warrants its own treatment in the scope of both radio and Mexican-American history. Immigration from Mexico has been different from much immigration from European and Asian countries in the sheer numbers of people that have come, the close proximity of the homeland, and the continuous nature of the immigration, which has distinguished Mexican-American radio programming from other ethnic radio programming in some important ways.

Theodore Grame surveyed U.S. ethnic radio programs for the American Folklife Center in 1973. He was the first person to look at the topic on this broad level and define commonalities between radio programs. He felt at the time of his survey that the vibrant ethnic radio tradition had been overlooked by scholars, and also that it was in danger of disappearing as second and third generation immigrants stopped speaking the language and lost ties to their home country. He said that most of the ethnic brokers that he interviewed did their shows because they wanted to serve the community, and that they made little money doing so and were lucky to break even. Unlike deejays, brokers were not salaried by the radio station, but instead paid for radio time, usually just a few hours a week outside of prime time on primarily English-language stations. They recouped costs by selling advertising time, usually to businesses within the community as their audience was usually not big enough to attract national advertisers. The shows usually featured music with commentary and commercials in between. There was news from home, but also information and advice to help new immigrants adjust to life in the U.S. By 1973, many of these radio programs were long-standing, attracting primarily older, first-generation immigrant listeners, and Grame said that the brokers sometimes seemed stuck in a time warp, playing music that was popular at the time they left their home country and maintaining an outdated speaking pattern. The only exception to this was Spanish-language programming, which not only comprised the majority of ethnic programming, but was continuing to grow, so Grame largely left it out of his analysis.

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