Thursday, October 16, 2008

The station grows with the population

It is important to note that KGST was a commercial station from day one. In fact, all of the first full-time Spanish-language stations in the nation were commercial, which remained the case until at least 1976. There were a few programs on non-profit or educational stations, but no Spanish-language outlet of this kind until Radio Bilinguë in 1980, which came out of the Fresno area. In 1976, a comparison of stations broadcasting over half the time in Spanish with those broadcasting fewer hours (many of which had a format featuring various ethnic radio shows) found that one-hundred percent of primary Spanish-language stations were commercial as opposed to eighty-four percent of the part-time Spanish-language programmers, the sort of stations to which most ethnic broadcasters were relegated. Of the FM stations, fifty-eight percent of those part-timers were limited to educational uses; such stations are not allowed to broadcast as far and therefore reach smaller audiences. It was the commercial stations that reached most people.

KGST went to a Spanish-language format because it was profitable. Mexican emigrants, both permanent and migrant, comprised a large percentage of the Central Valley’s population, whose agricultural economy heavily depends on them to harvest the crops. Population statistics are imperfect, especially regarding Latinos, who have historically been undercounted by census officials because many are migrants that slip through tallies and because of the community’s general distrust of the government. In the past few decades, it has also been hard to track Latinos because some racially identify themselves as white, others black, some Native American or mixed race and many have simply chosen “Some other race” since that became a category in 2000. However, one can see that the Latino population has grown over the past 50 years. In 1950, the population of Fresno County was 276,515-- 6.9 percent of that “non-white.” It is likely that many people of Mexican descent were not counted because they lived in camps or other seasonal housing, moving every few weeks or months to follow the crops. The overall county population grew by 32.3 percent over the decade and by 1960, the county was 26.3 percent “Foreign stock.” This statistic reflected heavy immigration in waves from the turn of the century on, by not only Mexicans, but Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Italians, Portuguese and Armenians.

Over the 1950s and early 1960s, most of the immigrants to the Central Valley were Mexicans, due to the Braceros program established during World War II to remedy labor shortages. The Mexican government recruited workers and transported them to Texas where labor contractors employed them across the fields of the Southwest. The program continued until 1964, admitting between 177,000 and nearly 438,000 people each year at its peak. The Braceros program was a guest workers program, so workers were admitted seasonally then returned to their families in Mexico after the harvest, rarely planning to stay in the U.S. The programming on KGST in this period reflected this attitude, providing more of a link to Mexico than introducing migrants to a distinct local or regional Mexican-American culture. Prior to the 1950s, it was illegal to import records from Mexico, which had stimulated a domestic recording industry in L.A. and given many Mexican-Americans their start. Once it was legal to import records, however, deejays played whatever music was most popular in Mexico, which was easier and easier as prices fell for mass-produced records and Mexican stars began to include the southwestern U.S. on their concert tours. Most of the deejays that Juan Mercado hired had migrated to the U.S. as adults. Of the six listed on a promotional brochure from 1960, all but one (Samuel Herrera, who was born in Redlands, California) were born in Mexico, and most had radio or entertainment experience there. They brought their broadcasting style and musical taste with them. KGST at this time could be seen as an ethnic media outlet in some respects: Juan Mercado was initially an amateur broadcaster, he had close ties to the community, most advertisers were local businesses, the programming was targeted at Mexicans living and working in the U.S. and largely kept people up with what was going on in Mexico, while giving them information about living in the U.S. in their own language. However, KGST could also be seen as a transnational media outlet in some respects. Although it did not have sister stations in Mexico with identical programming, KGST’s deejays looked to Mexico for their identity, and the music that was popular in Mexico was what they played on KGST; listeners and deejays had not broken with Mexico, but came to U.S. on a seasonal basis, often planning to return. However, the seeds were there for KGST to develop into something different. Its listeners, who usually hailed from rural areas of Mexico, already had tastes that were different from urban audiences in Mexico. KGST’s listeners came from various regions of Mexico, so the station had to accommodate a diverse local audience by playing a variety of national and regional stars, sometimes including U.S.-born or –based stars who were not usually able to cross over into the Mexican mass market. The station also occasionally featured local acts. The listening audience was changing as well.

By 1970, 25.1 percent of Fresno County’s population was “Foreign Stock.” Of that, 45 percent was Mexican. Additionally, a category had been added, “Persons of Spanish Heritage,” amounting to 25.2 percent of the entire population. In total, counted Latinos made up a quarter of the population, 45 percent of which had recently arrived, and another 55 percent which were naturalized or second- or third-generation.

Although Mexican and Mexican-Americans’ buying power was less than that of whites as many were recent immigrants in lower-paying agricultural or factory jobs, the market was profitable due to its sheer size. Furthermore, KGST essentially had a monopoly on the Fresno market during the 1950s up until 1962, when KXEX went on the air.

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