Friday, October 17, 2008

Why Mexican-Americans? Why radio? Why KGST?

As opposed to other ethnic radio, Mexican ethnic programming was constantly renewed by new immigration and immigrants still had close ties to Mexico. The newest Mexican recordings easily made their way to stations in the Southwest, whereas an ethnic broker from Scotland or Italy might find it more difficult to stay up on popular music in the home country, relying mainly on his or her own record collection. Furthermore, Mexican radio brokers had a much bigger audience and could attract national advertisers, to the point that the market could support commercial radio stations that broadcast only in Spanish. The radio stations also did not have as much competition from newspapers as did other ethnic radio programs, especially in rural areas with high illiteracy. Mexican-American radio’s commercial nature has caused it to develop differently from other ethnic radio over the years, becoming more and more like mainstream English-language stations in its sound, format and role in the community.

The Mexican-American community has long preferred radio over print and even after the introduction of television, radio has held its own. Since the 1920s, Spanish-language stations have been viewed and used differently by their listeners, often to make up for a lack of social services or newspapers. The radio stations have served as the formal announcers of events, births, deaths. They have been the classifieds, the source for government information, and often the only outlet for news. Furthermore, they have been very directly involved in the communities, sponsoring events and rallying listeners for charity drives which have helped to build the idea of a Mexican-American and, to some extent, Latino, community. In Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, Susan Douglas writes about the ability of radio to form imagined communities that are separated in space, but united through the broadcast, not unlike the Spanish-speaking community spread hundreds of miles around Fresno.

Even as it has forged its own way, Spanish-language radio has been affected deeply by the changes in the American radio industry over the past six decades. Its history is that of a complex relationship between serving the community and satisfying commercial forces. Sometimes the two line up well; carrying advertisements for local Mexican-American businesses is a service for listeners who want to know where they can buy certain products, and it makes money for both the station and the business. KGST must turn a profit to survive and the more advertisers the station has, especially national brands, the better programming it can offer. Carrying a lot of beer and cigarette ads may not be healthy for the community, but the money they bring in also makes better programming possible, particularly news programming. It is expensive to support a newsroom, whereas music programs are very cheap and more popular with listeners. It is even more expensive to have an in-house reporter, but local and regional news is the information most likely to directly impact listeners. Most English-language stations have carried little news as their listeners can look to newspapers and, more recently, television for that purpose. However, Spanish-language stations have often been the only place in an area that listeners could find news and information, giving them a somewhat greater responsibility to listeners than mainstream English-language stations.

There is no better way to understand this marriage of service and commercialism than a case study. Radio station KGST “La Mexicana” is an interesting station to study for a number of reasons. It was the first full-time Spanish-language station in the Central Valley and the second in California, the first station with Mexican-American ownership, and the first and only with programming of its kind for a decade. KGST broadcasts from the heart of California’s Central Valley, an agricultural area that has always been heavily Mexican-American giving to the migrant farmworkers who pass through seasonally and over the years sometimes choose to stay. Furthermore, it is in a more rural area than KCOR in San Antonio or KALI in Los Angeles, which have both been treated academically. The research about California stations has mainly dealt with Los Angeles, which has long been the hub of U.S.-produced Mexican and Mexican-American music. There has also been some treatment of Cuban exile radio out of Miami, as well as Puerto Rican or Ecuadorian radio in New York City, but these have developed differently from Mexican-American radio in the Southwest.

The importance of doing this research now cannot be understated. Unlike newspapers, which create an impressively detailed paper trail, much of the content of radio stations goes out into the ether never to return. Stations keep some records, but they are only required to hold onto papers such as official correspondence for a few years, and many documents disappear when the station moves facilities. Often the only sources of a station’s history are the people that have worked there. Nearly all of KGST’s deejays and owners from the 1950s have passed away. Others have moved and cannot be found. Their stories have been lost forever.

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