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Disc jockey Jose Cortez, the grinning "Homeboy de Aztlan," is enjoying his little weekend corner of heaven at KNAI radio in El Mirage. First he plays a little something in Spanish, and already there are three callers on hold. Then he throws on Santana's "Oye Como Va," and after that come Earth, Wind & Fire, Selena and then some Commodores, and the Valley's first bilingual radio show in a dozen years is off and corriendo.
Post-It notes slathered with requests are rushed in from outside, where a couple of guys are chasing down the blinking phone lines as fast as they can. One of the guys, James Inghram, is the one who convinced KNAI--otherwise known as Radio Campesina, voice of the Valley's migrant farmworkers--to give the bilingual format a chance. He pops into the studio where Cortez sits amid carry cases of CDs. "They're asking for Little Joe, Selena, El Mafia," he says excitedly. Old and new tejano.
Bilingual radio? Pues, mire--when you're talking about second- and third-generation Hispanics, Cortez, Inghram and others say it makes a lot of sense. Playing a mix of oldies, old-school funk and tejano isn't as strange as one might think.
As Cortez says, "There's a void in the Hispanic market for this type of programming. Everything is either Spanish or Anglo. There's nothing in between."
Huge numbers of American Hispanics, they point out, grew up tapping their feet to American Top 40 music while getting regular doses of Spanish around the house. Maybe it was their parents who babbled bilingual while the radio blared American oldies, or maybe it was the nanas and tatas who spoke the native tongue at weddings, birthdays and quincea¤eras. Or it could have been the casual mix of Spanglish heard at tardeadas, backyard gatherings where the extended family got together to listen to tejano music, tell stories, whatever.
The second and third generations are as English-speaking as they come, but they still like getting their Spanish fixes, so when it comes to music, they have to keep punching the radio presets to get the combination they want. That's the demographic Cortez says he's going after. Such listeners have taken station KOHT in Tucson from 15th to ninth in that market with bilingual programming around the clock. The Sunday-night show, says KOHT program director James Rivas, is now first in its time slot. It was tenth three months ago.
"When I got here," Rivas says, "I was saying, 'Okay, if you're a Chinese restaurant, you just serve Chinese food.' But if we're going to be a Chicano station, what do we play? Who says Chicanos just listen to tejano? Who says they just want to hear oldies or old-school? We just mixed it up until we got a balance."
Example: One 40-year-old mom loves Little Joe, who is basically pioneer tejano, but she's not sure she can sit through George Clinton's "Atomic Dog." Her daughter, however, loves that funky old-school butt-shaking stuff and is willing to put up with Little Joe to hear it. "We have a station a whole family can get into," Rivas says. "And with a Latino family, having the whole family together is probably the biggest thing."
So on August 5 and 6, Cortez hit the Valley airwaves on KNAI, 88.3 on the FM dial. He's a known personality, the guy who used to host a barrio-blazing bilingual format on Spanish-language station KVVA in the early Eighties. Then new station ownership came in and fired just about everybody.
Now he's 47 years old, silver-haired and ponytailed, but he's never stopped looking for the chance to do a bilingual show again.
"Aqui llegamos!" he said as he opened the show with sidekick Sonia "Romantica" Moreno. We have arrived.
So did the calls, more than 100 each day, requests and congratulations pouring in for two busy hours. They called in Spanish and they called in English. What they said was: It's about time.
"Hi. How are you?" Cortez asks Moreno during the show's first on-air break from music. Moreno was a sort of personality herself in the mid-Eighties, having played salsa for six years at KSUN.
"Doing good," she answers into a mike from a nearby table. Then, in reference to the 114-degree weather outside, she asks: "Hot?"
"Hot? Let me tell you, in the summertime, my dog changes his name."
"¨Sabes como se llama?"
"¨Como se llama?"
"Se llama 'Hot Dog.'"
"Ay, que chistoso."
Yeah, what a joker. But remember, the show is still on a trial basis, and the exchange gives an idea of just what this bilingual format is all about. That's how Spanglish is; you just switch in and out of each language, never mind translating, and let the stragglers catch up.
Cortez, who works for Chicanos Por La Causa, a social-service agency, has his organization's backing. To further cement the relationship between itself and United Farm Workers, which owns Radio Campesina, CPLC will work with UFW to promote local barrio outreach efforts.
"That's why I put so much emphasis on this show," Cortez says before Sunday's show. "I know it will have that kind of power."
The weekend's mail includes a pair of letters addressed to "Jose Cortez, El Homeboy de Aztlan," the persona he has carried around all these years. The letters were postmarked August 4, the day before he actually went back on the air, from people who remembered his days at KVVA and KUKQ after that and heard he was returning.