THE SPANGLISH INVASIONKNAI DEBUTS THE VALLEY'S FIRST BILINGUAL RADIO SHOW IN YEARS
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 quinceaeras. 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.
Cortez still has the original flier for the KVVA show. It shows two pictures of him--one in tank-top tee shirt and bandanna, a homeboy leaning against a muraled wall on South Central Avenue; the other is the clean-cut, tie-knotted disc jockey smiling behind the console.
When he joined KUKQ, which was spinning funk in the mid-Eighties, he couldn't work much Spanish into his broadcast without catching flak from the higher-ups. Then, in 1987, the station dropped its dancing shoes for cowboy boots, and that was essentially that. (The station now plays alternative rock.) Cortez joined the ensuing exodus, and, after a couple of years, came to CPLC as an employment specialist.
Then Inghram went to Tucson and heard KOHT and said to himself, "Why can't that work here in Phoenix?"
But Valley Spanish radio stations, locked into their formats as tightly as their English counterparts, didn't take to the idea. They wanted to see lists of sponsors; they said they weren't really ready to try that kind of format yet.
"What we have right now has given me results," explains Mario Gonzalez, program director at KSUN, a Spanish-language station that plays a full-time blend of ranchera, norteo and banda. "We have a pretty good audience considering the competition." (There are currently five radio stations with at least part-time Spanish-language formats in the Valley.)
Inghram then came to Cortez, who was more than willing to do such a show, and with him as a selling point was able to talk KNAI into giving them a 3 to 5 p.m. slot on Saturday and Sunday.
About a half-hour into Sunday's show, Cortez plays the first of four songs by Selena, the tejano artist who was murdered in March. At 23, already a superstar in Latin America, Selena was on the verge of American mainstream success with the anticipated release of her first English-language recording. Ironically, with her murder, the crossover audience she was expected to reach sought out her music even more readily, and Dreaming of You broke first-day sales records.
If there was a silver lining to her death, the crossover of tejano was it. Stations with bilingual formats might be able to ride the coattails of that success. The tejano produced by artists like Selena and Barrio Boyz is a different animal from the kind done by Little Joe. The latter-day version is influenced more by cumbia and hip-hop, which just drives all the kids wild.
"Selena," Moreno muses. "She was hot, man. How short-lived . . ."
By the time Earth, Wind & Fire's "September" comes on a few songs later, though, Moreno is grooving in her chair. Inghram appears from outside with more news. "They're listening in California," he says.
"How can they do that?" Moreno says.
Inghram sniffs. "Dial the phone and put it next to the radio," he answers.
Oh, but, of course.
At her home in Phoenix, 18-year-old Veronica Torrez is listening, too. Since the beginning of the year, she's been trying to get someone to start a bilingual show, having heard one while traveling near the California-Mexico border.
"They have Power 92 here," she says, referring to the FM pop station, "but what do they have for us?"
But after hearing Cortez's inaugural show, she seems satisfied: "That's exactly what I wanted. I really liked it. My whole family did. I love oldies--that's what I grew up on."
If Torrez and her family are any indication of what's out there, Cortez and potential advertisers should be pleased.
"This caters to what we call the blossoming of the Hispanic American," says Ray Arvizu of Arvizu Promotions and Marketing in Phoenix. He notes the emergence of MTV-Latino, as well, a Spanish-video channel expected to hit Phoenix airwaves this fall. He figures advertisers would find the mix appealing because "you can advertise in English or Spanish--it doesn't matter."
Arvizu, who grew up listening to groups like Tower of Power, War and Malo, thinks the only way for the format to really work is for a station to devote its entire programming to it, like KOHT has in Tucson. "[The market] has been there, but nobody wants to take the chance. It takes some investment. Whoever does it full-steam is the one that's going to profit from it. I would listen to it on a daily basis."
Rivas, the program director of KOHT in Tucson, says few bilingual formats have been tried in the United States. On the East Coast, salsa and merengue complete the mix instead of tejano. Perhaps most notable are the places where he says the format has not been tried, such as heavily Latino Los Angeles and Dallas.
One reason he says KOHT ownership was so open to the changes he made in the station's already bilingual format was that it was near the bottom of the ratings. "I came in saying, the audience I'm gonna take is not the people listening to other Spanish stations, but the Mexican Americans listening to country, Top 40, adult contemporary," he says. "The hard part is, nobody's ever done it this way. There's no rule book. It's been pretty much just throw it at the wall and see what sticks."
But clearly the listenership is out there--a free show sponsored by KOHT and featuring the Barrio Boyz drew 20,000 people to a park in Tucson. Whether it's an audience advertisers care to reach remains to be seen.
"The stations in Phoenix are probably sitting back saying, 'We're gonna wait and see,'" Rivas says.
"It could work," says Mario Gonzalez, KSUN's skeptical program director. "But only time will tell. In my humble opinion, it doesn't make no sense."
"Nobody has done what he [Cortez] is doing," says Bobby Gonzales, a member of local band Barrio Latino. "And nobody does what James [Rivas] is doing. If you put those two personalities together, you'd have a hell of a show.
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