Latino Empowerment through Public Broadcasting

The Origins of Latino Community Radio


Introduction

Spanish-language radio programs have aired on commercial stations in the Southwest since the 1920s; however, most have been devoted solely to serving local Latino populations with popular music.1 In the 1960s, Chicanos mobilized to create alternatives to commercial radio through public broadcasting with programs in both Spanish and English that discussed topics relevant to their reality. Spanish-language and bilingual programming allowed migrant Latin Americans to foster a sense of familiarity, belonging, representation, and participation in their new homes. Finally, Latinos had access to real-time news and information in their mother tongue to help them navigate the intricacies of American society and embark on paths to prosperity, one of the reasons they had moved to the United States. Latino audiences found in public radio a network of individuals and organizations that helped guide them while preserving their cultural identities. Public broadcasting became an essential link to news, legal and health-related information, cultural programming, and local resources that had been limited or unavailable to Latinos due to the cultural and linguistic barriers that seemingly excluded them from the mainstream.

Diversifying the Radio Waves: From the Fields to the Sound Booths

Latinos in the United States were no strangers to radio. Spanish-language commercial radio broadcasting has been part of the history of southwestern Latino communities since the 1920s.2 Such programming, however, was scheduled at odd hours and tended to emphasize popular music formats that Latinos did not consider adequate for their needs. Furthermore, some felt that the news included was mostly a translation of mainstream news that had little relevance to their lives, especially to farmworkers.3 A new hope arose with the passing of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 and the subsequent creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and National Public Radio (NPR). These measures were meant to help finance public broadcasting and promised “to dedicate the airwaves to all people,” according to media scholar Monica De La Torre.4 Nevertheless, mainstream public media offered only limited Latino-oriented programming.5

Farmworkers, former farmworkers, and Chicano activists created the first bilingual community radio stations. “According to interviews with early pioneers of bilingual community radio,” media historian Dolores Inés Casillas has written, “the Campesino and Chicano movement was the ideological drive behind the construction of bilingual community radio.”6 Lacking institutional support, these grassroots efforts depended on scant public funds, nonprofits, and the generosity of individuals within their communities. Station operations often relied almost entirely on volunteers.7 During the 1970s and 1980s, Chicanos set out to establish community public radio stations and programs that furthered communications between Latinos and non-Latinos. “Chicano activists in the West,” Casillas explains, “established bilingual and bicultural airwaves as a form of signifying their sociocultural positioning as being neither here (United States) nor there (Latin America); they claimed their right to both by speaking in Spanish, Spanglish, and English-inflected Spanish on U.S. airways.”8 The first of these stations were KBBF-FM (1973), KDNA (1979), Radio Bilingüe (1980), and Radio Campesina (1983).

The First Latino Community Radio Stations in the United States

KBBF-FM: La Voz del Pueblo

KBBF Radio Cultura Host with engineers, from En Camino: https://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-88-0000002c?start=698.9&end=1012.39 (KRCB, 1986).
 KBBF Radio Cultura Host with engineers, from En Camino (KRCB, 1986).

In 1971, Chicano activists, college students, professors, and local farmworkers united to create the Bilingual Broadcasting Foundation, Inc. (BBFI) with the purpose of establishing the first Chicano-controlled and operated public radio station. They accomplished their goal in May 1973 in Santa Rosa, California, when KBBF-FM launched its first signal test. “The station is unique,” the BBFI declared at the time. “It is the first fully bilingual, bicultural educational radio service in the country.” As part of their goals, the KBBF founders and directors sought to “provide the Spanish-speaking population of northern California a media tool of their own with which to transmit music, ideas and information, as well as effect social change.”9 Their philosophy upheld that Latino and Anglo cultures should not be isolated and that broadcasting programs that reflect a bilingual, bicultural heritage would enhance both groups. In time, the station was able to secure a stream of cultural and educational programs from the Mexican government and universities, and organizations such as the United Nations and the Organization of American States, highlighting its investment in international cultural exchange.10

This first station was committed to being “La Voz del Pueblo,” the voice of the people, and produced broadcasts that it felt fulfilled their needs. Station co-founder José McMurray recalled an encounter with a listener. The listener had walked twenty miles to the station to give them cash, saying he had to donate because listening to KBBF made his day at the field a lot better. Despite economic setbacks, KBBF in its programming emphasized the importance of health education, housing, political participation, and cultural aspects of the Latino community.11

Its programs include Hora Médica, a call-in show featuring guest health practitioners and public health officials, and Chicana as a Single Parent, a show hosted and produced by four Mexican American women that focused on the gendered experiences of raising children.12 KBBF helped the community with programming and outreach. Concerned with the development of more media opportunities for Latinos, the station has served as a training ground for radio producers through federal, state, and educational grants.13 Later broadcasters documented the station’s value to Latino communities in the U.S. An 1986 episode of the KRCB TV (Rohnert Park, CA) series En Camino (Spanish-language version) profiled KBBF, praising the station’s commitment to inform, educate, and entertain the Latino community as well as train future broadcasters. Rene Ocana, KBBF general manager, explained the services KBBF provided, from English lessons and citizenship classes to agricultural advice. However, the station also deserves praise for much more.

KBBF-FM also was innovative in its inclusiveness by inviting women to be active participants in the broadcasting community. In the 1970s, María Martin was turning the radio dial when she heard something she had never heard before: programming both in English and in Spanish. In an interview, Martin said, “For the first time in my life, I heard media that reflected my reality as a bilingual and bicultural person of Mexican and American heritage.... I was hooked on this pioneering little radio station and on making radio that cut across cultural lines.”14 She and the group Mujeres por la Raza from Sonoma State University were invited to produce a program at KBBF. Somos Chicanas, the program they created, provided female listeners with information that might not have been available to them otherwise. It was described as controversial, to say the least. The women at KBBF were not afraid to discuss abortion, birth control, domestic violence, and the questioning of the idea of women’s purity and piety, among other subjects. Martin recalls that she decided to learn the technical skills required to produce the program when she noticed that the male engineer did not want to be there. She became the news and public affairs director at KBBF-FM in 1978. Unfortunately, there are no known recordings of Somos Chicanas. Martin admitted that the station had reused the reels due to lack of funds and taped over the programs with music. Notwithstanding the lack of early recordings, testimonies like Martin’s serve as evidence of KBBF’s legacy and achievements.

Today, KBBF-FM is still fulfilling its role as an educational, informational, and entertainment station for Latinos. Proud of celebrating more than 40 years of bilingual public broadcasting, the station still creates “a strong multilingual voice that empowers and engages the community to achieve social justice through education, celebration of culture and local and international news coverage,” as KBBF relates its mission.15 The station’s powerful antenna atop Mount St. Helena in Napa County reaches 18 counties in Northern California. “KBBF demystified the electronic mass media for scores of Latinos and non-Latinos whose access to it was limited or denied,” professor of political science Magdaleno Manzanárez has stated.16 This first bilingual station represented the start of a new era of public broadcasting for Latinos where they held the power to decide how to express their identities and to voice their own histories. Latinos were only just beginning to diversify the public radio waves; more stations and programs were soon to follow. [Please visit KBBF-FM’s website to explore more about its history, programs and the collaborators that make it all possible. You can even listen to live broadcasts!]

In an effort to reach wider audiences, KBBF-FM cofounders Hector Molina and José Mireles created, produced, and hosted the first national weekly Spanish-language news magazine program specifically tailored for the Latino community, National Public Radio’s Enfoque Nacional. During an interview soon after the show first aired in 1979, Molina affirmed, “Our primary concern is providing the various Spanish-speaking groups within the U.S. and Puerto Rico with timely news, information and entertainment.…to tell groups within the Spanish-speaking population about each other…. to help unite our various communities with a common, positive voice.” The program regularly dealt with the arts, humanities, and the cultural traditions of the listenership. In 1979, Enfoque Nacional was produced at KPBS-FM in San Diego and carried by at least 40 stations.17 Nine years later, NPR canceled Enfoque Nacional, citing low listenership and lack of funding. Mireles criticized NPR’s decision, claiming they had no reliable data to determine that Enfoque had low listenership and that their decision was proof of NPR’s lack of commitment to Spanish-language broadcasting.18 In 2018, NPR was in the process of digitizing this collection; a sample of Enfoque Nacional news stories is currently available at https://www.npr.org/series/912030693/enter-title.19

KDNA: La Voz del Campesino

Radio Cadena engineer in Seattle studio, from Realidades: Los Medios de Communicacion y la Communidad Latina: https://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-a6c496a73d1 (WNET, 1977).
Radio Cadena engineer in Seattle studio, from Realidades: Los Medios de Communicacion y la Communidad Latina (WNET, 1977)

Chicano media activism and farmworker activism were on the rise across the nation. The second Latino community to establish a radio station was located in the Yakima Valley in Washington State. Inspired by their own life experiences with poverty and inequality in marginalized Latino communities, farmworkers Ricardo García and Rosa Ramón, along with radio producers Julio Cesar Guerrero and Daniel Roble, cofounded what was soon to be a new addition to Pacific Northwest public broadcasting, Radio KDNA.

Radio KDNA was both product and stimulant of Chicano activism. García, for example, had trained with César Chávez and had worked with the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee in Washington and other groups seeking to improve the living conditions of Mexican Americans. Preparing to go on the air, Yakima Valley farmworkers “creatively adopted radio technologies and claimed aural spaces that created communities of resistance,” as Monica De La Torre has written.20 In 1976, KDNA founders and volunteers built a radio tower on land belonging to the Yakama Nation in coalition with the Yakama people. Like other non-commercial community radio programming, Radio KDNA (pronounced “cadena” or “chain” in Spanish) became a tool for community building and social justice work. It served as a cultural force for Chicano movement activists in rural Washington and as a way to communicate and mobilize local migrant farmworkers through culturally relevant Spanish-language broadcasting.21 In an interview for a local newspaper article written days before the first broadcast, Ramón assured readers that the station would also have programs in English. “We don’t want to be limited to Spanish-speaking listeners,” she explained. “We also want to serve the black, Filipino, Yakama Indian and Anglo populations.”22

Since its conception, Radio KDNA has been building links to connect Chicanos across the country. While the official station was being prepared, KDNA’s organizers began broadcasting the first nationally syndicated Spanish-language news service through community station KRAB-FM in Seattle.23 “[N]ews reporters from different radio stations throughout the country would call in and give us radio reports and then we would produce them into one concise segment and then feed them back to radio stations across the United States,” Ramón explained.24 In 1977, Realidades, the first national Latino bilingual television series for adults, included a ten-minute profile of Radio KDNA in a program devoted to media and the Latino community.

After years of planning and permits, KDNA finally went on air for the first time on December 19, 1979, as “La Voz del Campesino,” the voice of the farmworker. According to the station’s mission statement, “KDNA will direct its efforts as a minority public radio station in response to the cultural and informational isolation of Hispanic/Latino and other disadvantaged communities. Radio KDNA will produce quality radio programming to help such communities overcome barriers of literacy, language, discrimination, poverty, and illness. In this way, KDNA will empower these communities to more fully participate in our multiethnic society.”25 De La Torre relates that Radio KDNA took their mission a step further into unprecedented directions: they made women central in both staffing and programing.

Radio Cadena’s model of production was oriented to train women as producers and technicians, and to create programming that addressed the needs of women such as Chicana farmworkers. According to De La Torre, the principal example is none other than KDNA’s cofounder and the first Chicana community radio station manager, Rosa Ramón. As a farmworker herself, Ramón made sure KDNA’s audience included women and children, and adjusted the programming schedules to farmworkers’ seasons and hours. “Through an integration of feminist policies and women-centered programming, Chicana broadcasts ruptured male-dominated media spaces,” De La Torre has written, and as a result, “listeners often were inspired to change their living conditions.”26 The most representative program KDNA produced during this wave of what De La Torre calls “Chicana radio activism” was Mujer, meaning “woman” in Spanish. Mujer was a program solely about women. Through it, the Chicana hosts at KDNA provided farmworker women with “news stories, music, and informative pieces addressing their distinct subjectivities,” De La Torres states.27 From De La Torre’s perspective, the program provided a safe space that allowed women to discuss womanhood, their everyday lives, and controversial topics such as reproductive rights, abortion, and domestic violence. You can listen to the women of Radio KDNA – Rosa Ramón, Maria Estella, Celia Prieto, and Estella Del Villar – discuss their work in a recording available through Chicana/o Radio Archive, a project by Monica De La Torre.

KDNA-FM also produced programs such as Noticias Radio Cadena, Caravana Musical, Jardín de los Niños, Raíces Culturales, Oportunidades de Empleo, and Tres Hombres Sin Fronteras. Through Noticias Radio Cadena, KDNA made local, federal, union, and sports news available to Spanish speakers in Washington State. In the twelfth episode of the series, the hosts provide news about United Farm Workers (UFW) leader Dolores Huertas, U.S.-Mexican relations, housing, and racism in Colombia. Another episode announced a civic event and presented public affairs news and sports information. The energetic host signs off with an accurate expression: "Noticias hoy, historia mañana" (News today, history tomorrow).

Latino community radio producers were concerned with connecting Latino communities and empowering them with programming directed to men, women, and children, with information and entertainment tailored to their needs and identities. KDNA lived up to its name and mission, and became a direct inspiration and helper for others to establish community radio stations for farmworkers. [KDNA’s programs are found throughout the exhibit in the following sections. To learn more about Radio Cadena and to listen to its broadcasting, please visit their website https://www.kdna.org/.]

KSJV: Radio Bilingüe, La Voz que Rompió el Silencio

In the 1970s, Hugo Morales, a Harvard Law School graduate, returned to the plum fields he had worked on with his family and the farmworkers he had once labored beside in Fresno, California. He had gone to school so that he could return and help his people, and he did so by establishing a bilingual community radio station. As a young farmworker, Morales recognized the need for a radio station that would inform and entertain farmworkers in the fields. In an interview, Morales remarked, “Many farm workers are made to feel that they have no culture of their own. But when they hear the many types of music from Mexico on the radio, they realize it is worthwhile. They know their music and heritage is something to be proud of.” Moreover, he wanted to give them “a way to contribute to their own communities and a way to link up to the outside world.”28 In 1976, Morales began posting his own hand-lettered signs inviting help from anyone interested in a bilingual radio station.29 With the help of volunteer farmworkers, activists, artists, teachers, and grants, Radio Bilingüe went on air on July 4, 1980, as La Voz que Rompió el Silencio (The Voice That Broke the Silence), the third bilingual community radio in the United States.30 The quality of its programs and the dedication of its founders and listenership helped the station achieve national coverage. Within their programs, broadcasters took the opportunity to interview Hugo Morales about the history of Radio Bilingüe. In a program titled “Building a Community Network,” Morales talked about his origins and the reasons he decided to collaborate with others to create a station and then a network. Later, his coworkers interviewed him for a special reflection series titled “The Dream, The Station” about how the station was born, the difficulties they faced, and the benefits of community radio by, about, and for Latinos.

Hugo Morales, Radio Bilingüe Executive Director.
Hugo Morales, Radio Bilingüe Executive Director.

Radio Bilingüe was created and operated by farmworkers for farmworkers. Since its first broadcast, the station has featured music, public affairs shows focusing on farmworkers’ issues, forums, and call-in shows to discuss concerns such as immigration reform, pesticides, labor law, bilingual education, health, weather, sports, and other topics. Listen to their first broadcast test as the host announces the first transmission of KSJV in English and Spanish, and its founders and collaborators express their happiness at finally having a bilingual radio station. The broadcasters announce their plans to ask the community how the station can help them and request help to keep the station going. They end the first transmission with a musical celebration of Mexican heritage dedicated to César Chávez for his sacrifices in favor of Mexican Americans and la gente campesina. According to Morales, “That first day was incredibly emotional. People were calling the station, crying, so moved that something like this could happen.”31

The station operated with a dedicated base of volunteers and advocates. Newspapers told the stories of farmworkers like Rafael Mejia, who were avid listeners of Radio Bilingüe while working and answered the call for volunteers. In Mejia’s case, he went on to become a volunteer disk jockey who read public announcements and gave advice in between songs as his way to help his neighbors have a better life. Pablo Espinoza, a former farmworker, hosted a bi-weekly call-in show where he once invited an attorney to sit in and give legal advice. In an interview, Espinoza commented that when such guests talked to him, a fellow Latino and farmworker, audiences felt more at ease: “I don’t use 50-cent words. I speak the language of the barrio.”32 Mejia’s and Espinoza’s stories are only two examples of how important Radio Bilingüe became in providing Latinos a space to talk, learn, and be heard as part of a community and a nation. Pretty soon, Radio Bilingüe was known as the nation’s largest Spanish-language public radio network and the only station that had effectively expanded its operations beyond the community.33

Among its many programs, the station produced Noticiero Latino. The first and only Spanish-language radio news program on U.S public radio, it has been on the air since 1985 providing daily, five minute reports from around the world on a diversity of topics including immigration, politics, the environment, health, education, civil rights, and more.34You can listen to Noticiero Latino segments within other programs. On one occasion, reporters provided news about immigration (from Los Angeles), Puerto Rican passports (from New York), a complaint against a judge over alleged derogatory remarks about Latinos (from Miami), Social Security issues (from Washington), and crime in Mexico (from Mexico City). The second segment informed listeners about federal and state education reports on teachers (from Washington), a welfare reform act’s effects on employment (from Los Angeles), a proposal to require Hispanic history classes in schools (from Miami), a chain of free medical clinics (from New York), and a proposal to create a North American university (from Mexico City).

In 1995, a grant from CPB allowed the station to expand its borders with the acquisition of a satellite. That same year, Radio Bilingüe launched Línea Abierta as the first national live talk and call-in program in public broadcasting interconnecting Spanish-speaking audiences and newsmakers throughout the United States and Mexico. Línea Abierta, which is still on the air, consists of one hour of news, analysis, features, interviews, roundtables, special series, and listener call-ins on current events, health, jobs, politics, the environment, education, the arts and culture, race relations, immigrant rights, and more. Other Radio Bilingüe programs available in the AAPB include Acontecer Campesino, Nuestra Herencia Musical, Refugiados, Immigrant Children, Beyond the New Law, and The Simpson Rodino Radio Series. You can find examples of these programs throughout the exhibit. To learn about and access other programs by the Radio Bilingüe Network, we encourage you to visit their website (http://radiobilingue.org/en/).

*Línea Abierta*’s founding team. Back row (left to right): Armando Valdez, Juan Arambula, Samuel Orozco. Front row (left to right): Maria Eraña, Eva Torres.
*Línea Abierta*’s founding team. Back row (left to right):  Armando Valdez, Juan Arambula, Samuel Orozco. Front row (left to right):  Maria Eraña, Eva Torres.

Hugo Morales and Radio Bilingüe’s mission was to serve as a voice to empower Latinos and other underserved communities.35 Members of the Fresno farmworkers’ community founded it due to the need for organized programs to assist the poor and to give farmworkers a voice and a space to celebrate their culture, heritage, and sacrifices. Today, KSJV broadcasts its signature public affairs program, Línea Abierta, to more than seventy station affiliates as well as to radio signals in both Mexico and Puerto Rico. Radio Bilingüe owns and operates 13 of its own full-power FM non-commercial stations in California and the Southwest and remains a powerhouse of bilingual and Spanish-language broadcasting in the United States.36 It was not, however, the only station to become a network.

KUFW: Radio Campesina, La Estación del Pueblo y Para el Pueblo

As we have seen, the creation of Chicano community radio had its origins in farmworker and Chicano activism in the 1960s and 1970s. César Chávez, cofounder of the United Farm Workers (UFW), had a vision to create a radio network to entertain and educate the community.37 The opportunity arose around 1980 after he visited KDNA-FM in Washington’s Yakima Valley. Casillas explains, “Impressed by the radio station’s operation and control by local farmworkers, [Chavez] invited the producer who trained the employees and formatted the majority of their shows -- Julio Guerrero -- to start one on behalf of the UFW.”38 Three years later on May 1, 1983, KUFW-FM went on the air in California’s Central Valley and joined the other three full-time Spanish-language community radio stations in the country. Called Radio Campesina, the station identifies itself as “La Estación del Pueblo y Para el Pueblo.” Committed to the farmworker community, it worked around their dawn-to-dusk schedules and served as their advocate.39 Radio Campesina began as a combination of an all-Mexican-music format and news, including union-related developments. In an article from 1983, its director of development stated that their mission was “to inform people, to help them develop the better life they deserve.”40

According to the Radio Campesina website, the station “has aired forums and debates on key issues such as health, security, education, political and consumer affairs, interviews with experts from different fields of services, plus news and information programs which listeners can participate in through in studio calls.”41 Today, the Radio Campesina Network consists of nine commercial and community radio stations across four states, California, Arizona, Washington, and Nevada. They attribute their success to a combination of popular music, news, information, call-in segments, and live broadcasts from local events.

Next: Latino Public Television History

Curators

Alexandra García

Intern, Library of Congress Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) National Internship Program

Gabriela Rivera

Intern, Library of Congress Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) National Internship Program