Left Off the Dial

Why isn’t Latino radio ready to get serious?

By Linda Lutton

On float number 107 of 108 in the Mexican Independence Day parade three Sundays ago, Alfonso Hernandez is testing his sound system–two small speakers perched on the cabin of the long flatbed truck. The staging area in front of the courthouse at 26th and California is packed–in fact all of 26th Street is packed, with Mexican flags fluttering and norte–o and banda music blasting. “Unodostres, unodostres,” Hernandez repeats into his mike, rapid-fire.

As his float slips into line, he rides inside a makeshift DJ booth at the rear of the truck bed. It’s plastered with scenes from the Mexican independence struggle–Hernandez is surrounded by several life-size cutouts of martyr Miguel Hidalgo. “On this special edition of Dialogo abierto in exile, on behalf of all who make up this group of handcuffed radio broadcasters, we remain committed to the struggle to open up more opportunities for broadcasting, which you deserve,” he tells the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd along 26th Street. His voice carries about a block before it’s drowned out by the music from the other floats.

Hernandez is used to a more powerful transmission. Every weekday, three hours a day for nearly a year, his Dialogo abierto (“Open Dialogue”)–a call-in show about culture, politics, and sports–reached listeners in six states via Chicago’s 5,000-watt Spanish-language station WIND, aka La Tremenda, at 560 AM. At the end of July, after receiving quarterly ratings from Arbitron, station manager Jim Pagliai canceled the show, giving Hernandez only a day’s notice. “It was the lowest-rated three hours we had on the radio station,” Pagliai says, “and it was the lowest-rated show in all of Spanish radio at the same time.”

But for a show no one was listening to, Dialogo abierto has caused quite a stir in its absence: Big hitters on the city’s Latino cultural scene have mobilized in its defense. Several thousand people have signed a petition. And the fight to revive Dialogo abierto has opened discussion about the content of Spanish-language radio and who gets to determine it.

Hernandez was hired by WIND to produce Dialogo abierto a year ago last month, but he’s been broadcasting in Chicago since 1979. He’s produced at least seven different shows on frequencies all over the dial–many of them originally on purchased time, which was how Spanish-language radio started here. Over time he’s met and befriended a Rolodex full of influential Latinos, and for Dialogo abierto he put together a team of correspondents that included some of Mexico’s best-known intellectuals and journalists as well as young talent from Chicago–as young as seven years old–and began to talk about everything from soccer to social movements from nine to noon.

“We interviewed Homero Aridjis, who’s received death threats for his work on environmental issues,” says Hernandez. “We talked about environmental problems in Mexico. We had [essayist] Carlos Monsivais, we talked about politics in Mexico, we interviewed the governor of Guanajuato. Octavio Paz died on a Sunday and on Monday I was interviewing intellectuals in Mexico and playing tapes of interviews we had done with him. I played recordings of him reading his poems when he was here at the Art Institute. No one had anything like that. I played music from Mana, music from current rock groups–we interviewed Santa Sabina. We had a reporter who knew that scene and took it upon himself to be the liaison to that community. If you go out and ask the public what the most popular program on TV is, they’ll tell you El chavo del ocho. Well, we interviewed the creator of El chavo del ocho. We did broadcasts from the community. We did a joint live broadcast with a station in Madrid about the influence of the conquest in Mexico. What else? My last interview was with Diana Bracho, a very good actress who’s working on a piece about the life of Maria Callas in Mexico. We had exclusive reporting from France, from the World Cup–with a sports reporter who was sent by me, not by the station. He was reporting for a month and a half live–the station didn’t even know what I was doing.”

But WIND wasn’t impressed. Dialogo abierto just wasn’t what the masses were looking for, says Pagliai. “We’re trying to reach as many people as possible with our programming. That’s our job. We’re not NPR. It’s just like saying, How many people like classical music? You know, that’s a small segment of our society. I am not a classical radio station. We’re trying to be the WGN, so to speak, of the Hispanic community. We’re involved in entertainment, we’re not educating. It’s radio.”

Hernandez says WIND did little to promote his efforts; he spent his own money to make flyers and print up press passes and business cards for himself and those who worked on the show. Pagliai says Dialogo abierto “was not getting any more or any less than any other show. Rather than being criticized the management at WIND should be applauded for trying this type of programming in prime time on a Monday through Friday basis. We tried–no one else ever did. The most Alfonso ever had was an hour or so on a Sunday or a Saturday. We put him on for three hours a day Monday through Friday.”

Pagliai also emphasizes that Hernandez wasn’t fired–he was actually offered a raise and a spot on WIND’s morning drive-time show. But Hernandez, who speculates that he would have been “reading horoscopes or telling little jokes,” chose to resign instead.

Juan Dies, community outreach director at the Old Town School of Folk Music, says he started listening to WIND regularly when the station began broadcasting Dialogo abierto. “I even wrote a letter to the station manager congratulating him for having this program,” he says. But on July 24, Dies says he tuned in “only to find out that Alfonso just very succinctly said, ‘This will be our last broadcast of this program. We hope you tune in to our new show’–some social worker who’s gonna be on the air, solving your problems. And that’s all he said. He’s always been a very understated person. He wasn’t trying to arouse any kind of trouble from the audience, but the people that were listening to the show reacted to it right away.” Hernandez says he was obeying instructions to keep his good-byes quiet so as to ease the transition for his replacement, but the phone lines were jammed for hours as caller after caller–including a couple of advertisers–berated the station on the air.

In short order Dies and other community leaders had formed a committee, christened the Latino Committee on the Media, to try to put Dialogo abierto back on the air. Among some 40 participants were a number of business owners who’d advertised on the show, representatives from the Mexican and Spanish consulates, directors of several community social-service and arts organizations, the director of Chicago Latino Cinema, the director of the Spanish government’s Instituto Cervantes, representatives from the Latino press, and members of clubs representing the natives of various Mexican states. About 15 of them met with Pagliai on July 31.

“Our strategy was that each of us would make an argument from the point of view of different sectors of the community,” says Dies. “The sponsors were there; they were just waiting to put up the money for the show–that was not the point.” The ratings, Dies says, had convinced Pagliai that “his experiment had failed. He said that we were a handful of intellectuals that probably listened to his show and probably appreciated it, but for most people in the Latino community Alfonso’s program was over their heads. And that really offended everyone in the committee.”

Committee members, whom Pagliai describes as “Alfonso’s group of buddies, pals, whatever, trying to keep this thing alive,” decided to collect signatures to prove that Dialogo abierto had greater mass appeal than the ratings could show. “The people from Casa Guanajuato [a club for natives of that state] were convinced there were thousands of people listening to that show,” says Dies. Hernandez had highlighted the club during its drive to collect Spanish-language books for the formation of a community library in Little Village. “It was announced a couple of days on the station, and hundreds of people came by Casa Guanajuato and donated books; they were able to put together a sizable library,” says Dies. “They multiplied the size of their organization by getting people from the state of Guanajuato to come to their organization and sign up as members.”

When the show was on the air, Dies says, “there were calls coming in from Michigan, from Wisconsin. There were truck drivers who were calling, housewives. There were people that would call to the show that would sneak out of their jobs–they were listening to the show at work and they would go and call from a pay phone and say that they didn’t have a long time to discuss because they didn’t want their supervisor to catch them on the phone. So you could tell these were no company directors or anything.”

Carlos Heredia, director of the Little Village community organization Por un Barrio Mejor and a member of the committee, says the cancellation of Dialogo abierto is “symptomatic of the whole Spanish-language radio scene in Chicago–mostly not Latino owned, mostly not Latino managed. And even those Latinos who happen to have somewhat important positions within the radio stations, they’re not Latinos who have a background in journalism or radio and TV production. Their background is primarily in sales.”

WIND is owned by the Dallas-based Heftel Broadcasting, the largest owner of Spanish-language radio stations in the country. (It is not Latino owned.) In Chicago Heftel owns two other stations, WLXX (La Tropical, 1200 AM) and WOJO (105.1 FM). Pagliai (who is not Latino but says he’s picked up quite a bit of Spanish over the last ten years), manages all three. “They own about half of the Spanish-language stations in Chicago, so it’s quite a bit of control over what the Latino community gets to hear over the airwaves in their own language,” says Heredia. “I don’t think they really take us very seriously in terms of what our views, what our impressions, what our opinions are.”

A quick turn of the dial through Chicago Spanish-language radio yields a lot of repetition: norte–o, with its characteristic polkalike accordions and sappy, macho lyrics, dominates; it’s interspersed with romantic pop songs or Spanish remakes of English-language Top 40 hits. La Tropical, which targets Puerto Ricans, plays pop salsa and merengue, and Radio Arte (WRTE, 90.5 FM), a small youth-run bilingual station acquired two years ago by the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, plays cutting-edge and classic rock en espa–ol–but it can only be picked up in parts of the southwest side and western suburbs.

WIND, which bills itself as “the radio that talks,” runs call-in shows from six in the morning to nine at night, then turns to the standard music programming. Its most popular slot is a nationally syndicated sex show that airs for four hours every weekday afternoon. WIND’s latest addition–the replacement for Dialogo abierto–features “Karina,” a psychotherapist whose mostly female callers tearfully detail their problems with marriage, self-esteem, or substance abuse. (Karina’s advice usually consists of reading assignments–translations of books like Codependent No More.) With the possible exception of some Radio Arte segments, nothing in local Spanish-language radio constitutes either cultural programming or in-depth political analysis; and unlike other U.S. cities with large Latino populations, Chicago doesn’t even have a major station that plays rock ‘n’ roll.

“What worries us is not so much the issue of Alfonso,” says Heredia. “Alfonso is one thing–it’s important for him to have a program on the air. But there needs to be room on all the radio stations for many Alfonsos. It’s an issue of opening up the airwaves in Spanish-language radio so that Latinos can have a diversity of programming, just like programming for white Americans. We can’t say, ‘Well, this is the kind of programming Latinos or Mexicans prefer–banda.’ That’s a distorted view of our community, and it’s also belittling the capability of Mexicans to appreciate and understand other types of programming.”

So far the committee says it’s collected nearly 7,000 signatures–a figure close to eight times the sample Arbitron used this spring to determine ratings for seven stations and represent the tastes of the more than 450,000 primary Spanish speakers in the metro area. The committee has also sent letters to media buyers and to the station and encouraged others to do the same. Luis Rogel, manager of Carnaval Travel Service, which advertised on Dialogo abierto, says former listeners were calling his business to ask what happened to the show; he says he referred all of them to Pagliai. But Pagliai says he’s gotten no response from the community at large. “I haven’t heard boo,” he says. “I met with the committee, that was it. We haven’t had one letter, one phone call, nothing.”

As Hernandez’s float inches down 26th Street, a few committee members pass out T-shirts and flyers to the crowd. “Dialogo Abierto in Exile,” they read, in Spanish. “WIND cares about our money, not our culture.” Miguel Angel Topete, a reporter for the show, is interviewing spectators about the parade, about what Mexican independence means for Mexicans in Chicago, and about the importance of culture. Ten blocks from the staging area, the truck stalls. Float number 108 passes Dialogo abierto by, and the crowd starts to dissipate. One man, a factory worker who says he listened to the show at work, reads from the flyer: “The Hispanic community doesn’t have enough intelligence to understand these types of programs,” it quotes Pagliai as saying. (Pagliai denies having made the comment.) “What?” says the man. “Que estupidos!” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Alfonso Hernandez photo by Nathan Mandell; parade photo by Joan Hackett; Carols Heredia, Juan Dies photo by Nathan Mandell.