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Heartland Tuning In to Spanish

Even in remote parts of the Plains and Rockies, oldies and talk radio stations are giving way to Mexican ballads and the norteña.


LIBERAL, Kan. -- The Friday afternoon deejay has been known to miss his show because he's at his other job, pounding nails at a construction site. The newscaster spends most of her day selling jewelry. And the guy running the station is simply glad to be there: It beats his last job, working behind the counter at an auto parts store.

So it goes at KYUU, the little ranchera station on the prairie, 1,000 watts of Spanish-language music and talk beamed 24/7 to the beef workers, housewives and young homies of southwest Kansas.

If black thunderclouds start to build over the high Plains and the wind kicks up, one of the station's half-dozen staff members will rush to the microphone to transmit a tornado alerta. More often they broadcast the quirky musings of deejays like El Chulo de la Manana, the Handsome Morning Guy.

KYUU is one of the newest outposts in Spanish-language radio's long march across the United States, a conquest that set off decades ago from Miami and Los Angeles and is now reaching its final frontier: the rural towns of the Rocky Mountains, Southeast and Great Plains.

Every month, it seems, another station gives up its English format--oldies or talk--in favor of what's known in the business as "regional Mexican." From one night to the next, the airwaves switch from farm reports and Howard Stern to the oom-pah-pah beat of the nortena and the wailing ballads of the ranchera and the corrido.

In 1980 there were only 67 Spanish-language radio stations in the United States. Today, at least 559 of the nation's 12,800 stations broadcast in Spanish, according to the Arbitron ratings service. With new stations opening in Minneapolis, St. Louis and Nebraska in the last two years, Spanish-language radio can now be heard in all or part of 44 states.

On the newest stations in rural America, what listeners hear is not the slick, packaged radio of Los Angeles, New York or Miami, where Spanish-language stations lead all broadcasters in the race for ratings. Instead they often get an earnest, learn-as-you-go reflection of the young communities that have spawned them.

"It's a lot different selling auto parts than selling radio," says 23-year-old Jose Gutierrez, who is, in effect, the man in charge at KYUU. Before his auto parts job he also worked in the beef plants that are the main source of employment here, carving cuts of meat from the cheeks of steer that stared back at him with dead eyes.

Giving Neighborhood Businesses a Voice

These days Gutierrez keeps track of the deejays, does the weather report and tapes ads for customers, throwing in sound effects like roosters crowing. In an ad for a local restaurant he casts off his natural modesty to give a yelp of "Ay mama!" because the enchiladas are so good, they make you want to shout.

KYUU fills air time with jalapeno-eating contests and T-shirt giveaways, and the occasional remote feed. KYUU will broadcast for an entire afternoon from the Homeland grocery store, or the clothing boutique-cum-barbershop of Guadalupe Contreras.

"We started to grow when the radio station started," says Contreras, whose store buys four or five 30-second spots on the station each day. Each costs about $8. "They are the only ones who pay attention to the raza, the humble people. And the people love them back for it."

In the process, stations like KYUU are helping to create a sense of identity in communities where many residents are newly arrived immigrants. In a broad sector of the U.S., Spanish-language television is only available on cable. Now, even in the middle of Nebraska you can turn on the radio and hear crooners like Vicente Fernandez belting out a tune, or the comforting, rapid-fire baritone of a Mexican deejay.

"You can imagine, when you don't get information about the weather or the news, you feel like you're in jail," said Jacinto Corona, one of two Spanish-language deejays at KMMJ in Grand Island, Neb. "Now we have the opportunity to serve the community and to teach people to be good citizens."

Spanish-language stations like KMMJ are spreading, in part, thanks to entrepreneurs in California and Texas who have seized the opportunity created by the nationwide spread of Latin American culture. Companies like Sacramento-based ZSpanish offer the programming, beamed in by satellite, that fills up the bulk of the air time at low-budget, mostly AM operations like KYUU and KMMJ.

ZSpanish began in 1992 as a string of stations in California's Central Valley. "Once we beamed up our signal up to the satellite we discovered the footprint covered the entire U.S.," says co-founder John Bustos. "We discovered what great, growing [Latino] populations there are in all these places like in Arkansas and Nebraska."

The ZSpanish feed is broadcast by 68 stations, about half of them independently owned, including affiliates in DeQueen, Ark.; Minneapolis; and Dodge City, Kan., just up the road from Liberal. The network forms a rural challenger to the big boys of Spanish-language radio, such as Dallas-based Hispanic Broadcasting Corp., whose stations reach the big-city Latino markets. As a whole, Spanish-language radio generated $440 million in ad revenue in 1998.

In Grand Island, KMMJ went Spanish and joined the ZSpanish network thanks to the efforts of Latino activists Corona and Oscar Erives. At first, the station allowed the two men--neither of whom had any radio experience--to broadcast just one hour on Saturdays.

"We had never been in front of a microphone before," says Erives. "The first day we just looked at each other and said, 'Now what do we do?' "

The station went Spanish full-time in 1998. Gone are the polkas that used to be KMMJ's staple, replaced by nortenas, which with their ample accordion riffs, just happen to sound a lot like polkas.

Still, the passing of the polkas upset some listeners to one of Nebraska's oldest radio stations.

"We had 20, 25 callers complain," says station manager Lyle Nelson, many of whom bemoaned the presence of so many immigrants in Nebraska. "But we had maybe 500 saying it [the new Spanish-language format] was a good thing."

On weekends, KMMJ broadcasts live play-by-play when Grand Island's soccer teams--made up mostly of immigrant meatpackers and other laborers--meet at local fields. In-studio guests have included the Mexican consul from Denver and local Border Patrol agents, who were asked to explain why the agency is setting up offices in town (immigrant smuggling has soared in Nebraska and neighboring Iowa).

In Rupert, Idaho, the local Spanish-language station, which calls itself La Fantastica, rises from a beet field on the edge of town. Former Mormon missionary Benjamin Reed holds court weekday afternoons as a Wolfman Jack-style deejay called El Chupacabras, the name of the mythical goat-devouring creature that was a 1990s boogeyman in the Caribbean and Mexico.

"Chupacabras, please play something by Los Temerarios," one female caller asks.

"Of course," Reed answers. As the song "I Did You Wrong" plays, Reed asks into the telephone: "What station has your sound?" ("Cual es la que suena?")

"La Fantastica y El Chupacabras!" the caller shouts back.

For Reed, an Idaho native who became fluent in Spanish while living in Argentina, becoming El Chupacabras is the fulfillment of a long-held ambition. After 14 years in English-language television and radio, he's finally getting a chance to emulate his heroes, deejays like the legendary Pepe Garza of Que Buena, a Los Angeles station.

"Even though I was born here, I identify myself as Hispanic culturally," Reed says. Slipping into Spanish, he continues: "The gringo is a closed person. A Latino is more open, warm. Working here is my dream job. Sure, I'm in a small market. Sure I'm in a beet field. But there's so much freedom. When I'm on La Fantastica I become a different character."

In English he's simply Benjamin Reed, the host of a talk-radio show on KFTA's sister English-language station, KBAR. But in Spanish, which he speaks without a noticeable accent, he is "Ben-ha-meen Roberto Reed!" He flavors his show with the sound effects that are the calling card of Latin American radio, a cacophony of "stingers" and "lasers," and many echoes, all generated by turning the knobs on a machine.

"You're listening to La Fantastica-a-a-a . . . "

Doing 'Fun Stuff That People Used to Do'

"I want it fast, hard-paced. I try to get that out of my jocks too," says Reed, who is training a handful of locals to be disc jockeys. "In Spanish, you get to do the fun stuff that people used to do on AM."

Moments after Reed goes on the air, the phone starts to ring off the hook inside KFTA's claustrophobic control room. From all around the towns that surround Rupert, the Spanish-speaking people of southern Idaho's Magic Valley call in with requests.

"People out there are working hard. They're in the fields, they're milking cows," Reed says. "But when they hear me, they feel they have a friend."

The next morning, when Reed takes up his other job at the English-language talk-radio station, the mood couldn't be more different. He tries to strike up a conversation with his listeners about Elian Gonzalez and Janet Reno, taking a conservative tack. No one bites.

"No is one calling," he says on the air. For a moment, he turns surly. "It's kind of frustrating. I guess they're part of the 60% of the public that's apathetic. They don't care what dictator Reno is doing."

Most Spanish-speaking listeners in southern Idaho don't know that Reed has this other radio persona. They aren't much inclined to listen to English-language radio, which is dominated locally by country music and syndicated talk-radio programs. KFTA has the Spanish-language audience all to itself.

But in southwest Kansas, KYUU in Liberal does face some local competition from another Spanish radio station, KZQD, Radio Libertad.

KZQD is a Christian station, founded by Mario Loredo, an evangelical pastor who runs a string of churches in Kansas and the Oklahoma panhandle. Among other things, KZQD plays Christian cumbias, a musical hybrid in which the glories of Jesus are praised to a tropical beat.

"Let it move, let it move, let it move," goes one song, to a hip-swaying tempo. "Let it move the spirit of God!"

"A lot of people here in Liberal only listen to our station," Loredo says. Every morning he hosts a three-hour sermon. "They prefer Christian radio in their cars, in their homes and at their jobs. The impact we've had on the spiritual life of the community is enormous."

Loredo doesn't have much to say about the other station in town, "the secular station." Nor do they seem much concerned with him.

"I'm not sure how many people listen to it," Gutierrez of KYUU says, trying to be diplomatic. In fact, no one can say with certainty how many people are listening to radio here: Liberal's market is so small, it doesn't make the Arbitron ratings.

What is clear, however, is that "secular" KYUU has a loyal listener base. Last year, the station brought El Chulo de la Manana from the ZSpanish headquarters in California for a local visit. Hundreds filled an auditorium in Liberal to see him.

Beside such entertainment, KYUU also offers of community programming. When a Mexican immigrant dies in Liberal, the station will help the deceased's family raise the money to ship the body back to Mexico. And KYUU's local news report is the only regular source of community news in Spanish.

Indira Amparan reads the news in a youthful voice. She gets paid near-minimum wage for her work, but sounds professional nonetheless. "A 20-year-old woman said a man pointed a gun at her and threatened to kill her . . . ," Amparan says, as cheerful music plays incongruously in the background.

News Show Becomes a Litany of Violence

The news proceeds for five minutes in a similarly violent vein, as if little Liberal were a dark corner of urban America, and not a town of 17,000 souls surrounded by wheat fields. A man is found stabbed three times. A 12-year-old boy is arrested for throwing a brick at a 6-year-old. Three stories in a row end with the same phrase: "The arrested young man was taken to the jail in Garden City."

There are a lot of things about KYUU that appear to defy convention.

Roberto De Leon, a construction worker, seems too mild-mannered to be a deejay. And yet he is the station's star, the only person at KYUU with radio experience, having worked in nearby Garden City and in Mexico for a bit.

De Leon has sad eyes and looks tired. His skin is sunburned from working outside. Sometimes he has to work late on Fridays and can't make his show. But he assures a visitor that "when I get on the radio I'm very happy. That's what the people like. For you to be feliz."

With a smile he hands out his homemade business card: "Roberto De Leon, 'weekend deejay,' Liberal, Kansas."