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Mexican Radio in Los Angeles Crashes—And Down With It Comes An Anti-Immigrant Fable

It's a story of assimilation and plain old consumer choice.

"Spanish-Language Broadcasters Take a Fall," read a front-page headline in the December 3 edition of the Los Angeles Business Journal. In just the past year, according to the accompanying article, the audience share of Spanish-language radio stations in the L.A. market fell two points, from 21.6 to 19.4, while their English-language counterparts saw an increase from a 56 to 58 share.

It was a "dramatic drop for several outlets that spent years at or near the top," according to the paper. One of the big factors: a "shift in preferences among younger listeners in Spanish-speaking communities for English-speaking media."

The story hasn't gotten much traction outside of media circles. But it's a big one in the continued assimilation saga of Mexicans in the United States. And it's one giant chinga tu madre to anti-immigrant types who have spent the last 25 years decrying the Mexican takeover of "American" airwaves in Southern California. One of their main proofs that unassimilable, backwards Mexican culture had taken over the Southland is the continued switchover of crappy pop and adult alternative stations to Latino formats. First they flooded our schools, then they took over welfare. Now their tuba music is all over the dial, and it probably plays hidden messages about how to sacrifice gringos with an obsidian knife!

But L.A. radio station owners don't flip formats because of Reconquista, but because it makes business sense. Mexicans, like all people, are consumers. And Mexicans change their tastes as well—you know, like other people. So the industry keeps evolving.

This is a story I've had the advantage of growing up in. I remember a January 6, 1993, Los Angeles Times story that reverberated across the country. KLAX-FM 97.9 ("La Equis"—The X) had topped the local Arbitron ratings with a formula used by all stations in the United States for decades: genius marketing, wisecracking on-air personalities, and a hot new genre that set it apart from rivals.

Except this time, the language was Español. And the music was Mexican.

KLAX's victory was so unexpected that classic rock station KLSX 97.1 "expressed concern" to the Times "that some of their audience may have gotten the call letters mixed up and that those listeners may have been attributed [in the Arbitron ratings] to KLAX." It was a line repeated by Howard Stern, who saw his reign as king of the L.A. airwaves toppled by what he dismissed as "some Mexican station." (KLAX, the Times reported, responded by sending Stern "a funeral wreath with a note reading: 'Thanks for helping us remain No. 1.'")

KLAX's win started a good 15 years of Spanish-language domination of the Southern California airwaves, as other stations emerged to take turns at the top. The same began to happen across the United States. Smart programmers took advantage of changing demographics, and Mexican-Americans no longer ashamed of their ethnic background (see: Linda Ronstadt recording a mariachi album in 1987) wanted to listen to genres like banda sinaloense, pasito duranguense, and rock en Español that were previously available in el Norte only live or on pirated CDs.

The influence of Spanish-language radio in the United States reached its peak in 2006, when DJs from across the country set aside their rivalries and urged their respective listeners to take to the streets in support of amnesty; the resulting protest marches were the largest in American history until the Women's March earlier this year.

I remember this era well. My cousins and I had all grown up with the music of our parents and liked it enough, but we never thought of it as cool. KLAX changed all that. Suddenly, my older cousins went to quinceañeras decked out in tejanas (Stetsons), silk shirts, and cintos piteados (leather belts with arabesque designs). I'll spare you the visuals of me dressed like this as a gawky 13-year-old nerd, but I can say this: All along, we primarily spoke English and listened to hip hop at home.

To anti-immigrant zealots, our choice of music and dress became further proof of the Mexican menace. Their laws drew support from people upset about "Spanish-language radio stations and ballots printed in something other than English," in the words of an aggrieved voter quoted in the Times in 1994. Our favorite DJs were supposed propagandists looking to destroy the United States from within. When noted podcaster Adam Carolla lost his terrestrial radio show in 2009 after KLSX switched formats (not to Latino music but to pop), he predicted that "all you're going to hear on L.A. radio now is ranchera music and Top 40."

How would all those people react to the downfall of Spanish-language radio today? They'd make excuses, of course. Yes, us Mexicans tend to keep around our ethnic music longer than other ethnic groups—you don't really hear third-generation Polish-American millennials blast century-old mazurkas and polkas from their cars the way their Mexican-American counterparts sometimes do with rancheras, corridos and other Mexican styles. But it's not as if we do nothing but listen to Spanish-language music at all times. We also love Morrissey. And African-American oldies but goodies. And the Doors. And especially metal.

Spanish-language radio in Los Angeles was always just a fad. Nowadays, fewer immigrants are coming to Southern California, and Mexican immigrants are increasingly creating community via CDs, YouTube and mp3s that bypass radio altogether. Besides, the current pickings are slim. Most radio hosts are now syndicated, meaning that the hyperlocalism that made Southern California on-air personalities so electric during the 1990s and 2000s is now gone. Mexican music of today is mostly bad mashups of regional styles with lead singers who lamely try to emulate the harsh, reedy voice of the legendary assassinated singer Chalino Sanchez.

And a lot of the old DJ banter doesn't appeal to younger, more P.C. audiences anymore. Last month, on 101.9—once home to Eddie "Piolín" Sotelo, the main DJ behind the 2006 amnesty marches and whose show felt like a fascinating mixture of Dr. Phil, Howard Stern, and Pacifica—I heard in a five-minute span an anti-Asian term, a black guy referred to as an "Africano" (the Mexican Spanish version of "Negro"), a mock-gay voice, and a shoutout to El Chapo. And that was on a Saturday evening, when no one is listening.

This past ratings cycle, KLAX finished in 8th place, just one of two Spanish-language stations to crack the top 10. I played it on the way to a friend's house on Thanksgiving, just for old time's sake. When their younger cousins came, they put on the Spotify and cranked up the Migos. Repeat after me, America: Assimilation happens. Especially for Mexicans.

Photo Credit: ASEugenio Xoterik Images on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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  • Ron||

    The writer gives his youthful inexperience away by claim that 1990's was the start of on air dj personalities, they go back at least as far as the 60 's with wolfman Jack and I'm sure there were others before him, unless he is only refering to latino music but that that has been around just as long as any other form of radio

  • ||

    The conspicuous absence of this (released in '82) makes the article seem kinda slanted too.

  • Hank Stamper||

    "...had topped the local Arbitron ratings with a formula used by all stations in the United States for decades: genius marketing, wisecracking on-air personalities, and a hot new genre that set it apart from rivals."

    He explicitly says that they used the formula used by others for decades across the country,.

  • ||

    Then I guess, not being part of his or the specific culture, the distinction and/or significance is lost on me. DJ's and radio personalities go back well before the 90s and across borders and cultural lines. The idea that Latino Music in LA in the 90s was some manner of cultural tidal wave in one direction or the other seems to artificially inflate it's importance. I could tune in spanish-only AM stations, well away from the Mexican border and preferred 'Second Wave' bands at the same time I could watch Klan rallies on TV. Despite the state being, arguably, the last bastion of the Klan, nobody bemoaned Mexicans taking over the airwaves even when the above played. I guess my socio-cultural upbringing didn't hinge on Adam Corolla's or Howard Stern's careers the way his did.

    Since you seem to have appreciated the story more than I, did someone actually say the 'obsidian knife' quote or is that part entirely the author's own work?

  • Cofi||

    Probably his own invention. He's just injecting some Aztec-flavored absurdity into the already absurd anxiety about there being too much Spanish on the radio. The whole article underhandedly jabs at that anxiety, which usually inflects the issue with some sense that it must be sinister or unique for a Latino station to top the ratings. You know, the type of person who that backwards mexicans will be the ruination of the region. The author never actually says it was a cultural tidal wave -- for him personally and his family, it made mexican music cool in a way that it wasn't before -- the people who do are the one's who write stuff like this: http://humanevents.com/2006/04.....an-empire/
    The whole point here is that those fears, and the "proof" of them in radio ratings, are ridiculous.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    +1 barbecued Iguana.

  • jelabarre||

    I wondered just how far into the comments section I'd have to go to get a WoV reference. Second comment, not bad at all.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Once again, AmeriKKKa destroys a once vibrant subculture.

  • DJF||

    They need to be deported before they become boring lazy Americans

  • BambiB||

    That's probably the REAL reason behind the decline in listeners. 2% of the audience sneaked BACK across the border rather than face actual enforcement of US immigration law.

  • sarcasmic||

    We also love Morrissey.

    No. For the love of Dog, please. Just, no.

  • Jimbo||

    If a double-decker bus,
    Crashes in to us,
    to die by your side,
    It's such a heavenly way to die.

    How can you not like this? It's poetry of the highest art. (or not)

  • JLM||

    Cheech Marin expressed similar sentiments about 40 years ago........

    https://youtu.be/LLqqZmNFa_A

  • Rhywun||

    Does this mean ESPN will stop broadcasting half their licensed soccer matches in Spanish-only?

  • Ron||

    If the music is died i blame the movie La Bamba. Meriachis across the globe had to play that stupid song so many times I'm not surprised its dying out but at least El Meriachi made up for it

  • Agammamon||

    mariachi.

  • Jimbo||

    His culture spells it that way.

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    Wonder if they had to play the Soggy Bottom Boys.

  • Árboles de la Barranca||

    RIchie Valen's version of the classic La Bamba remains popular sixty years later.

    The stations may be dying but the music lives on.

    Yo no soy marinero, soy capitan...

  • Brandybuck||

    Head to central California then. Nine out of ten radio stations play non-stop banda. The tenth plays hip hop.

  • GeneralWeygand||

    No kidding. Drive from Sac to Bakersfield

  • Mitsima||

    'People say I'm a Latino comedian. No. I'm a comedian who happens to be Latino.'
    'Well what's the difference?'
    'I have a special on HBO, not Telemundo'
    (East LA crowd goes wild)

    -Gabriel "Fluffy" Iglesias

  • DRM||

    How would all those people react to the downfall of Spanish-language radio today? They'd make excuses, of course.

    Actually, they'd just quote you back at you -- "Nowadays, fewer immigrants are coming to Southern California[.]"

    Assimilation is perfectly possible if the culture of the immigrants isn't constantly reinforced by new inflow. Youth look to their peers as much as their parents, and if all available peers are all America-raised, that means an Americanized generation. But if the America-raised youth have contact with a large number of peers who are first-generation immigrants themselves, that militates against assimilation.

    So it was never that Mexicans were inherently unassimilable, it's that Mexicans were highly unassimilable as long as the immigration flow went unchecked, and so the peer group had lots of first-generation Mexicans to acculturate later-generation Mexicans. And for a long time, it looked like nothing would check it.

    Fortunately for assimilation, net immigration from Mexico fell to near-zero ten years ago. Took a massive financial crisis, but, still, it stopped. Without a constant influx of Mexican-raised peer models, Americanization is happening on schedule -- with things like PC youth rejecting DJs expressing authentic Mexican racism.

  • Paloma||

    Rancheras and norteno music has been almost exclusively listened to by Mexicans. And those tubas come from the German influence along the northern border. And Mexico has other styles of music that are popular all over Latin America.

    Music really has no borders, thankfully.

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    German influence

    Lawrence Welk? Wonderful, Wonderful.

  • Unemployed Armenian Tranny||

    +1 Eating BBQed Iguana

  • geo||

    All these statistics mean very little, except to emphasize the disadvantage US broadcasters have by complying with FCC regulations, because these numbers only account for the US licensed radio stations. The Border Blasters that have ten to fifty times more power than the US radio stations are a large part of the market share in Southern California. Many listen to radio stations located in Mexico that have no idea they are listening to a Mexican station. I listened to 91X in LA for years. Its official call letters are XETRA and it broadcasts from Mexico. I can listen to Spanish language radio stations even now where I live over 1500 miles from the border of Mexico. I am sure Mexican immigrants probably continue to listen to the same stations they listened to before they migrated from Mexico. The US market will never compete because the US regulations make it impossible. Of course, they forget that most of us can listen to any radio station in the world on the internet, and Arbitron is not tracking that.

  • Harry A. Ness||

    And the Mexicans would have taken back this land too, if it wasn't for those hipsters that invaded from who knows where.

  • darrenlobo||

    Here in Philadelphia they tried starting a station called La Mega like they have in NYC & a few other places. It soon closed

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    Spanish language anything doesn't bother me...any more than all the other crap that's on radio and television. Can't get worse than that.

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