Spanish-Language Radio's Big Voice
Monday, July 3, 2006
Turning away from his microphone, WACA-AM host Alejandro Carrasco went to a commercial break and whispered in Spanish to his assistant, "I need to know when the 14th Amendment was ratified."
Minutes later, Carrasco was explaining to listeners of his tiny station in Wheaton that any move to deny citizenship rights to children born to illegal immigrants living in the United States would be unconstitutional.
"The initiative is not new, and it has not had success in the past," Carrasco said, noting that the Constitution's 14th Amendment, which defines rights and terms of citizenship, has been in force since 1868. "All persons born here are citizens of the United States and the state they are born in. To revoke this you would have to amend the Constitution."
While morning deejays on English-language stations are picking over the latest episode of "The Sopranos" or the recent NBA playoffs, WACA (1540 AM), a Spanish-language news and talk station, is offering listeners a heartier morning diet. During his four-hour shift, Carrasco, who is also the station's owner, will not only broadcast the latest news from Latin America, but will also offer a virtual tutorial in the American way of life to the tens of thousands of Latin American immigrants living within the sound of his voice. There will be news they can use about local school boards, citizenship requirements, local Hispanic politicians and other topics too small for mainstream stations.
"It is important to know what is of interest in the U.S.," Carrasco told his listeners, in Spanish, moments after translating and summarizing the front page-stories in local English-language newspapers. "We don't only need to know what happens in Latin America but what happens here, locally and nationally."
Carrasco never says so explicitly, but his station's mission seems clear enough: It is both a bridge to the places its listeners left behind and a force for assimilation into the country they now call home.
Nearly a dozen radio stations in the Washington area broadcast in Spanish, up from two in the early 1980s. This reflects the area's growing Hispanic population, which Arbitron Inc., the radio industry's leading researcher, estimates at 440,172 people ages 12 and older, or about 11 percent of the market's total. But WACA, or Radio America, as it calls itself, is the only station with an all-talk-and-news format.
Like WACA, most of the Spanish-language stations are small, suburban operations, transmitting weak AM signals. Last year, however, a major change took place in the Washington area after industry giant CBS converted WHFS (99.1 FM), for years the home of alternative rock music, into WLZL, "El Zol," the first region-wide Spanish-language station.
Nationwide, the number of outlets broadcasting music, news or talk in Spanish grew 27 percent, to 678 stations, from 1998 to 2004, Arbitron said. While that still is only a small percentage of the nation's 12,500 commercial and non-commercial stations, the audience share of Spanish-language stations now collectively surpasses that of many traditional radio formats, including country music, rock and Top 40.
Raw numbers alone do not convey the stations' importance. Just as native-language newspapers thrived a century ago to feed the information needs of newly arrived Germans, Italians, Poles, Jews, Chinese and others, Spanish-language radio is the first link to this country for many Caribbean and Latin American immigrants and a key filter of news about U.S. life and culture.
"Many Hispanics don't have the same [access to] information that the mainstream does -- the news channels and newspapers and dozens of TV stations," said Alfredo Alfonso, senior vice president of Hispanic radio for Clear Channel. "The radio station becomes their primary source of information. If something is happening in the community, they tend to go to radio first."
Spanish radio's power to mobilize was underscored by the hundreds of thousands of people drawn this spring by locutors -- Spanish radio personalities -- to rallies around the country protesting proposed changes in immigration law. The topic is among the few that unite diverse groups of Latino immigrants, legal and otherwise and helps build a station's ratings. El Zol, for example, plays mostly music but has held discussion panels and call-in shows on the subject, and has broadcast live news reports on the rallies and marches.