Radio en español

Chico’s first Spanish-language station goes on the air

LA GRAN X <br>Juan Villagrana and Rosa Angelica Valdéz, who goes by “Rocio,” are two of the people behind the music and culture of KHHZ. It is the first Spanish-language radio station to focus on the North Valley’s interests.

Juan Villagrana and Rosa Angelica Valdéz, who goes by “Rocio,” are two of the people behind the music and culture of KHHZ. It is the first Spanish-language radio station to focus on the North Valley’s interests.

photo by Tom Angel

Growing market: The 2000 U.S. Census found that the Hispanic population in California grew by 43 percent during the last decade. Thirteen percent of Chico’s population is Hispanic, while the numbers are even greater for surrounding areas. For example: 48 percent of the Live Oak population, 38 percent of Gridley, 37 percent of Orland and 41 percent of Corning is Hispanic.

A long, rolling “R,” reminiscent of northern Mexico, introduces the new station: Radio México, La Gran X (pronounced EK-ees, as in the popular Mexican beer, Dos Equis). Juan Villagrana’s voice, familiar to most Spanish-speakers in the North Valley, hits the airwaves from the Chico studio, where, since last month, the first local Spanish-language radio station has been broadcasting.

From 97.7 on the FM dial, listeners from Red Bluff to Sacramento can hear not only music in Spanish, but also songs, commentary and news tailored specifically to the interests of the North Valley’s Hispanic community.

Dino Corbin, who manages KHHZ along with stations KPAY, KHSL and MIX 95.1, can barely contain his excitement.

Clear Channel Entertainment, a huge national media group with nearly 1,200 radio stations, recently bought KORV and KIWI, two Oroville stations, thinking it could use them to extend the signals of the group’s other stations, Corbin said.

It was Corbin who suggested that, rather than dumping the station that had been carrying syndicated programming in Spanish, Clear Channel could make it local and better.

“We decided, basically, to build the first local Spanish station,” Corbin said. And though Corbin knows some Spanish, he’s clearly not a member of that culture and thus defers to a team of on-air personalities and ad salespeople who know the language and the market best.

Juan Villagrana, Rosa Angelica “Rocio” Valdéz and Miguel Villagrana had already been working for the previous owners—Entrevision of Sacramento—out of Marysville for several years.

“There was a big need for a local Spanish station in the area,” Juan Villagrana said. “I don’t know why somebody didn’t do it sooner.”

Villagrana does everything from picking songs to providing between-song commentary to selling and recording advertisements. “It’s completely local,” he said. “And we have [a better] variety of music than we had before.”

“Juan and Rosa are the radio station,” Corbin beamed. Both are widely known in the Northstate Hispanic community. Villagrana is often approached to autograph his picture, and listeners—like those at familia day at the Yuba-Sutter fair recently—often convince them to do a little singing themselves. (Villagrana was in a band when someone convinced him he should be on the radio, and Valdéz is a singer.)

In this part of California, explain Villagrana and Valdéz, most Spanish-speaking people are from Mexico, and they like a type of music called “Mexican regional,” which includes a mixture of rock, easy listening, mariachi music and romantic and traditional songs.

So, KHHZ has a music database with that style, plus stacks of CDs by artists like Vicente Fernández, Ramên Ayala and Los Tigres del Norte.

They throw in a little Ricky Martin, Selena and Jennifer Lopez—even Jon Secada—Valdéz said, but for the most part, it’s Mexican regional all the way. “Latino tropical will not sell here. Salsa will not sell here,” she said.

Valdéz said the songs are about much more than entertainment. “More than anything, music is part of our identity—part of our culture, who we are.” It’s difficult to hear Mexican music without getting up and dancing and singing along, she said, swaying and snapping her fingers to illustrate the point. “It runs in our veins.”

In fact, many of KHHZ’s listeners are bilingual but prefer to remain connected to their native language, seeing it as a link to their culture. “They hold on to it, I believe,” Valdéz said. “We come from our background. It’s not something we just let go [even though] through the years more and more Mexicans and Latinos in general have become U.S. citizens.”

Another thing the KHHZ DJs do is keep it clean: They want it to be a station that everyone in the family can listen to, without the bawdy banter common in English-language morning shows.

KHHZ also subscribes to CNN en español. But instead of running the news as is, just because it’s in Spanish, Juan Villagrana sifts through it for the stories that will interest the Mexican immigrants living in the North Valley—as opposed to someone who came from Cuba or Central America.

Corbin said he hopes to broadcast local news soon, perhaps by having someone translate reports from sister station KPAY into Spanish, or with original reporting.

Valdéz, who studied social work in college, tries to get in a lot of public-service announcements about health care and other services she feels the Hispanic community could use.

Some businesses—like the Wittmeier car dealerships, Albertson’s and Casa Lupe restaurants—were quick to advertise directly to the Spanish-speaking market. (Many local businesses also buy time on Univision for the same reason.)

But some, acknowledged Corbin and Villagrana, aren’t sure Spanish radio is the place to sell their products or services. The business owners worry, for example, that they’ll draw in customers with whom their employees won’t be able to communicate. “Everyone will [bring] somebody [with them] that will speak English,” Villagrana said.

Also, Corbin said, there are those who overlook the Spanish-speaking middle- and upper-class residents and think of all Northstate Hispanics as poor farm workers who can’t afford to spend much money.

Villagrana laughed at the notion, remembering how he convinced a large car dealership in Sacramento to advertise on the station in its previous incarnation. “Our people will buy expensive cars also,” he told the doubtful dealership. Villagrana did a live remote at the Yuba City dealership, and in two hours two $35,000 cars had been sold.

As stereotypes break down, KHHZ will reap the advertising dollars and listeners, Corbin predicts. He already sees insurance and real estate agents who put “se habla español” on their signs and draw clients in droves.

“Businesses have an opportunity to reach out at a very, very viable economically growing section of the workplace,” Corbin said. “To generalize, it is simply a matter of bringing education past certain perceptions and stereotypes.” And he hopes KHHZ will help bridge the gap.

So far, Corbin is pleased with the profits and so is Clear Channel, which already has dozens of Spanish-language stations and is pretty much letting the Chico people run things how they want.

KHHZ is enhancing its “street presence” with a van for remotes, and Juan Villagrana, who still lives in Yuba City, keeps track of his favorite compliments. Some people tell him the station is so good, they don’t have to buy CDs anymore.

He hears from people who turn their radios to 97.7 (99.9 farther south) while they’re working in the fields, in construction or in offices. The other day, someone told him there were 80 people in one field with Radio México on full blast.

Valdéz, who lives in Live Oak, said it’s “a lot more work” taking the Northstate approach to everything, but “it’s always been fun.”

“People are happy they finally have someone local, someone who knows what this area needs and wants," she said.