The other music

A look at the blossoming music scene nurtured by the local Hispanic community

HOUSEHOLD NAMES <br>DJs “Rocio” Valdez and Juan Villagrana have become local celebraties through their popular radio shows on the North Valley’s premiere all-Hispanic radio station, KHHZ (97.7 FM). Kids and parents alike love the popular songs and positive messages.

DJs “Rocio” Valdez and Juan Villagrana have become local celebraties through their popular radio shows on the North Valley’s premiere all-Hispanic radio station, KHHZ (97.7 FM). Kids and parents alike love the popular songs and positive messages.

Photo by Tom Angel

Rosa Angélica Valdéz has a story to tell.

When she finished school at Chico State University in social work, little did she suspect she would be commuting back to Chico every day to a glamorous job. Or that she would become a household name in the North Valley. But that’s what happens when you help start a revolution in broadcasting.

When is a radio station like a cultural barometer? In this case, when KHHZ powered up a year ago and began broadcasting 24/7 completely in Spanish. If you listen to radio anywhere in the North Valley, chances are the dial has rested on 97.7 FM. That means you’ve heard Radio Mexico’s La Gran X and the voice of Rosa Valdéz, who’s better known to her adoring audience as “Rocio.”

Rocio Valdéz is a born entertainer. While studying at Yuba College, she also waitressed at a Mexican restaurant. She’d sing for the dinner crowd, who tipped for songs they especially liked. One evening, Valdéz honored a request for a song and landed a cool $100 tip. Entertainment seemed quite promising as a career. More so when local radio station owner Rigoberto Fuentes, also known as “El Grande,” stopped in, saw her with microphone in hand, and asked her to work as a DJ at his station. The golden moment had arrived.

At Fuente’s station in Yuba City, Rocio Valdéz and Juan Villagrana joined forces. They have been working as partners in radio ever since. They’re the major part of any success story KHHZ might ever want to tell. The short version is that the pair was swept up in a series of media mergers, the kind that in unimaginative hands can spell disaster. They were lucky to land with a station manager who could understand and share their vision.

When a local affiliate of Clear Channel Entertainment, a national media giant with close to 1,200 stations, scooped up two Oroville stations, the original plan was merely to use the stations to extend the signal of the existing group of stations. Valdéz and Villagrana formulated a different scenario with their new boss, affiliate manager Dino Corbin.

Knowing the culture, language, music and demographics, they combined their aces to reveal a winning hand. Corbin realized a Spanish-language station would service an important niche, providing a local media outlet for a large portion of the community that was underserved by local radio even before the merger. He bumped up the wattage to power KHHZ, providing a wide arc of coverage.

The station now covers a large geography ranging from the edge of Sacramento all the way to Redding, reaching into Yuba City, Oroville, Colusa, Chico and most points in between. Success has prompted Corbin to scout for another signal to extend the broadcast all the way into Sacramento.

Valdéz and Villagrana admit they were out to start a revolution. La Gran X (pronounced EK-ees) pours out music, news and commentary in Spanish but fashions its mix to match the interests of the North Valley’s Hispanic community. The station’s music and companionship are the obvious draw, and their listeners seem taken by what the station offers.

At 5 a.m., Juan Villagrana’s deep voice rolls out the morning’s Radio Mexico. He’s relieved at 10 a.m. by his brother, Miguel Ángel Villagrana, who broadcasts until 3 p.m., when Valdéz takes charge until 7 p.m. After that, until 5 the next morning is a big mix of all types of Mexican regional music, from románticas to cumbias, with dozens of other styles thrown in. The DJ’s are genuine stars throughout the North Valley’s large Spanish-speaking community.

¡BAILAR! DJ Juan Cortez spins Latin hits at Bullshooters for Sunday night dancers who frequent the popular club on the corner of 15th Street and Park Avenue.

Photo by Tom Angel

When they’re not at the station doing their shows, they’re hosting many remote broadcasts, often thronged by people who want to meet them for an autograph or just to congratulate or thank them. Invitations to lecture at schools abound; Juan Villagrana recently visited Yuba City High School for a rally. The secret formula for their success, Valdéz insists, is their programming.

“We treat our audience with respect, and the respect is returned,” she explains.

Their shows are family-oriented, mixing music with positive messages rather than disrespectful shock-jockey banter. The DJs also select music with content that appeals to the core values of their listeners and honor requests for special favorites. The programs are listened to by all ages, but Valdéz happily remarks, “As soon as the kids start talking and can dial a phone, they start calling in their requests and want to talk to the DJ’s.”

She often includes music with littler kids in mind, spinning favorites like Cri Cri or El Morro. The DJs pepper their conversations with reminders that any parent appreciates their children hearing: Stay in school, study and learn, stay away from drugs or be prepared to pay the consequences. Villagrana adds, “Kids are the future of all the world. You have to work hard with kids and concentrate on them. How the kids turn out will be how the world will be.”

Valdéz says getting through to kids is a timeworn simple secret: “If you say something positive to kids, they’ll listen.” She continues, “The parents tell me they love the fact that their kids, rather than spending time watching TV or playing Nintendo, are listening to the station and learning about their own culture.”

The DJs work hard to stay current, often buying the newest CDs on their own to share during broadcast. The success of any radio station goes beyond the music. The DJs behind KHHZ microphones are communicators who understand and are interested in the lives and lifestyles of their regular listeners. They also know people want entertainment that makes them feel good, and music is a part of that entertainment, which also includes information, news and fun. Valdéz even includes poetry “about the good stuff. Love, friendship, trust.”

The radio station is listened to wherever people happen to be. As Valdéz states, “We are there.” The fact of life in a commercial broadcasting environment is that the number of people who listen and the commercial “value” of the audience to a sponsor define success. That’s another measure of success KHHZ has met and continues to prove. That lends credence to the idea that listeners will respond if the station offers something that appeals to them.

When the station’s first anniversary rolled around, over 2,000 people showed up to celebrate. KHHZ has since expanded into producing live-music concerts hosted by their DJs, like last summer’s spectacular at the Chico Fairgrounds with the massively popular Los Tigres del Norte. The concerts are quickly becoming a favorite weekend outing.

Valdéz explains, “After working hard all week, people appreciate having something to do on the weekends.” The music is as close as your radio or neighborhood get-together. The evidence is everywhere if you spin the radio dial or venture a look around. A lively Latin dance mix and friendly dance floor can be as close as your neighborhood gathering place.

The amiable Bullshooters (at the corner of 15th and Park Avenue) features music every night. But owner Barbie Boeger wanted to bring in something especially for the neighbors. She started small by having the Latin top 10 installed on the club jukebox. That hit a jackpot, but the appreciative audience was deserving of more. Boeger discussed the matter with husband/ business partner Craig Shier. They’re reserving Sunday nights at the club for Latin dancing.

Every Sunday beginning at 9 p.m., Bullshooters hosts a smooth Latin mix of dance floor favorites created onstage by a live mix DJ.

In real life, Tomás Hernández is a Glenn County probation officer. Onstage, he transforms into DJ Tomasher, spinning a peppy mix of cumbia, ranchera, merengue and salsa, with an occasional Enrique Iglesia ballad tossed into the mix. There’s a nice big dance floor and currently no cover charge. The audience was courteous, appreciative, and having a blast when I popped in.

Mexican music has always been an integral part of California. But now the music is no longer flying in under the radar or hovering just at the edge of peripheral vision or hearing. It’s not just that it’s here, because it always has been. Now that it’s easier to find, it’s easier to take part in it.