Musicians Try to Change the Mix on Latin Radio

"Latin Music is Really the Pulse of New York City"

Volume CI, No. 5May, 2001

Mikael Elsila

When Tito Puente passed away last June, listeners of La Mega – one of the premier Latin radio stations in New York – might have expected some sort of tribute show. Puente, a six-time Grammy winner, had helped to define Latin jazz.

But according to bandleader Andy Gonzales, only one DJ at La Mega acknowledged Puente’s death with any sort of special program.

“It was a slap in the face that Tito Puente’s music was not even played on La Mega after he passed away,” said Gonzales. “Maybe one broadcaster out of all of them…I’m furious about it!”

Gonzales, music director for the band Libre, is working with the United Musicians Front, a group whose goal is to change the way commercial Latin radio in New York operates. The organization is trying to win more radio time both for local Latin musicians and also for the musicians of past decades who helped found the genre.

Activists assert that commercial Latin radio stations like La Mega (97.9 FM) and Latino Mix (105.9 FM) play only modern, commercial salsa, often accompanied by DJ patter which many find degrading to women. Current New York musicians and past masters are virtually ignored on the air.

Jillian (who, as an artist, goes by her first name) is an organizer for the group. She and her husband, Johnny Almendra, lead the band Los Jovenes del Barrio. Last February she sent an e-mail to 7,000 bandleaders, side musicians and fans of Latin music, asking whether they had concerns about the degree to which their music is being played on commercial radio. “The response was so tremendous, we couldn’t help but go forward,” she told Allegro. “People are really concerned.”

Bobby Sanabria, a Grammy-nominated percussionist, bandleader, educator and active Local 802 member, is a supporter of the United Musicians Front. He points out that, since Ronald Reagan deregulated the Federal Communications Commission in the 1980s, radio stations have been bought up by a few profit-driven conglomerates who use marketing firms to find out what kind of music sells.

“It’s impossible for really creative music to get on the radio,” said Sanabria. “I don’t have anything against Ricky Martin or Jennifer Lopez or Christina Aguilera, but those artists don’t truly represent what the essence of the music is about. I’m still waiting for the commercial stations to come up with a good excuse for not playing Tito Puente or Eddie Palmieri, who between them have 12 Grammys.” If the stations don’t play the music of these artists, he notes, they are even less likely to play the music of “the people in the trenches who have contributed to the fabric of this city.”

At the end of March, the United Musicians Front called for demonstrations outside La Mega’s offices at 26 West 56th Street. More than a hundred people showed up.

Jillian said that station management ridiculed them at first. But soon several media picked up the story, including the New York Times and New York Daily News. “The picketing is really what got under their skin.” Since then, she says, the Latin stations seem to have responded slightly to the pressure. Latino Mix has begun to include historic Latin music greats in their programming.

Bandleader Wayne Gorbea, another supporter of the campaign, said, “We’ll keep trying until we make some sort of dent. The Latin commercial stations have their approach to everything; they call it ‘marketing strategies.’ But they have to open up the doors, because they’re stations for the community and they need to think about that very strongly.”

Gonzales points out that the commercial stations “have excluded quite a lot of the local talent that’s around here. We’re part of a rich tradition of Latin American music in New York that goes back a good 80 years or so.” As stations began changing their format over the last few years, he told Allegro, “they ended up excluding local artists and quite a few cultural icons – not only New York-based, but also Puerto Rican, like El Gran Combo and La Sonora Poncena.”

“What these commercial stations don’t understand is that they have a cultural responsibility to the community,” said Sanabria.

“Latin music, especially Afro-Cuban, is really the pulse of New York City. If you start to think about the historical connections that New York has to Afro-Cuban jazz and other forms of Latin music, then one would assume that you would be able to hear this type of music on a commercial station.”

“This is a hard battle. We know what we’re facing, but the frustration in the community is so intense that this has to happen; it’s time,” Jillian said.