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Bilingual Dilemma: Big Paycheck or Little Pond?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A small group of TV broadcasters in this country have two careers to think about: one in English and one in Spanish. But the decision isn’t just about language preference. It’s about pay, fame and impact--juicy temptations that bilingual newscasters must choose between.

Right now, a contract dispute at KFTV, the Fresno affiliate of a Spanish-language television network, has underscored the pros and cons of working in each language. At issue is the disparity between pay for English-language versus Spanish-language TV newsroom staffs in a market where the Spanish-language TV station, Channel 21, dominates.

Indeed, the two key assets English-language television offers newscasters are money and mainstream visibility. The mainstream market is a more competitive one, where Latino names are the exceptions, not the rule. And while Spanish-language television is a smaller industry, it offers young broadcasters a faster track for advancement and more impact on the community.

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The trade-off comes in salaries that are traditionally much lower than English-language--where the differential depending on the market can be more than 30%.

Teresa Rodriguez succeeded in both newsrooms. Eight Emmy Awards later she anchors a national newsmagazine on Univision, the largest Spanish-language network in the country and the fifth-largest network overall. Univision is also the network that the Fresno station is at odds with.

In 1982 the Cuban-born Rodriguez became the first woman to anchor a Spanish-language national broadcast. Several years later she switched to English to anchor the noon and 5 p.m. newscasts at NBC’s Miami affiliate, WTVJ. But when the network offered her Connie Chung’s anchor chair on the New York set of “NBC News at Sunrise,” she and her husband opted not to consider a New York-Miami marital commute.

That’s when Univision started looking good again.

She now hosts “Aqui y Ahora con Teresa Rodriguez” (“Here and Now With Teresa Rodriguez”), a prime-time newsmagazine. Over the past few years, Rodriguez has nailed some memorable interviews, including Spanish-language television’s only sit-down with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton (it was in the Map Room of the White House).

“Perhaps, if there are any regrets, it was not having stayed with Spanish-language all the way through,” Rodriguez said. “It’s really where I feel that I can shine. I can do stories that affect our people.”

But Channel 21 anchorman Fermin Chavez and on-air reporter Reina Cardenas at Univision’s Fresno affiliate say the visibility of Spanish-language TV are overshadowed by its low pay.

Chavez earns $32,500 and Cardenas earns $25,300, salaries that sound shockingly low compared to their English-language colleagues, especially considering they work at the area’s No. 1 TV station. Their salaries range from 20%-30% below their English-language counterparts in Fresno.

Newsroom Employees on a Hunger Strike

Cardenas, 27, supports her large family with that salary, and said she has stayed in Spanish-language television because she wants to cover the Central Valley in a language her farm worker parents can understand.

After weeks of contract negotiations Chavez, Cardenas and a group of newsroom employees went on a modified hunger strike Feb. 17. They did not eat solid food, insisting that Univision give them pay parity with their English-language colleagues. As of today, only Cardenas, a newsroom technician and the union negotiator have been able to maintain the hunger strike. The rest dropped out under the advice of doctors, Chavez said, who was ordered to eat last Thursday by his physician after his blood pressure continued dropping and he displayed diffuse muscle tenderness.

KFTV still refuses to grant them an increase in salary, and Cardenas is considering working in English. Station management declined to discuss the negotiations.

“It’s sort of bittersweet because I really would like to continue serving my community,” she said.

Earlier this month, Chavez and others took the pay dispute to the streets, arriving on a bus to picket outside the Bel-Air gates of Univision CEO Henry Cisneros’ home. Standing with a sign that said: “Hungry for a Fair Contract,” Chavez said he doesn’t have the choices that Cardenas has. His Mexican accent is too heavy and his English is not perfect, he said. Cardenas, however, has the world before her and cannot be faulted if she chooses to work in English, he said.

While not all bilingual newscasters are faced with salaries as low as the ones KFTV is offering, they admit it can be frustrating to watch English-language newscasters who are probably earning more than they are.

Ana Maria Montero, 26, anchors daily newscasts for CNN en Espanol, the smallest of the Spanish-language cable networks. Overtures by English-language news stations have let her know she could be earning more elsewhere.

“The Spanish-language television market is going to be growing very, very rapidly, and I think it provides opportunities that do not exist in the Anglo side,” she said. “I have not pursued English-language [television] right now because I enjoy working in Spanish. With as many millions of Spanish speakers as there are in this country, it’s absolutely embarrassing that there’s only one main network,” she said, referring to Univision.

‘Jump-Start’ From Spanish Stations

Claudia Trejos worked for L.A.'s independent Spanish-language station, KWHY-TV, until she became the country’s first Latina sports anchor by moving to KTLA-TV. She insists that she was motivated by the challenge of anchoring in English, not the increase in salary.

“I feel so privileged that I’m bilingual, and that I got to start at a Spanish-language station,” said Maggie Rodriguez, the midday anchor and reporter for ABC’s L.A. affiliate, KABC. “I would never be in L.A. at 30, if I had not gotten the jump-start from Spanish-language stations.”

That jump-start came at Miami’s Dynamic Cable Vision, where Rodriguez reported, wrote and edited each story in Spanish first, then English. Meanwhile, she had a part-time job at Univision’s Miami affiliate, WLTV. Within the year, the 22-year-old Rodriguez was asked to join the network’s weekly morning show.

KABC’s Carlos Granda also cut his teeth at Univision. He said it was a crash course in broadcast journalism, with Univision jobs in Miami and New York. Granda, 38, echoed what many bilingual broadcasters and talent agents said: The on-camera experience in Spanish-language TV primed him for a much better job in the English-language newsroom.

“It’s very difficult to work in a market like Miami or L.A. in English,” Granda said. “You need some years of experience under your belt.”


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