Five years ago, after being named the first Latino program director in the 50-year history of KPFK Pacifica Radio, Armando Gudino took a call from a worried listener. She was an older woman, he recalls, a staunch liberal who had given money regularly to the member-supported station, known for its progressive politics and occasionally chaotic infighting.
Unaware whom she was talking to, the woman expressed concern about the new appointment of this Mexican American, who was born and raised in L.A. and held a degree in political science from Cal State Northridge. “We’re worried because the Latinos are taking over,” she confided. “So maybe it’s better if this young man goes back to Mexico and works over there.”
Gudino, who never let on who he was, recalled the conversation this week with a sense of humor and twinge of irony, noting that even the best liberals can be biased. But it wouldn’t be the last time, he says, that someone expressed concern about the station becoming “too brown.”
At a time when other public radio stations in Southern California have moved away from ethnically oriented programming, KPFK-FM (90.7) prides itself on shows aimed at specific groups, such “Afro-Dicia,” “American Indian Airwaves” and “Radio Intifada.” Under Gudino, Latinos are increasingly part of the mix. It’s no coincidence that the station kicks off the celebration of its 50th anniversary year with a concert this Sunday at the Ford Amphitheatre featuring an all-Latino lineup, headlined by the satirical trio Culture Clash.
Aside from its long-standing block of Saturday night music shows -- “Canto Tropical,” “Canto Sin Fronteras” and “Travel Tips From Aztlan” -- KPFK broadcasts public affairs programming in Spanish five days a week, something even commercial Spanish-language stations don’t offer. And last month, Gudino brought back Betto Arcos, the station’s former music director, as the Tuesday host of “Global Village,” a daily world music show that had no Mexican at the mike. (Sergio Mielniczenko hosts a Brazilian show once a week on “Global Village.”)
KPFK even reserves a prime drive-time slot every Friday afternoon for a crazy crew of Chicanos who anchor a satirical show called “The Pocho Hour of Power.” (The term “pocho” is a familiar put-down used by Mexicans to refer to the Americanized children of immigrants living across the border.) The team, led by syndicated cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, creator of the daily comic strip “La Cucaracha,” will perform at Sunday’s fundraiser in a program of live skits and parody songs they call “The Pocho Home Companion.” L.A.'s audacious Latin fusion group Mezklah will also perform with a new expanded lineup.
“I knew coming into this that it would be a priority for me to not only reflect our listeners and our city but to play an active role in providing opportunities for Latinos to be not only in front of the mike but also behind the mike [as producers],” says Gudino, who calls himself “the head pocho.” “We have at this station right now over two dozen ethnic nationalities represented, including every Latin American country, with the exception of Costa Rica.”
Of course, the station is no interracial utopia. Racial issues have played a part in past disputes over programming and management, including the recent departure of general manager Eva Georgia, a native of South Africa who promoted Gudino to program director a year after she came aboard in 2002. They took charge following the ouster of a previous administration accused of straying from the mission of serving a diverse audience in a bid for higher ratings. To some, that meant KPFK was trying to be like NPR. (Translation: Reaching out more to whites.)
Today, not even Latinos fully support the station’s Spanish-language programming, expanded on Georgia’s watch. Some say it’s a mistake to switch from English, which can alienate established listeners without necessarily gaining new ones.
Overall, contributors and contributions have been gradually increasing over the last three years, according to a station representative. Ratings are admittedly low at night for the Spanish-language public affairs shows, which discuss topics such as human rights, healthcare and “genocide through the education system.” But Gudino sees a unique opportunity to present progressive politics to the immigrant population, stressing to skeptics “the need to share the venue.” Still, he hints that this experiment may be just a springboard to creating an all-Spanish public radio station in Los Angeles.
Others believe KPFK should stay focused on the bilingual audience, that vast mass of pochos out there who speak Spanish, mas o menos, but prefer their media in English.
“I think that’s the future,” says Arcos, who hails from the Mexican state of Veracruz.
Gudino says a review of all the station’s 120 programs is underway, under new general manager Sean Heitkemper, who worked for many years at KJAZZ-FM (88.1).
The focus will be on drive time, he says, when most people are listening and the potential for more members, and thus more money, is greatest. He doesn’t expect a retreat from Latino programming, though some shows may shift time slot.
“No, no, no, we want to expand it, develop it and improve it,” he says. “We’re looking at this as an opportunity to rebuild.”
All of these serious issues will be subject to skewering Sunday by the likes of Culture Clash and the Pochos. Alcaraz, the cartoonist, recalls being invited to pitch the concert on a sister program at the station, “Feminist Magazine.” But, as he recalls, there was one caveat issued in an e-mail from the hosts: “Could you come as a female? We don’t have men on our show, as a rule. No offense.”
None taken. Alcaraz went on as his own imaginary writer, Maria Torres, who has loved comedy writing “ever since I was a little girl.” Without even trying to disguise his voice, Lalo/Maria explained that behind every five successful pochos there’s always a strong pocha. “Only at KPFK,” the humorist deadpanned.
“The Clash of the Pochos” starts at 8 p.m. Sunday, at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. E., Los Angeles. Tickets, $25, $35. Information, (323) 461-3673 or www.kpfk.org.