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Company Town

Spanish-language radio is booming in L.A. But local DJs say they can barely make rent

SAG-AFTRA members rally outside Spanish Broadcasting System’s Los Angeles office.
Union members rally outside Spanish Broadcasting System’s Los Angeles office.
(SAG-AFTRA )

On the popular La Raza radio station, which pipes regional Mexican music to Los Angeles, he is known as DJ Mr. Boro. But last month, under an unusually warm February sun, Félix Castillo stood on a flatbed truck parked on a Mid-Wilshire side street to address a crowd as himself: an underpaid, highly qualified Mexican American radio worker.

The 39-year-old, whose stage name is based on his likeness to the Mexican comic actor known as Borolas, was protesting what his union described as planned double-digit wage cuts proposed by his employer.

“We’re earning minimum wage or we started working for free in this business just so that we can get our foot in the door, “ Castillo called out to about 50 supporters wearing black-and-yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Fair Contract Now.” “We are honest, hardworking people, and we are tired of waiting for change.”

After more than three years of contentious and fruitless bargaining, this month the 28-member union of deejays, hosts, announcers and mixers at L.A. stations La Raza-FM (97.9) and Mega 96.3-FM will bring their complaints to the National Labor Relations Board against their Miami-based company, Spanish Broadcasting System. They are accusing their employer of repeated labor law infractions.

In an emailed statement, SBS said that it did not comment on pending litigation.

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“We have denied the allegations in the complaint and look forward to a fair hearing,” said Richard Lara, executive vice president and general counsel for SBS.

The legal wrangling comes as Latino artists are fighting for greater representation in Hollywood.

La Raza and Mega are the first Spanish-language radio stations to unionize nationwide. Their standoff with SBS highlights a broader push by Hollywood’s biggest union to organize Latino media nationwide. SAG-AFTRA is expanding into Spanish-language radio after securing contracts for workers at TV networks such as Telemundo in recent years.

The focus on Spanish-language media is “a high priority” for SAG-AFTRA, said Anna M. Calderón, who is Puerto Rican and the union’s national director.

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“This is a vulnerable part of the population but a part that is becoming more empowered and more relevant in the political space,” Calderón said. “More Latinos are saying enough is enough.”

The unionization at SBS stations underscores “the money and growth that there has been in Spanish-language media, and it reflects something about the unions themselves,” said Kevin Klowden, executive director at the Milken Institute. “Entertainment industry unions have been very much relationship based, with people trying to get into the union. Now, the unions are trying to get into new markets, which they haven’t needed to do.”

Spanish-language radio programming in the United States dates back to the late 1920s, when Latino immigrants could purchase blocks of airtime. In 1946, KCOR–AM in San Antonio became the first full-time Spanish-language radio station in the U.S. owned and operated by a Mexican American.

Today, radio listening is higher among Latino consumers than among any other ethnic group, with 95% tuning in to the radio in an average week, according to a report from Pierre Omidyar’s Democray Fund.

Revenue for Spanish-language radio stations reached $864 million in 2018, out of a $13.1-billion industry total in the U.S., according to BIA advisory services. That was down, in line with the rest of the radio industry, from a recent peak of $949 million in 2013.

The market is fiercely competitive in L.A., with former Spanish pop station KXOS-FM (93.9) recently switching to a bilingual Latin urban format, chipping away at the ratings of SBS’ KXOL-FM, also known as Mega.

SBS, a publicly listed company, is led by the Alarcón family, which immigrated to New York from Cuba in the 1960s. Raúl Alarcón Jr., who is chairman of SBS’ board of directors and CEO, controls the company, owning about 85% of the combined voting power of its outstanding shares as of Dec. 31, 2018, according to regulatory filings.

Revenue for SBS totaled $110.5 million in the nine months ended Sept. 30, up 8% over the same period in 2018. Operating income during that time fell 43% to $21.3 million, reflecting a gain from the sale of New York property a year ago and higher costs, including severance expenses.

The La Raza and Mega stations are the second- and sixth-most-listened-to Latino stations in L.A., respectively, according to Nielsen data. Since its founding in 1983, SBS has been buying stations in top 10 markets, including the global leader in Spanish-language radio, New York City’s WSKQ-FM.

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SBS recently had a hit run of concerts known as Calibash, which featured top-tier artists including Cardi B and Justin Bieber, selling out nights in both L.A. and Las Vegas earlier this year.

As the company has grown, so too have the demands of its employees. Workers at its two local radio stations voted in August 2016 to join SAG-AFTRA in the hopes of boosting their pay, but they have yet to negotiate a contract.

SAG-AFTRA represents some 160,000 performers and broadcasters.

It represents workers at 19 radio stations in Los Angeles — a total of 22 stations in California — for both music and public radio, including 102.7 KIIS-FM and KPCC. Last summer, workers at KCRW voted to join the union. SAG-AFTRA also represents SBS talent in Chicago who formed a union in 2018 for similar reasons.

Workers at Miami-based TV broadcaster Telemundo overwhelmingly voted to unionize in 2017 after a 15-year dispute between owner NBC Universal and SAG-AFTRA, which accused the network of double standards by allowing English-language workers to unionize while refusing the same rights to its Spanish-speaking actors. It took 15 months to secure their first contract. The union also represents Spanish-speaking broadcasters and journalists at Univision in L.A., New York and San Francisco.

But it has been a much tougher battle to get a contract for the SBS workers.

After 100 bargaining sessions, SAG says SBS has engaged in numerous unfair labor practices in violation of federal law. The union says SBS has proposed a contract that calls for wage cuts.

The National Labor Relations Board has issued three complaints against SBS.

The first, filed in 2017, alleged that the company improperly fired eight employees, including Castillo, in retaliation for unionizing. SBS settled for nearly half a million dollars and was forced to reinstate the workers with full back pay, according to SAG-AFTRA.

A second complaint was triggered by claims from SAG-AFTRA of so-called surface bargaining, where a company only goes through the motions of engaging with a union. That too was settled before trial.

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The federal agency’s third complaint, which will be taken up by an NLRB judge on March 30, was based on charges from the union that SBS unilaterally rescinded pay from endorsement work and was “interfering, restraining, and coercing employees” in the exercise of their rights.

“It’s outrageous,” said Julie Gutman Dickinson, SAG-AFTRA’s outside counsel from Bush Gottlieb. “SBS is one of the worst lawbreakers I have ever seen in over 20 years as a labor lawyer.”

Although workers including Castillo say they don’t want to “bash” SBS and continue to champion its music and events, they note that they have to shares homes or travel 50 to 70 miles to get to work every day to avoid L.A.'s skyrocketing rents.

Castillo, who started his radio career back in 2007, said he invested $9,000 to train for his career, and he’s risen to secure a daily on-air slot at the second-most-popular Spanish-language radio station in the country.

“How can someone justify, to their parents maybe, ‘I’m going to go to school for this because then I’m going to make the fabulous sum of $22,000 a year,’” said Castillo.

Castillo gestured in the direction of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame a couple of miles away, with a reminder of how long Latino deejays like himself had been working. He noted that Humberto Luna became the first Latino radio personality to have a star on the walk 30 years ago.

“There is a myth that gets perpetuated inside of the Spanish-language market: that this market is still up-and-coming, like, ‘Hey, take these wages right now because in the future the business is going to become large; right now it’s small,’” Castillo said. “That’s not true. Now workers want their share of the profits flowing to companies like SBS.”


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