Radio Revolucion | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Radio Revolucion 

Spanish-language news radio makes waves in the Latino community

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With a short stout figure, baseball cap, blue jeans and a jacket, Angelo Mena’s appearance didn’t make him stand out from the rest of the crowd. He is Latino, but with Utah’s Hispanic population growing as fast as it is, that’s not as distinctive a characteristic as it used to be. He was excited and angry—again, not really a distinctive state of mind for the crowd that day. Nor did he stand out because he was scared. Three days earlier, on Dec. 11, authorities had forced the firings of 171 Latino workers at the Salt Lake International Airport. Then they arrested 69 of them. The sudden shock and magnitude of the raid had clearly frightened the Latinos who gathered that Friday afternoon to protest outside the Salt Lake City and County building.

Like most of the people in the crowd, Mena had heard about the airport arrests on the radio. And it was one particularly popular news program that had told him when and where the protest would be. Had the incident taken place six months earlier—before a new Spanish-language station boosted its signal statewide—the Latino response to the incident may have been much different. Mena may not have heard about the rally that Friday. And that would’ve been a big deal.

Mena’s ability to put the fear into words is what made him stand out. Everyone in the crowd turned to look his way when he started speaking. It was as if they had heard a sudden explosion. Without amplification through a bullhorn, a microphone or even a pair of cupped hands, Mena’s voice pierced the tense air between the protesters. He had the type of charisma that startles and shocks people when they first encounter it—the type of charisma that adds an intriguing inflection to a loud voice. And it was that charismatic voice that gave everyone in the crowd a familiar but surreal feeling that they were seeing something different.

He spoke clear, eloquent Spanish. And the crowd didn’t have to wonder at all when it was their turn to shout a chorus to his chants or an answer to his questions.

“We want justice, we want respect. I am an American. I am a Mormon. I am a citizen,” he shouted. “We come from everywhere, but we are all Americans. We are not terrorists. We are a peaceful people who come here to work. But they treat us like dogs.”

Given the absence of recognizable Latino civic leaders in the crowd, they were lucky that somebody stood out who could give the noise some direction—somebody who could articulate what they were all feeling. Not bad for a cook who had driven up from his home in Provo only hours before.

“We come from countries where there isn’t much freedom. It may be there technically but there is always fear and chaos,” Mena said after the rally began to disperse. He was speaking in Spanish. “It’s a fear that something may happen to your family—that the government or someone else would do something to hurt you. I’m here today because when I heard about what happened at the airport I felt that same fear for the first time since I came to this country.”

Some Latino leaders praised the raids at the airport. Others thought a diplomatic approach would better serve their interests. But Vicky Newton had a different plan. Authorities had handcuffed Newton’s brother at his home late the night before the raid at the airport. For the rest of the week, she and her family knew nothing about her brother. After a meeting on Dec. 13 at the Centro Civico Mexicano, Newton hastily decided that the families and friends who were affected by the raid needed to organize a protest—and they needed to get the word out quickly. At 9 a.m. the next morning, they called the only group of people that could get the message out and get it to the people who would care the most: Radio Unica, a Spanish-language radio station.

Radio Unica had begun broadcasting statewide only six months earlier. But with a 10,000-watt signal and a loyal audience who religiously listens to the station’s morning news and talk shows, the message got out. And a cook in Provo heard it in time to make the trip north.

Filling a ‘Hueco’

On his cell phone the night after the protest, a Radio Unica reporter, Jose Libardo-Rivera, put it simply. “When the people have problems, they call us,” he said in Spanish.

Indeed they do. David Kifuri, the owner of the station, said each show on Radio Unica receives dozens of calls a day. He’s most proud of the success of the morning show, Hijos de la Mañana, a somewhat improvised talk show. Each day, Kifuri selects a political issue and both sides banter back and forth. Sometimes it gets ugly, sometimes they laugh for the entire hour. Whatever the mood of the show, it’s still unprecedented in Utah radio history.

Where talk shows and ugly debates are nothing new, no one in Utah has ever done it in Spanish. Kifuri said there’s only one thing bad about it. “Sometimes you hear a bad word or two when we’re arguing. But we don’t tell people what they can or can’t say when they call in. They call and we put them on the air. We listen to what they have to say and encourage them to tell us how they feel. They’ve never had that before here.”

Kifuri runs the office like a godfather. A large balding man, Kifuri wears nice dark suits and ostensibly requires his sales force to dress to the same standard. On his belt he wears two cell phones, both of which ring so often that his employees end up grabbing at his belt and answering most of the calls.

He likes meetings and he likes to keep them private. “We have competition, you know. Not anything really serious right now, but we are doing well and people are going to want a piece of it.”

Who competes with Radio Unica isn’t exactly clear. There are three other Spanish-language radio stations on the AM dial. Listeners can hear Radio Unica on 1640 AM in most of Utah and 1480 AM in Utah County. It’s twice as powerful as its nearest competitor: 1600 AM KSGO. And five times as strong as the signal from the Mexican music station KSVN. Radio Unica is the only station to offer talk and news programs in Spanish.

Radio Unica is actually a network that broadcasts out of Miami, with local affiliates all around the country. Kifuri came to Utah in 1999 intent on starting a Spanish-language newspaper. When he saw the dearth of radio choices for Spanish speakers, he quickly changed his mind. Radio Unica debuted in Utah County in December 1999. The station broadcasts from three relatively sparse rooms in the basement of an Orem office building. Outside, there are six cars with the Radio Unica logo plastered on the side. Kifuri says he’s amazed at how much it has grown and how quickly.

It has proven to be lucrative as well. Every so often, soothing electronic music comes over the air followed by a deep voice saying that “momento de relajación” or “relaxing moment” was brought to listeners by State Farm Insurance, “serving your insurance needs.” Kifuri has tapped into what capitalists call a niche. And sponsors have flocked to the station. Many businesses, it seems, have been looking for ways to tap into the Spanish-speaking market. The 2000 U.S. Census estimated Utah’s Hispanic population at just over 200,000 people, or more than 9 percent. And in two years, that has grown even more. Kifuri said Latinos listen to the radio almost four times as much as their Anglo counterparts.

Kifuri said traditional big-time news outlets are losing touch with many people—and with Latinos completely. “The majority of radio and television networks see themselves as businesses where the only thing that matters is profit. But we still feel a responsibility to the community. We have a commitment and a relationship with the community.”

Martín Torres, the Mexican consul to Salt Lake City, said he has been a guest on Radio Unica twice to field questions. He’s only held the job here for a month. “They have a staff that is deeply committed to the community and they have positioned themselves very well to be both the voice to and from the Hispanic community.”

And the phones keep ringing. Kifuri said that after they announced in December that there would be a protest for the workers who were arrested at the airport, hundreds of calls kept them busy for the rest of the day. People wanted to know what they could do—how they could help. “With such short notice, there were many hundreds of people who would have liked to go to the protest but couldn’t. Through us though, they were at the march in spirit. The listeners know they can depend on us. They call us, and we’ll respond right away.”

Testigos Oculares

On March 13, they called. While Kifuri met with his employees, Nicolas Castillo ran into the office. “This is urgent,” he said in Spanish while handing his boss a little piece of paper. Castillo co-hosts Hijos de la Mañana. Someone had called reporting that the Immigration and Naturalization Service had just arrested “decenas,” dozens, of people at a Provo gas station.

Radio Unica’s news director, Jose Libardo Rivera, who had gained so much fame during the airport controversy, was out of town. That meant Kifuri would have to decide if it was news or not. The room was quiet as Castillo and everybody else looked at the boss for a moment while he studied the note. With a mumble and a gesture, Kifuri indicated his decision.

Castillo and a member of the sales staff, Mario Valdiveso, threw on their coats and headed to one of the cars outside. At the Chevron on 3700 North University Ave., Valdiveso asked the Latino driver of a bakery truck if he’d seen anything.

He had. And with all the tension of a cops-and-robbers movie, Valdiveso asked if the driver would get in the car. They drove about a block away and Valdiveso parked the Radio Unica car on the side of the road. Somehow it seemed more private. The man, Ismael, told Valdiveso he didn’t want them to say his last name on the air. Within minutes Kifuri interrupted the music and proclaimed that they had a breaking story with a “testigo ocular”—an eyewitness.

Ismael told the radio listeners over a mobile phone what he had seen. A group of undocumented immigrants had been waiting on the corner. The field next to the gas station was a well-known place where contractors and businessmen drove by often to pick up day workers. A group of the job seekers had wandered into the car wash of the Chevron gas station and someone called the police. The police called the INS. And Ismael told the reporters that the INS took all the job seekers away.

INS spokeswoman Nina Pruneda-Muniz confirmed to City Weekly that 12 people had been arrested for illegal immigration at the gas station March 13. All of them were still being held in the Utah County Jail as of press time. They were waiting for a deportation hearing that would take place in Las Vegas.

Pruneda-Muniz emphasized that the INS only responds to calls from police. “They don’t scour the streets looking for foreigners,” she said. Regardless, the incident in Provo was one of the largest immigration sweeps in Utah County history. And Radio Unica was the first to report it. In fact, the radio station was the only media outlet to report it.

On the way back to the station, Valdiveso explained his passion for the news the station puts out. “There are a lot of people that go to that intersection every day waiting for work,” he said in Spanish. “And a lot of rumors are going to come out of what happened there today. People are going to be scared, they won’t know what happened. It’s good … no … it’s vital that we get the best information out to them. It’s just terrible what happens to these people. They come here to work and provide a service and now they could be in jail for a month or longer. They’re not criminals.”

Dispelling bogus rumors and verifying true ones seems to have become Radio Unica’s greatest perceived contribution to native Spanish-speakers in Utah. But Vicky Newton says that perception is incorrect, even though Radio Unica was influential in persuading people to support her brother and the others who had been arrested at the airport in December. Newton said Radio Unica directors are just as vicious and misleading with their news reports as the errant rumors they say they invalidate. She said the station is antagonistic toward undocumented immigrants. And no matter how much support the reporters had shown in the past, their true colors eventually come out.

When the station found out that she was organizing a protest at the Utah State Capitol in January, they derided her decision. Newton said Radio Unica reporters tried to ruin the protest with an onslaught of false rumors. “They told everyone on the air that the INS would be at the Capitol waiting to arrest them,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “After that, the families were really angry with Radio Unica. I don’t think of it now as a good place to tell my story. And I know the families of all the people who were arrested at the airport don’t want anything to do with Radio Unica anymore. It was very painful.”

Newton said Radio Unica’s Kifuri told her they shouldn’t protest against Gov. Mike Leavitt. Kifuri supports Leavitt, she said. “I wondered why it was such a big deal for him if we protested the governor. The governor had a lot to do with the raid at the airport. The raid has hurt and frightened a tremendous amount of people. It was devastating. But Kifuri kept saying not to bother the governor. I wondered if he was in love with Leavitt or something.”

Still Utah County

A conservative impulse is apparent in Radio Unica’s office. Kifuri says that although he tried to be an objective journalist in previous jobs, his star reporter—Libardo-Rivera—is anything but objective. And the people love it. “He is the least objective journalist around,” Kifuri said. “He reports things the way he sees them and the people know where he is coming from. He doesn’t mince words either.”

Libardo-Rivera reads newspapers from all across Latin America on the air every morning. And every morning he lets loose on a group of prominent world political figures he despises. Fidel Castro from Cuba becomes “el mendigo barbudo” or the “bearded bum.” Libardo-Rivera calls Hugo Chavez, the controversial populist president in Venezuela, “el loco Chavez.” And Kifuri said the whole station was proud that Libardo-Rivera came out first to call leftist rebels in Colombia “narco-terroristas.”

Kifuri, Castillo and most of the staff of Radio Unica are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Castillo called Mormonism a blessing from God. He owed everything to the radio station, he said. “A year ago, I was sweeping floors.”

Kifuri said he was proud of the station’s accomplishments. “We want our listeners to learn English. But they need to know certain things and we’re going to do our best to inform them. When Sept. 11, happened we ran news stories without a commercial for many days. We broadcast President Bush’s speech every Saturday in Spanish. We are filling a niche. We are excited about what we can do during this time in history. And yes, we like President Bush. He has proven to be a friend of our community and he will do a lot.”

Radio Unica may be doing more than filling a niche. They may be breaking down a barrier of invisibility. James Yapias, the chairman of the Hispanic Democratic Caucus in Utah, said the station has served the community well as a grassroots-type educator. “It’s amazing the amount of good quality information they get out every week. The station is completely in touch with the specific needs of the community. It helps a generation of people become more aware of how the American system works. And that in turn improves everyone’s life.”

Kifuri said he’s happy to see Latinos step out from behind the scenes. “We tell people the only way they are going to gain their rights and respect as a people is if they demand it for themselves. They need to participate in politics, write letters, call their representatives and work hard.”

And listen to the radio. Angelo Mena had stopped speaking to the crowd outside of the City & County Building during that December protest when Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson came out to speak. Mena wore a slight grin and seemed sure that the right things had happened. He held a U.S. flag over his shoulders and nodded his head as the mayor spoke.

Anderson told the crowd about the many e-mails he had received from people angry about his opposition to the way the people who worked at the airport were treated.

When he heard that, Mena scowled and he held the corner of the flag up. “I’ve been here working for this flag for seven years. They give us their kids to take care of, but then they say they don’t want us here. We clean their trash and their bathrooms and they say they don’t want us here. Who do they think would do all these jobs? That’s what I want to ask all the racists who say they are so mad at us.”

He couldn’t understand most of what the mayor was saying. He said he looked forward to hearing about it the next day on the radio.

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