Hanging on a telephone pole near Supermercado Las Americas, a white plastic loudspeaker squeaks out the bouncing bass and peppery call-and-response horns of a popular banda song. It's a frigid day on Concord Street in South St. Paul, but squint your eyes and concentrate on the music, and the frost on the minivans in the parking lot starts to look like sand in Sonora.
Inside Las Americas, Radio Rey ("The King of Radio," 740 AM) plays on. The song has switched, this time to a norteño number: not quite as much bump, with more accordion than horns. Shoppers wander the aisles under plump, fuzzy piñatas that seem to float just below the ceiling. Mixed in among the colorful burros are winter folk heroes such as Santa and Frosty the Snowman. The clientele at Las Americas is primarily Mexican, but there are shoppers here from Puerto Rico and all parts of Central and South America. They come to look for familiar products from their home countries, to rent Spanish-language movies and buy CDs, and, if they want, to walk up to the sliding glass window of Radio Rey's DJ booth and make a request.
"You will not find anything like this, a radio station in a supermarket, anywhere in America...in North America...in the world," says station operator Lupe Gonzalez as an introduction. Gonzalez, an energetic man who looks like a Latino Robert Duvall, has a showman's knack for hyperbole. He occasionally revises on the fly, fluffing his statements until they match the enthusiasm he feels for his station.
Gonzalez, who was born in the state of Jalisco on the western coast of Mexico, got his start 19 years ago at KDAM (1370 AM), where he wrangled one hour of Spanish-language programming a week from the station's country-western format. Since then he has bought airtime on WMIN, KUXL, KDAM again, and now WMIN again, each time riding out a wave of format changes while bringing small doses of regional Mexican and Latin American popular music to the Twin Cities.
This January he moved the station into a corner of Las Americas and expanded the hours to seven days a week, from sunup to sundown. (Previously, it had been broadcasting about three hours a week on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.) For now, morning programming comes courtesy of La Z, a Sacramento-based station that syndicates in over 50 markets via satellite. Using a Windows-based computer program called SmartCaster, Gonzalez weaves his own advertisements into La Z's signal to give the broadcast a kind of continuity. Nighttimes are restricted, because the station broadcasts on a Canadian clear-cast signal, but from ten a.m. until close, Radio Rey is live from St. Paul, with DJ Miguel Sanchez working the controls out of a small booth that provides an excellent view of the produce aisle. The 1,500-watt signal reaches as far north as Duluth and as far east as Eau Claire. With nothing else like it in the Twin Cities market, Radio Rey, by Gonzalez's estimate, has 100,000 listeners.
"The Mexican people are the biggest radio listeners in the world," says Gonzalez. "We get hundreds, no thousands, of requests a day." Radio Rey plays hits from bands such as Los Tigres del Norte, Los Huracanes del Norte and Banda Superbandido, groups whose cowboy-themed posters dot the walls of both Radio Rey's control booth and Las Americas. Right now the hottest song is "Hotel Corazón" by Los Tucanes de Tijuana, with "Tu Nueva Vida" by la Banda Arkangel and "Tu Sonrisa" by Elvis Crespo close behind. Though the station plays mostly Mexican pop, Radio Rey dabbles in every form of Latin popular music, from meringue to mariachi to salsa. "Don't forget Tex-Mex," says Gonzalez. "Those guys get very jealous if you leave them out."
"There are more people in the community from Mexico, and they like norteño and banda," says Sanchez about the station's programming mix. Sanchez, who moved from the state of San Luis Potosi in central Mexico 30 years ago, has been a DJ for 10 years, though this is only his fourth month with Radio Rey. In addition to Sanchez, Gonzalez's wife Juanita also works at the station running the advertising log. Mary Hernandez is the Rey's sales manager. She oversees the sponsorship deals with independent businesses along Concord Street such as El Amanecer restaurant and Lake Street stores such as Los Dos Hermanos Western-wear shop.
To record spots for both Spanish- and primarily English-speaking advertisers--which include Norwest Mortgage, Southview Chevrolet, American Family Insurance, and the Guthrie Theater--someone at the station has to squeeze through a hole cut in the floor of Radio Rey's control booth, climb down the makeshift staircase, and drop into the station's dusty basement studio, which is equipped with an amplifier, speakers, a microphone and a Tascam 4-track. Radio Rey itself buys time from Twin Cities-based WRPX, the corporate entity that continues to own WMIN. Twice a week Gonzalez turns around and sells blocks of airtime to local business consortiums who then produce their own shows with their own DJs and ads, such as La Mera Mera on Wednesday afternoons and Jueves Exitos on Thursdays.
Spanish aside, the gushing advertisements, smooth DJ patter, and easy pop songs give Radio Rey a sound that seems no different from Kool 108 or KS95. Like the manager of any other popular music station, Gonzalez runs promotions, sponsors bands, and gives away CDs. While television stations regularly set up studios that overlook local landmarks as a sort of decorative device, Radio Rey's decision to set up studios in the same building as Las Americas has established a physical presence for the station in the Twin Cities Latino community. Listeners who have a beef with the Top 10 can register their displeasure while shopping for plantains. Sanchez says that some shoppers are content to watch. "Sometimes they just come to see how it works," he says.
"Everybody knows everybody," says Hernandez. "You see all these different people, you talk to the community, you do lost and found." Newcomers to the Twin Cities call Radio Rey looking for an apartment, for work, or to find a lost relative, she reports. "We've had mothers call in with a lost child," adds Juanita Gonzalez. "And we'll interrupt the broadcast to announce it."