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Sunday News Lancaster, PA

Speaking Their Language Radio Centro Has Latino Ear

by Rebecca J. Ritzel

July 16, 2000
Copyright © 2000 Lancaster Newspapers. All Rights Reserved.

It is 3 p.m. at WLCH Radio Centro, Lancaster's Spanish-only radio station.

That means Cafe Caribe time.

Maria DelValle, the station's program director and go-to office person, pulls out the coffee, a rich, dark espresso roast. The DJ's always tell her she knows how to make it best.

In the Latino community, 3 p.m. has traditionally been coffee time. Radio Centro proudly upholds the custom. Fortunately Cafe Caribe, a Puerto Rican roaster, supports the station with both funds and caffeine.

For the past 13 years, Radio Centro has been a pulse point for Lancaster's Hispanic community. With eight paid employees and 30- some volunteers, station manager Enid Vasquez-Pereira dishes out news, announcements and salsa music. WLCH is the beat, the voice and the information station.

Airing at 91.3 FM, WLCH is governed by SACA, the Spanish-American Civic Association, where Pereira has worked since 1975. Once the radio station got under way, SACA director Carlos Graupera told her, "You enjoy people, you like music -- take care of the radio."

And since then? "I've learned a lot about broadcasting," Pereira says. "I'm still learning."

Production is a team effort. In between recruiting sponsors like Fulton Bank and Rainbow Rentals, even development coordinator Madeline Hernandez often gets drafted to read the weather report.

The station is one of 12 Spanish-broadcasting National Public Radio members. While WLCH is proud to be affiliated with NPR, they also realize they fill a different need then most of their fellow stations.

"We are public radio, but we are community radio," Pereira says. "Our DJ's are celebrities in the community."

WLCH DJ's are business people, teachers and truck drivers, but everyone knows them for their moonlighting careers.

Tune in on weeknights and you'll hear 22-year-old Mike Saez. When people see him on the street they holler, "Hey, Pardonna Sae," his nickname, which loosely translates, "Hey, I'm sorry, OK?"

Listeners follow the DJ's lives. Last January, Saez had his first son.

"I came into the station so happy. I couldn't stop talking about him on the air."

People that Saez had never met showed up at the hospital to say congratulations and bring gifts.

Saez had wanted to work at a radio station since he was 10. As a teen-ager, he recalled traveling with his family from Philadelphia to York when WLCH came on the air in Lancaster. Saez was excited to hear a U.S. radio station play Puerto Rican music.

Three years later, he was at WLCH's door, begging Pereira for a DJ slot.

When Saez answers the phone, a flashing strobe lights on the wall, it's often a caller he already knows. Sometimes fans send a "shout- out" -- a hello to a friend, sister, significant other, etc.

"If charged a dollar for every shout-out call I get on a Friday night, I would be very, very rich."

Saez and the other DJ's each have a locker in the small lunchroom. Most store their own headphones and perhaps their CD collections. If they get an urge for pork rind chips, they're in the vending machine.

Even when not on duty, volunteer DJ's often stop by to catch up on the news. The station is a social cantina -- it connects them with the community.

WLCH is usually playing at J.R. Communications on King Street, a few blocks from the studio. Proprietor Juan Lopez walks to the station each Monday night to take his turn spinning the tunes -- jazz, ranging from Kenny G to traditional Latin brass.

Since Lopez began volunteering at the station in 1988, much has changed. They've gone from one room to a full suite at SACA's Ann Street facility, with improved transmission quality. While local cable networks now carry the station as far as Lebanon and Reading, Lopez has enjoying watching Radio Centro unite Lancaster's Hispanics.

"The station is a voice for the community, but it is also a bridge between the city officials and the Hispanic community," Lopez said.

Last spring, Lancaster Police Chief William Heim went on the air pleading for information about the death of Leslie Ann Samaniego, 25, who was shot while walking on Farnum Street on April 7. More commonly, the station is used to discuss Latino issues, from how to sign up for English classes to whether or not the Navy should continue testing artillery on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico .

"Lancaster's Hispanic community is growing," Pereira notes. "The Puerto Rican community used to be dominant, but now Mexicans, Dominicans and even Colombians are starting to come in."

With the diversified community comes requests for more styles of Latin music. Pereira says WLCH tries to accommodate all genres.

"But then I get calls from people who say we need to play more salsa, and I have to tell them we already are," Pereira says laughing, "But I guess that's why God made colors. Everyone has something different they like."

Lately, more members of the Anglo community have been acquiring a taste for salsa, merengue and other Latin styles. On Sept. 12, the first ever Latin Grammy Awards will be broadcast on network TV. Artists like Christina Aguilera, who has a Latin name without the salsa sound, is releasing several of her songs especially for Spanish radio.

DJ Saez says he almost gave singer Marc Anthony up for dead several years ago, but today, millions of American teen-agers can belt out his Top 40 hits, most recently a duet with Jennifer Lopez.

Other popular artists at WLCH include Son by Four, who garnered a Latin Grammy nomination, and Las Ninas del Swing, a quartet of Spice Girl-lookalikes who croon salsa.

Gerardo Dirie is assistant director of the Latin American Music Center at Indiana University. He believes the current fashion of Latin music, and world music in general, is a positive trend.

"The origins of Latin music, beyond the manipulations of the market, do connect people to their now distant countries. And for those who do not have a Latin American background, the music provides them too with an energetic beat to dance to."

When Hispanics immigrate to areas like Lancaster, they take their music with them, but cut off from the homeland, Dirie says the music will change. For example, many local Latinos like the sound of Ricky Martin, but Dirie points out, "Ricky Martin is Puerto Rican , but his music is not." The popular artist "crossed over" to Latin pop with songs like "Living La Vida Loca."

At WLCH, DJ's try to keep up with the changes but still connect listeners to their roots.

"Many images and concepts about what is Latin music have been spread." Dirie said. "With the continuous mobilization of people from place to place, music will keep changing, too."

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