"Si, buenas tardes?" Miriam Ceja chirped into the microphone at La Nueva Mix's studio in Glenwood Springs, Colo. It was 5 p.m., "prime drive time," on a Wednesday evening in late March. La Nueva Mix is primarily a music station, playing Norteño ballads and other Latin American tunes. But since its debut six years ago, program director Axel Contreras has also introduced talk shows on health, real estate and dealing with police encounters. By far the most popular, though, is Punto Legal, a weekly immigration law call-in. Ceja, an assistant at the law firm Hess and Schubert, is one of the show's translators. Her boss, immigration attorney Ted Hess, who says he doesn't speak "a lick of Spanish," scribbled notes as she spoke.
"I've been working without a Social Security card," said the anonymous caller, who sounded like a young man. "Will I still be able to take advantage of immigration reform?"
"As long as you haven't committed a major felony, you should still be able to benefit from any reforms," Hess replied. There was a pause.
"So, uh, can I go back to working with my fake documents?"
"I can't legally advise you to do that," said Hess, covering his microphone as he and Ceja stifled laughter.
The next 50 minutes were typical: For every call answered, two more blinking lights materialized on the switchboard. A woman whose sister was ripped off by someone she paid to "fix" her immigration papers wondered whether she could report the crime and qualify for a so-called "U Visa," granting immunity from deportation. A man waiting on a green card learned about the federal government's 20-year application backlog. Hess reassured a woman who'd been caught driving without a license and was afraid to show up for her court date, believing that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would deport her. The demand for free legal advice seemed endless.
Latino stations are nearly as old as radio itself. In the U.S., their success was initially built on immigrants' nostalgia for the music of home, says Angie Balderas, vice president of sales for the Hispanic media company Adelante Media Group. Increasingly, though, Latino stations have come to resemble public service organizations. Radio is cheap, accessible and omnipresent in the native countries of many immigrants. "It's the first line of information for many immigrants," says Balderas. Shows like Punto Legal abound and have real value for non-English speakers struggling to navigate the Byzantine complexity of the U.S. immigration system. Programs about health, finance and real estate are also popular, says Luis Manuel Botello at the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Journalists. "A lot of these immigrants don't have health insurance, so the media becomes their source for information about health issues (instead of doctors). And personal finance is relatively new for many immigrants, because in their countries the economies are not really based on credit."
Conteras, a Guatemalan who came to the U.S. illegally 20 years ago and is now a legal resident, hopes that the news and information he airs help immigrants integrate into American society. "Our station is just a bridge for the Latino community," he says. Its approach has attracted a broad listenership: According to streaming data from La Nueva Mix's parent company, the station routinely out-performs the company's English language holdings. In April, for instance, La Nueva Mix's website had more than 28,000 hits, while KSPN, a popular local rock station, had just over 3,000.
Frequently, there's a political tone to Latino stations' programming. Ramon Ramirez, a board member of western Oregon's KPCN, is also the president of the Northwest Tree Planters and Farm Workers United labor union. KPCN serves the migrant farmworkers who harvest Oregon's cherries, strawberries and blueberries, and Ramirez says the station is sometimes used to orchestrate protests and strikes. "There was a grower here that banned their employees from listening to the station while they were working, because we used it as an organizing tool," he says. In times of crisis, Contreras converts La Nueva Mix into a sort of emergency warning system. In 2011, for instance, during the "Strawberry Days" carnival down the street from the station, federal immigration agents conducted a raid, disrupting the festivities and arresting several suspected undocumented immigrants. Immediately, Contreras took to the airwaves and urged people to avoid the carnival. "I've never seen it as empty as it was that day," he recalls.
Officially, La Nueva Mix remains a commercial radio station. Advertisers include McDonalds, tax accountants, car dealers, fortune-tellers and money transfer services. In practice, though, Contreras cultivates a community radio sensibility, even when selling ads, often turning down offers from companies that might prey on vulnerable listeners -- by claiming to fix immigration papers, for instance, or promising fake Caribbean vacations in exchange for "service fees" and personal information. "A lot of people couldn't afford to lose that money," Contreras explains.
For advertisers he approves, access to the station's audience can pay handsomely. Ted Hess says he gets the vast majority of his business through Punto Legal. In fact, the show is so successful that he recently replicated it on the Greeley, Colo.-based station Tigre FM. He also opened a new law office in Greeley, noting that many Latinos are moving to the area to work for northern Colorado's ubiquitous gas companies, slaughterhouses and farms. "You'll see this trend in any emerging market," says Balderas, of Adelante Media Group. "I wouldn't be surprised if you soon saw part-time Spanish radio stations in North Dakota because of the oil boom there."
Reached by phone at the new Greeley office in late April, Hess said he'd just closed his first show on Tigre FM with his signature tagline: "Don't fight with your spouse, don't let ICE into your house, and DON'T go back to Mexico."