Back before Ronkonkoma-based WBON/98.5 "La Fiesta'' was "La Fiesta," it was "The Bone" -- a vaguely scandalous twist on those call letters. The Bone had lots of fans and made lots of noise. The signal of this hardest of hard rock stations carried all the way to Connecticut, but dissolved into a crackle by the time it reached 110.
Then, one day in 2009, that particular brand of music stopped when WBON switched to Latin (or "tropical") hits, interspersed with Spanish-language talk. The Bone-heads, who drifted off to the Shark and WBAB, weren't around to witness what happened next: La Fiesta slowly, inexorably, became Suffolk County's most influential media outlet and its only Spanish-language FM radio station.
The change has indeed been gradual, largely unnoticed beyond the community it serves — roughly 333,000 Hispanics, or nearly 22% of Suffolk's population according to the latest census. The station forged close ties with various nonprofits that cater to that rapidly growing "cohort" — groups like Jibaritos with Troops, SEPA Mujer, Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja, which runs the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Day Parade — and, when the pandemic hit, hospitals, health clinics and food pantries, too.
More recently, La Fiesta has been an active supporter of the Suffolk County Police's outreach efforts to get thousands of members of Suffolk's Hispanic community vaccinated.
Simply put, nothing of importance to the community — food, health, domestic violence, veterans' assistance, and housing — is ignored by La Fiesta.
Luis Valenzuela, executive director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, calls the station "an important bulletin board [that] informs the community how to navigate different systems, how to access help."
Acting commissioner of the Suffolk Police, Stuart Cameron, says La Fiesta is "critically important and without them it would have been much more challenging to get the [vaccine drive] message out. We're really grateful for the partnership."
That partnership, he added, recently yielded the administration of vaccines to some 23,000 Latino Long Islanders.
A SURGE OF LISTENERS
La Fiesta is part of a surge that's going on right now with many of the nation's Spanish-language FM radio stations, and radio isn't exactly a business that's accustomed to surges. A 2020 Nielsen study on the impact of COVID on broadcast media use found that Hispanics nationwide spent more than 12 hours a week with radio, a 10% boost over previous listening patterns and "33 more minutes" on average than the total market. By way of explanation, Nielsen said "Latinos intensified their use of digital platforms to a greater degree than the total market, including use of social media and trusted content channels such as TV and radio to inform, communicate, share experiences and seek support."
But radio, Nielsen found, was far and away the most important information source.
Indeed, radio's unique ties to the vast and complex U.S. Latino population dates back nearly a century to when so-called "ethnic radio" programs gained footholds in unused, overnight hours, most notably on Los Angeles'' KMPC whose signal carried all the way to Texas after sundown. It was there, in 1929, that the legendary broadcaster Pedro González launched his show "Los Madrugadores" — "The Early Risers" — a combination of music, information, advocacy and, in particular, his own campaign against the Hoover administration's mass deportation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans.
To an extent, that template — music, information advocacy — has endured.
Like so many small radio stations that cast long shadows, La Fiesta's Ronkonkoma headquarters are modest. During a recent Zoom interview, Ana Maria Caraballo, the station manager and DJ, offered a sweep of her arm to demonstrate the breadth of those headquarters. "This is it," she said, gesturing to a tiny studio that's adjacent to La Fiesta's English-language sister station, Party 105.3. (Owner JVC Broadcasting other stations here include LI News Radio, My Country/96.1, Oldies 98.1 along with another 11 in Florida.)
For a profile just after the pandemic outbreak, Caraballo told Newsday that "95% of my calls are people in need. I'm just a little drained but if I don't do it, who will?"
Pretty much no one, according to county leaders like Cameron who says there are no other Spanish-language media outlets with the reach and impact of La Fiesta. He and others give credit to Caraballo, mother of two and architect of the station's outreach efforts. Since that profile ran, her schedule has both eased and become a little more complicated. She's no longer regular host of the morning show with her closest associate at the station — Jose Alvarado, WBON's one-man news gathering force who continued in that role even while he was furloughed for a few months last year. She's now program director for the entire "Long Island cluster," and has been promoted to La Fiesta's station manager. And yes, she still does a lot of on-air hosting, too, including for The Party.
In a recent interview, she said the pandemic spawned a whole array of crises, from domestic abuse to housing and — in whack-a-mole fashion — the station continues to tackle each of those.
Pre-COVID, she says, "we used to promote all the community events, and we continue to do all of that now, including and especially on Facebook Live. But we've also become a source of information about elected officials and hospitals and opened it up a little more to getting information out for groups like SEPA Mujer, the nonprofit that helps victims of domestic violence. We also have an [upcoming] event for indigenous people."
As always, she says, there is a balancing act and that is complicated, too. In the course of a typical hour, there are commercials, music and talk/information, but Caraballo says she's boosted the talk-information quotient, of necessity.
"We're not constricted by time because there is a constant need for information," she says. "I make sure there's a mix every hour so that there's 22 minutes of uninterrupted music, but it's OK if we spend 10 minutes on a subject of importance, like the new housing bill [Albany's moratorium on COVID-related commercial and residential evictions, extended to Jan. 15, 2022]. For people who can't afford their rent, that became a very important topic. And if you don't have the money to pay your rent, then there are other nonprofits and government grants that will help you. And for people who have lost their jobs, there's the various job fairs. Now, that school has started, and a lot of people have lost their jobs, we talk about how are you going to buy your school supplies."
GIVING AIRTIME TO VACCINATION ISSUES
The biggest issue that consumes the most airtime after music is vaccination. To boost vaccinations in the community, La Fiesta's jocks, including morningside's DJ Fino and midday host Celina Bonilla, cut public service announcements to explain their decision in getting a shot. Nevertheless, Caraballo and others say there remains a broad-based resistance to vaccines in the Latino community for a variety of reasons, ranging from health (an unfounded concern that they affect fertility) to someone's resident status. Valenzuela of the LI Immigrant Alliance said there are between 95,00 and 100,000 undocumented immigrants in Nassau and Suffolk, and they're worried about giving out personal information.
Longtime afternoon host John "G" Guttierez says "the main concern for people who work in factories is the fear of 'Oh my god, they're going to have my information' if they don't have legal status. But maybe they simply don't have the time to schedule it or know where to go. When we first started helping these people get their vaccines, they were calling us to say they don't even know where to call. We would get on a website and literally book it for them, then say 'look out for a text message or email that confirms the appointment,' and they'd say they don't have an email address. So then we'd open an account for them."
Meanwhile, La Fiesta is still in the music-and-commercial business. The playlist is what's called "freestyle" and draws from the vast range of Latin music genres — there are about 34, in case you were wondering, with some two-dozen Brazilian genres alone.
Many of these genres seem to get at least some attention at La Fiesta from Baladas y Boleros, to Cumbia and contemporary/pop Latin. One of the most popular regular shows is Guttierez's all "salsa-y-tropical" which airs weeknights at 5.
Caraballo says there's logic to the crazy-quilt format because different types of listeners call in for different types of music, while many of those listen throughout the day. It's an important stratagem that has bound La Fiesta so closely to listeners.
BONE OF CONTENTION
John Caracciolo, president and CEO of JVC which bought WBON in 2009, recalled during a recent phone interview that he did struggle over the decision to drop "the Bone" all those years ago, until he realized that he was on the losing end of a long and well-entrenched radio battle on Long Island.
"I was fighting with everyone from [imported Connecticut rock stations] to RCN, to BAB and on and on, and would walk into advertiser meetings where you had to pitch your station and I'm behind 100 guys in front. But when you walked into advertiser meetings for Spanish-language stations, we were the only ones."
"The Bone," he says, "wasn't making an impact."
La Fiesta has been a different story. Caracciolo says the audience has grown 5-7% per annum in the years since the format change, and La Fiesta single-handedly fueled the company's growth. He's now looking to launch an all-talk Spanish-language station in Suffolk.
"It was just a matter of doing something a little different."