el patron

Last night I had the jarring experience familiar to anyone who still listens to terrestrial radio: I turned to one of my favorite radio stations and… IT WASN’T THERE. Chicago’s regional Mexican station 95.5 “El Patrón” had turned without warning into “Big [but not Rich] 95.5,” a hit country station currently in its eerie “no-DJs-no-commercials-just-songs-and-cheery-promos” phase. It felt like regional Mexican music had been raptured, and some corporate overlord was scrambling to fill the gap with Jason Aldean, who hadn’t made the divine cut.

Or maybe:

iHeartMedia Chicago (formerly Channel Channel Meda and Entertainment) said today its 95.5 FM outlet in Chicago is shifting to an all-country music format effective immediately. The station previously was a Spanish music-formatted station branded as El Patron.

It’s fitting that the new station is DJ’d by robots, because iHeart’s president has a curiously android-like demeanor:

Noted Matt Scarano, president of iHeartMedia Chicago, of the format shift: “Big 95.5 is going to be a dynamic country music leader and a breath of fresh air for country radio in Chicago. The station will deliver the biggest hits, the biggest stars and the biggest results for our advertising partners.”

I’ve never trusted our other (very popular) country station, 99.5 “US 99,” whose idea of classic legacy cuts seems to be 10-year-old Tim & Faith duets. Competition is good. But based on my initial experience with Big 95, I have trouble seeing how they’re a “breath of fresh air.” “Hope You Get Lonely Tonight” (ug) into “The Perfect Storm” (blarg) into “Two Black Cadillacs” (better…) into “Drinking Class” (um…) is just the same old musty air. It’s not clear what they offer that US 99 doesn’t. (Somewhere I saw something about “legacy acts.” Hmmm…)

Mostly I’ll miss being able to say I live near a city with more regional Mexican stations than Top 40 stations. Even with El Patrón’s demise, Chicago is still home to 105.1 “La Que Buena” and 107.9 “La Ley,” so I can’t complain. El Patrón was a relative newcomer to the game, whose outline looks something like this:

1977: WOJO 105.1 launches, playing a Latino mix:

With its mix of news, community affairs and “international” music – ranging from the airy ballads of Julio Iglesias to the occasionally merry mariachi – WOJO projected an image of above-the-fray elegance and inclusion, a place where the city’s Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and other Latinos could meet to discuss events and enjoy their music.

Skip ahead two decades to…

1997: WLEY 107.9 launches, playing strictly regional Mexican music, including mariachi, banda, and an hourly show devoted to “forbidden corridos.” They start beating WOJO in the ratings, due to both Chicago’s demographics and the quality of regional Mexican music:

Ranked fifth in the U.S. with 932,806 Latinos as of a 1998 census estimate (behind Los Angeles, New York, Miami and the San Francisco Bay area), Chicago has been the third population hub in the country among Mexicans since 1970 (exceeded only by California and Texas), making the local Mexican community multigenerational, bilingual, and economically mixed.

“Numbers aside, we also realized music has changed in the last few years,” said WOJO’s Pagliai. “Two or three years, there were pop soloists with excellent material. Then the regional Mexican groups got much stronger and many of the pop artists chose to record in English and try to crossover. Still, the truth is that Spanish-language radio has never survived on pop or rock but on Vicente Fernandez and Juan Gabriel and those kinds artists. We are programming to people who live in a Spanish-language universe, speak Spanish at home, listen to Spanish CDs, watch Spanish-language TV. They may be bilingual, but Spanish is their language of choice. And the majority of those people in Chicago are Mexican.”

WLEY could skip along unimpeded for only so long, until…

2000: WOJO sees the light and goes regional Mexican. A minor pissing contest ensues:

“All we’re doing is reflecting the taste of most Latinos in Chicago,” said Jose Santos, WOJO program director.

Over at WLEY, local sales manager Raul Chavarria has a different take on it. “Their ratings weren’t going anywhere with their old format,” he said with a laugh. “We were No. 1 (in Spanish-language radio), they were No. 2. That was very stable for a long time, so it’s really a play to go to No. 1 status.”

Which, in fact, is what happened. By 2003, WOJO would surpass WLEY, and they’d both be among the 10 most-heard radio stations in the market. The whole Chicago radio market. English or Spanish. WOJO was #8, WLEY #9. The pissery continued:

But over at WLEY, station managers show signs of frustration. They allege that while WOJO has done well in the most recent ratings quarter, it is only because they have followed their own station’s path.

“What we did was we really brought regional Mexican to the high profile that it is today and made it into a format in this market,” said Mario Paez, WLEY’s general manager. “Whereas our competitor took a couple of years to realize that Mexicans are important and decided to copy us.”

Whoever zoomed who, you can’t blame WNUA 99.5 for wanting to get in on the action. Now, if the letters “WNUA” sound familiar, they should. They belonged for years to our smooth jazz station, which employed Ramsey Lewis and released annual compilations that were wildly popular, at least in Chicago. They sold out at local Borders stores faster than I could change the channel whenever WNUA came on.

In 2009, WNUA switched from smooth jazz to Spanish AC, “Mega 95.5.” (The alarm clock at a downtown Chicago hotel still had 95.5 programmed into its “jazz” wake-up preset, which, when you imagine boomer businessfolk hoping to wake up to the dulcet sounds of smooth Chicago jazz, is pretty funny.) Just three years later, 2012 was the dawn of El Patrón. By then, WLEY’s popularity had continued to slide:

The move places WNUA in direct competition with Univision’s “La Que Buena 105.1” WOJO and SBS’ “La Ley 107.9” WLEY in the Regional Mexican format. WOJO was 8th in the market last month with a 4.2 share. WLEY 20th with a 2.2.

And now with this move, just the two veterans remain. In December, WOJO was #11 in the market, but that’s just because Lite FM was playing Christmas music and pied pipering away with all Chicago’s children. WOJO was top 10 the months before, it’ll be top 10 this month, with ratings somewhere in the 4’s. WLEY is somewhere farther down the list with a 1.8 share, WNUA right above them. If anyone stands to benefit from this change, it’s probably WLEY. Though who knows, maybe WNUA will start broadcasting Rick Jackson’s Country Classics and I can stop resorting to a staticky Milwaukee station.