With the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo coming up March 1-20, including Go Tejano Day on March 13, I figured I should try to understand the complicated Regional Mexican radio scene in the 6th biggest U.S. radio market.
Look, I made a chart! Stations are listed across the top — frequency, station nickname, rating for the 4th quarter of 2015 — with the most recent call sign associated with that frequency just below, in the 2016 row. The chart begins with 1986 at the bottom; as you travel up through the years, you can see when new call signs take over specific frequencies.
OCTOBER 5, 1989: GERARDO ORTIZ IS BORN (That’s just for reference, and because this .jpg was hard to format.)
When NorteñoBlog surveyed Chicago´s Regional Mexican radio scene last year, it was a straightforward project — I traced the timelines of the three major stations in our market. Not so in Houston. As you can see from the above chart, Houston’s Mexican music fans have enjoyed an abundance of choices over the past three decades. They’ve also endured a confusing tangle of buyouts, simulcasts, and call signs changing frequencies, along with the national boom and bust of a vital regional style: Tejano.
Today non-Texans might have trouble understanding Tejano’s importance to the Lone Star State. After all, Chicago didn’t get our first all-Mexican station until 1997 — the same year KXTJ became Houston’s first station with a norteño focus — by which time Tejano was quickly losing spins to norteño on U.S. radio. In the previous decade, Tejano hadn’t merely been an important regional style; it had been central to Hispanic radio listeners across El Norte, and central to the identities of millions of Texas Latinos. The tragedy of Selena’s death in 1995 was a harbinger and probably a cause for a wider sense of loss — the loss of Tejano identity resonating with a broader populace. As we’ve seen from the outcry when the Houston Rodeo schedules norteño bands on its popular “Go Tejano Day,” Tejano music is more than a nationwide fad that dried up. It’s not duranguense. Tejano identity is a powerful and distinct thing, with music as one of its main expressions, and for a brief period of about a decade that musical identity was crucial to America’s understanding of Latinos.
And then all of a sudden it was replaced by a bunch of damn corridos and tubas. You can understand why Tejano fans’ nostalgia would take on a new intensity.
But that oversimplifies the matter. Let’s look at some of the chart’s high points. As you do, keep in mind that I’ve never been to Houston and I probably got some things wrong, so I’ll welcome your comments and corrections.
1986: 106.5 starts broadcasting KQQK “Estéreo Laser”
KQQK is the first FM station in Houston aimed at Latino listeners, aside from the block-programmed KLVL. (Like KLVL, the AM stations KEYH, KLAT, KYST, and KXYZ remain subjects for further research. This entertaining Mediatrix profile of the market might help.) According to Mediatrix, “KQQK is unique in that it communicates with the young hip Hispanic crowd in their native tongue while playing the contemporary Anglo product they prefer. Because of that, other Spanish language outlets are not competition. Closest in nature would be Power 104.”
In the equally entertaining conference paper “When Tejano Ruled the Airwaves,” Guadalupe San Miguel Jr. writes, “From 1986 to 1989… [KQQK] went from a predominantly English language station with an afternoon Tejano program to a full-time Spanish language station geared towards the bilingual Latino market.” This contradicts Mediatrix — did the DJs speak Spanish or English or both? — but it explains how the station arrived at:
1989: KQQK 106.5 changes to a bilingual Tejano format
It started off reaching fewer listeners than the AM stations. (KXYZ AM played Spanish easy listening and KLAT AM played “regional Mexican music, especially rancheras.”) This would remain true until:
1992: KQQK becomes Houston’s top-rated Latino station
San Miguel reports, “This changed in the spring of 1992 when the Arbitron ratings showed that KQQK, now known as Tejano 106, ranked as the number one Latino radio station in Houston. For the remainder of the 1990s it retained this position, despite fierce competition from other Spanish language radio stations.” Including stations like KLTN, “Estéreo Latino 93.3,” which began that same year with a Spanish variety format. (It replaced Kicker 93, KYKR, which moved to its current home at 95.1.) KLTN would go on to become a power player in Mexican music; but in the meantime, KQQK’s more direct competition would be:
1993: KXTJ “Super Tejano 108”
San Miguel calls KXTJ “a clone of KQQK,” and the two stations would compete for a couple years before their glorious merger in 1995. One of Super Tejano’s new DJs is Bo Corona, a transplant from San Antonio’s Tejano station.
1994: Billboard starts using SUBMARINE TRACKING TECHNOLOGY for its Latin radio charts
Before the second week of November, 1994, Billboard magazine’s Hot Latin Tracks chart had been based on reports written by radio programmers, and thus subject to human error. For its November 12 issue the magazine started using reports from Broadcast Data Systems (BDS), which accurately recorded the songs played by a sample group of radio stations and then weighed their importance according to audience size. (“A song that plays at 4:00 a.m. does not count as much as one that plays at 4:00 p.m.”) This also marked the beginning of three breakout radio charts, for Pop, Tropical/Salsa, and Regional Mexican.
The main immediate beneficiaries were Tejano acts. They’d placed on the big chart plenty of times before, but in the first week of BDS, three such groups — La Mafia, Los Rehenes, and Sparx — vaulted into the Top 10, the latter two for the first time in their careers. Selena was waiting for them at #1 with “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.” This is another subject for further research, but Tejano’s popularity appears to have gone under-reported nationally before the BDS charts, much as Garth Brooks’ popularity had gone under-reported before Billboard started using SoundScan’s album sales charts in 1991.
Also in ’94, KQQK DJ Homie Marco was promoted to be the station’s Program Director, and popular radio host Raúl Brindis starts working at KLTN.
1995: Selena dies. Also, KXTJ and KQQK begin simulcasting.
El Dorado Communications, the company that owned KXTJ “Super Tejano,” bought KQQK and either started simulcasting or programming the two stations almost the same. (Accounts vary.) In any case, Homie Marco was apparently dissatisfied with this new arrangement. He’d leave KQQK the following year to work part-time at:
1996: New station: KRTX 100.7 “Puro Tejano”
In retrospect, this would prove not a great time to start a Tejano station.
1997: KXTJ “Super Tejano” and KRTX “Puro Tejano” stop playing Tejano music
KRTX becomes “K-Love,” a Spanish CHR station. “Our research and listener polling has dictated the move away from strictly Tejano music,” says [GM Gary] Stone. “K-Love will have a solid appeal to the more affluent Hispanic and general market listener,” yadda yadda manager-speak. This is a naked move to compete with KLTN — remember KLTN? “Estéreo Latino”? they play the hits? — which by this time had surpassed KQQK as the market’s top-rated Spanish station, 14th place to 15th place.
Meanwhile, KXTJ switches to a Regional Mexican — read: norteño — format. America’s foremost Tejano chronicler Ramiro Burr writes a couple Billboard articles about this shift; they have headlines like “Tejano Market Hits a Lull.” KQQK carries on, but it doesn’t look good. Burr writes, “At Houston’s last remaining Tejano station, KQQK, PD Robin Flores says that the market is suffering ‘from too many cardboard cookie-cutter bands that all sound alike. Tejano music is undergoing what we call a `product low,’ which means there are just fewer good records around.'”
1998: RADIO MUSICAL CHAIRS!
In brief: K-Love moves from 100.7 to 93.3, picking up the call sign KOVE and simulcasting at 104.9. KLTN “Estéreo Latino” moves from 93.3 to its current frequency and format, 102.9 and Regional Mexican, with a bigger signal. And KRTX 100.7 briefly returns to Tejano, with Homie Marco as PD.
This is not due to some resurgence in Tejano’s popularity. Rather, thank the largesse of a big corporation: “Here’s a rarity: a for-profit broadcaster running a commercial-free radio station. Heftel Broadcasting Corp. has launched another Tejano station in Houston: KRTX 100.7 FM, “Puro Tejano”. In an effort to establish a solid audience, Heftel won’t sell ads on the station. The company’s other stations [including both KOVE and KLTN] will make up the cost of going commercial-free on Puro Tejano.”
It doesn’t last.
1999: KRTX and KQQK both stop playing Tejano music, to varying degrees
Of KRTX, Homie Marco says, “In 1999 we flipped the format to Hip Hop and R&B House Party 100.7.” He stays on as PD. From what I can tell, protests and outcry do not ensue.
It’s a different story at KQQK. The station’s switch from puro Tejano to “Éxitos Tejano y Norteño” is the fiasco chronicled in San Miguel’s conference paper. The station stops being bilingual and forces its DJs to speak in sometimes stilted Spanish. It still plays Tejano but it plays more norteño. This naked move to compete with the better rated KLTN backfires, as Tejano listeners feel deeply betrayed. (“KQQK SUCKS” stickers start appearing around town.) KLTN’s ratings only improve — #5 in the market! — while KQQK’s ratings tank.
2000: Remember popular radio host Raúl Brindis, who arrived at KLTN in 1994? He wins two national Marconi awards, one for the U.S.’s Best Morning Drive Show (eat THAT, Eric and Kathy!) and one for On-Air Personality of the Year.
2001: More formatting shakeups
San Miguel reports that KQQK tries to recover its Tejano mojo, but its ratings don’t rebound. It moves to 107.9 and becomes “XO,” playing Spanish contemporary hits. When KQQK moves, KOVE swoops over to 106.5 to replace it as Spanish contemporary K-Love, its current home and format. On 93.3, KOVE is replaced by another RegMex station, KQBU “Que Buena,” which is still there. And at 98.5, KTJM switches from “The Jam,” a Rhythmic Oldies format, to the RegMex “La Raza,” also still there.
As an aside, NorteñoBlog notes that radio call signs embody as much anthropological intrigue as Proust’s Place-Names. For instance, if you turn on KOVE in Houston today, you’ll hear Spanish hits. Why? Because in Los Angeles in the ’70s, there was a station called “K-Love” — KLVE — that played “beautiful music.” As the Spanish-speaking population grew, LA’s K-Love switched to a Spanish hits format but kept the K-Love moniker. When the station’s owners duplicated the format in Houston, they kept the name and changed the call sign by one letter. (These stations are “not related to K-Love, … a national network of English-language Christian radio stations based in Rocklin, California. In fact, the branding of KLVE disables the national network from entering the Los Angeles market because of the name conflict that would ensue.” Delicious!) Similarly, “La Raza”‘s KTJM call sign is a holdover from the days when 98.5 played jammin’ oldies — “The Jam.” My favorite Houston call sign belongs to La Raza’s simulcast station, 103.3 KJOJ, a nomenclatural remnant from the days when Jimmy Swaggart owned the station. That’s right: KJOJ = “Joy of Jesus.”
Back to the timeline: In 2002, anchored by Brindis’s morning show and demographic mojo, KLTN celebrates its first appearance as the #1 rated station in Houston, regardless of format. From there, as you can see above, the Regional Mexican status quo has remained pretty much in place, with some exceptions. KQQK “El Norte” has recovered from its doldrums; it’s now the market’s third-rated Regional Mexican station, and it seems to play more Tejano than the top two. This hasn’t stopped nostalgic Tejano fans from calling for a complete return to the Tejano format, or from anticipating protests when Go Tejano Day returns this March, headlined by one norteño and one banda act.