Across the dusty farm fields of California's Central Valley, dawn breaks with a soundtrack straight out of the dance halls of Mexico. The morning jolt of mariachi comes from Radio Bilingue, one of the nation's only public radio stations aimed at farmworkers.
Radio Bilingue serves a population that traditional public radio largely misses: hundreds of thousands of migrant workers and their families on both sides of the border. Since its first broadcast in Fresno in 1980, the station has expanded its reach not only across the country but also deep into Mexico, Canada, and Puerto Rico.
Radio Bilingue's driving force is Hugo Morales, the son of Mixtec farmworkers, who says, "We want to bypass political borders with radio." Morales moved to Healdsburg, California, at age 9, after his father found work on a prune farm. He got a law degree at Harvard and returned to Central Valley hoping for a job in labor organizing. Instead, he wound up teaching at California State
University, Fresno, where he began kicking around the idea of a public radio station for migrant workers. The United Farm Workers wasn't interested, so he drummed up support himself. Four years later, on July 4, 1980, Radio Bilingue was on the air.
Since then, the station's budget has grown from $120,000 to $3.275 million. Rural Mexican music is still big, but the station's schedule also includes an hour at noon each day when guests discuss topical issues and field calls from California and beyond. There's another call-in program featuring an immigration lawyer, and numerous segments offering health information on AIDS, immunizations, and how to get access to U.S. services.
Among the station's fans is Arcadio Viveros, CEO of Salud Para La Gente health clinic in Watsonville, California. The clinic offers government-subsidized health services and draws 90% of its patients from the area's farmworker community. Viveros says his doctors see a stream of patients who tune in to Radio Bilingue, get turned on by health-care messages, and drop in to the clinic. "I see Radio Bilingue as our extended health-care provider," he says.
Interested in further exploring some of the ideas and issues in this article? Consider starting a Fast Company reading group. Here are some possible conversation catalysts:
Radio Bilingue captures a unique group of listeners by catering to Mexican farm workers in the U.S. What other distinct populations could be served by their own radio station? What sort of programming would it offer and who could the advertisers be?
A version of this article appeared in the August 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.