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Kpbs Keeps Spanish Broadcast Despite Limited Listenership

September 05, 1986|HILLIARD HARPER | San Diego County Arts Writer

SAN DIEGO — Last month KPBS radio (89.5 FM) said it was going to ax "Contact 89," a local news and information show--and the region's only such show in Spanish has barely escaped a similar fate.

"Contacto 89" has received a reprieve, but its air time will be shortened.

"Contacto 89" uses a magazine format to mix local, national and international news with news of Mexico and Central and South America, along with Latin music and public service programming. The hourly newscasts, KPBS says, are the only such nightly, comprehensive, radio reports in Spanish available in San Diego.

KPBS, a non-commercial public broadcasting station, said in August that it planned to replace both shows with classical music. "Contact 89" airs weekdays from noon to 6 p.m. and "Contacto" is on weeknights from 8 to midnight.

"Contact 89" will leave the air Oct. 1, although the station will maintain abbreviated local news and information programming.

"Contacto" will stay on the air, but the program will be shortened to three hours, beginning Oct. 1. The reversal came after receiving "extensive, thoughtful input from the community," KPBS said.

"We tried to change too many things at once," station manager Tom McManus said of KPBS's back-pedaling on "Contacto" and several other programs. While McManus stuck with the decision to eliminate the midday news program because it attracted few listeners, the Spanish-language program, which attracts even fewer, will be maintained.

McManus admitted that, for those who speak no Spanish, "Contacto" may seem an odd use of public money, pegged as it is to "a narrow segment within a narrow segment" of all potential radio listeners.

But despite its low listener ratings--polls have shown only 2% of the area's Spanish speakers (who numbered 195,500 according to 1980 census figures) tuning in--KPBS retained the program because of a desire to serve that segment and the station's responsibility to provide alternative programming, said San Diego State University President Thomas Day. KPBS is licensed through SDSU.

Day, who is technically the boss of McManus' boss, KPBS General Manager Paul Steen, received phone calls and a dozen letters from community leaders supporting "Contacto," which has been on the air for five years, when it was announced that the program would be dropped.

"There are two aspects that you try to disentangle," Day said. "We have to find the best match for a public broadcasting station, and we felt an obligation to the Spanish-speaking community. We're down here in a community that is multilingual and ("Contacto") is a symbol to the region. "Is there a point to flying a flag in the middle of a desert? I think we have to make it more attractive, get out in the community and ask what people want."

On the other side of the coin are the station's loyal listeners, such as Reynaldo Vargas. Vargas, a frequent caller on the program's linea abierta --open line--segment, works the second shift at Eastman Kodak here. Recently he called to voice his support for expanding the number of northbound lanes on Interstate 5 at the San Onofre Border Patrol checkpoint and to lend support for expanding San Ysidro Boulevard, a plan merchants there object to.

"I listen to the program as often as I can--at least four days a week," Vargas said. "It's a contact between the Latin community and the world in our own language. It allows us a chance to express ourselves." Vargas, who is bilingual, reads an English-language newspaper every day but prefers "Contacto" because of its special programming and because it is "tasteful."

Still, co-producer and announcer Hector Molina admits that the program has been slow to develop its potential audience. In fact, it suffers the same problem of the English-language information radio in the age of television--few people want to listen.

"In a lot of ways our community is not tuning in and listening," Molina said. "But I think we're cultivating an audience who wants to listen. Once a person listens, they stay with us."

The show's magazine format allows for a different focus each night of the week. Tuesdays feature recordings from the extensive private record collection of Pablo Gastelum and a segment called "La Familia y Las Escuelas" (the Family and the Schools).

"We're trying to build a closer relationship between parents and their children's schools," Molina said. Other nights feature programs such as "Usted y Su Salud" (You and Your Health), which has a linea abierta for callers to discuss health matters ranging from skin diseases to AIDS with visiting experts. Then there are segments on immigration and other aspects of the law.

Contrary to some opinions, KPBS's director of Latino programming, Jose Mireles, does not think "Contacto" is polarizing Latinos.

"One of our responsibilities is to bring the Spanish-speaking community into the mainstream of society," Mireles said. "People come into the community who don't know the laws. Once they are educated about the laws, they will be better citizens."

"It's terrific," said Dr. Ramon Moncada, a specialist in infectious diseases who has often been interviewed on the weekly medical program.

"It's some of the best programming I have heard anywhere in Spanish," Moncada said. "Not just the medical portion, but the music. It cuts across every generation.

"It's just a pleasure to turn it on. There's nothing like it in Tijuana. The only problem is it's in Spanish. That's a problem for those who don't understand Spanish."

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