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Univision's KMEX celebrates 50th anniversary

September 28, 2012|By Meg James
  • Univision's KMEX-TV Channel 34 celebrates its 50th anniversary Thursday at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; Univision news anchors Maria Elena Salinas and Barbara Bermudo; and Haim Saban, chairman of Univision Communications, attend.
Univision's KMEX-TV Channel 34 celebrates its 50th anniversary… (Eric Reed / AP Images for…)

The launch of Los Angeles’ pioneering Spanish-language television stationwas delayed two weeks in 1962 because of a shortage of converter boxes at local hardware stores, which could barely keep up with demand.

Latinos interested in watching the new KMEX-TV Channel 34 had to buy the boxes to receive the low-power UHF signals on TV sets then built to accommodate higher-power VHF signals. More than 15,000 converter boxes were sold in Los Angeles, according to a September 1962 Los Angeles Times article.

“Technicians have been unable to keep up with the flood of orders for converters to enable TV sets to receive the UHF channel,” The Times reported.

This weekend, KMEX celebrates its 50th anniversary. Still scrambling to keep up with the demand of a region that now boasts an estimated 8 million Latinos, KMEX has become one of the top-rated TV stations in the nation, making the flagship Univision Communications Inc. outlet a political powerhouse and the No. 1 source for Spanish-language news and entertainment in Los Angeles.

“KMEX has been a voice to the Latino community and a voice for the Latino community,” said Felix Gutierrez, a USC journalism professor who hosted a public affairs program on the station in the late 1960s.

In its early days, some veterans remember, the station’s facilities were rudimentary. Programming would arrive via Greyhound bus from Mexico City. The newsroom was in an old house near Paramount Pictures, behind a gas station.

“We had to run across the street from our newsroom, dodging cars on Melrose Avenue, to the studio to do the news,” said Maria Elena Salinas, who started as a field reporter in 1981 and now co-anchors Univision’s national news along with fellow KMEX veteran Jorge Ramos. “We now compete with mainstream media.”

Today the station, which operates from a gleaming glass tower overlooking the 405 Freeway in Westchester, is the most-watched station in Los Angeles in prime time.

Latinos now make up 48% of the population of Los Angeles County, according to census data. In September, KMEX attracted an average of 447,000 viewers in prime time, handily beating second-place KNBC-TV Channel 4, which drew an average of 270,000 viewers. The 11 p.m. KMEX local newscast also boasts the largest audience.

The station has grown as the city has grown, and their history has been intertwined.

In 1970, KMEX’s news director, Ruben Salazar, also a Times columnist, was killed by a tear gas canister fired by a sheriff’s deputy. Salazar’s columns and TV commentaries had been critical of law enforcement in Mexican American neighborhoods on L.A.'s Eastside.

In 1979, station employees were sent home for a day after they protested their lower levels of pay compared with counterparts who worked at L.A.’s English-language stations. In 1989, station employees complained about what they viewed as too many leadership positions going to Cuban American executives based in Miami rather than promoting people from within the station’s base of Mexican Americans.

Over the years, the station has assumed the role of community advocate, encouraging viewers to seek healthcare, education and citizenship and to register to vote. It has raised money for disaster victims, including those in the Mexico City earthquake, and won reporting awards, including a Peabody.

“We provide a valuable service to the community that has additional needs,” Salinas said during an interview Thursday after a gala at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, which was attended by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and billionaire Haim Saban, part owner and chairman of Univision.

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