In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section US Spanish-Language Radio

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Readings
  • Post-Mexican Revolution (Border) Radio
  • Radio Programming (Immigrant Directed)
  • Listeners and Audiences
  • Community Radio and Low Power FM
  • Digital Radio

Latino Studies US Spanish-Language Radio
Dolores Inés Casillas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0129


Despite US Spanish-language radio’s early 1920s beginnings, the industry did not experience significant growth until decades later in the 1980s. Certainly, the famed Good Neighbor Policies of the 1930s and 1940s helped mediate Spanish-language broadcasts between Latin America and the United States. In particular, Pan American Radio, a series of shortwave broadcasts orchestrated by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Office of Inter-American Affairs, acted as an aural gesture of goodwill. The wealthy American John D. Rockefeller and the Mexican media mogul Emilio Azcárraga launched transnational broadcasts for Mexican and US radio listeners. At the same time, Mexican Americans in southern California began brokering unattractive early morning, 4:00 a.m. or 5:00 a.m. time slots, from English-language radio stations. These local Spanish-language broadcasts differed from both Pan American radio and later attempts to transmit shows from cities in Mexico. With a shoestring budget yet a loyal following, radio hosts such as Pedro J. González from Los Angeles, California, insisted on broadcasting to a listenership about their experiences as Spanish-speaking immigrants. Nowadays, Spanish-language radio is a competitive, leading player in the largest radio markets. Spanish-language radio stations routinely make top-ten lists in each of the top-five radio markets: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Dallas. Since the 1980s, US Spanish-language radio has undergone exponential growth; from less than one hundred Spanish-language radio stations licensed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to over fifteen hundred today. The impressive growth has prompted attention principally from advertisers and increasingly so from radio and media scholars. The academic study of US Spanish-language radio documents its growth and significance throughout the 20th century from disciplinary standpoints of ethnic studies, media and communications, and history. Still in its infancy, the field has produced studies that focus on its institutional development, its unique politically and/or immigrant-driven programming, as well as its popularity among Latina/o listeners. Latina/o listeners make up 16.6 percent of all radio listening in the United States and audience studies by Nielsen indicate that Latina/os tune into radio more than television, smartphones, or tablets. The literature discussed here focuses on Spanish-language radio within the geographical United States with references, for instance, from José Luis Ortiz Garza, a leading scholar of Mexican radio. Much more work is needed to further understand the political and cultural significance of Spanish-language radio to its legions of listeners in the United States. In particular, there is a significant need for more studies on Spanish-language radio that investigates its distinct role within Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American, and other Latino-origin communities.

Foundational Readings

Just two books focus on the development of Spanish-language radio and both do so with a focus on the Southwest or Pacific Northwest region of the United States, where Mexican-origin communities are the majority and where Spanish-language media powerhouse Univision is headquartered. Félix Gutiérrez and Jorge Reina Schement published Spanish Language Radio in the Southwestern United States (Gutiérrez and Schement 1979), a text that is often cited in hallmark readings on Latina/o media such as in Rodriguez 1999 and Dávila 2001, both cited under Listeners and Audiences. Both Rodriguez and Dávila argue that US radio’s recognition of Latina/os as listeners later helped media and advertising industries construct Latina/os as viable economic consumers. Published decades later Casillas 2014 chronicles the development of Spanish-language radio throughout the 20th century and its unique relationship with Latina/o listeners through immigrant-directed programming. This book argues that Spanish-language radio has consistently played the role of an “acoustic ally” on behalf of a listenership characterized as proletariat, Spanish-dominant, and often legally vulnerable. Included in Casillas 2014 are a chapter on the history of bilingual (Spanish-English) community radios, another on Q&A shows with immigration attorneys, and one on the profitable early morning male radio shows. The book concludes with a critique of the radio ratings industry and how it is mired in dated, racialized, and classed conceptions of Latina/o radio listeners. Given the vast shifts in communications and immigration policy as well as Latina/o population growth since the 1980s, Casillas 2014 has provided a revitalized take on Spanish-language radio since Gutiérrez and Schement 1979. Castañeda 2003 on media conglomeration in The Journal of Radio Studies, as well as the chapters Castañeda 2008 and Castañeda 2013, are largely credited for arguing that broadcast Spanish-language radio, even within the current climate of digital capitalism, merits serious consideration from media, radio and ethnic studies scholars. Castañeda 2003 details the rapid consolidation of commercial US Spanish-language radio and warns of its effects on regional, community-based radios. The author directs our attention to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which loosened ownership restrictions and helped drive more attention to Spanish-language radio in more non-Latina/o identified markets such as Seattle, Washington, and Charleston, South Carolina. Both of Castañeda’s book chapters—one in Global Communications: Towards a Transcultural Political Economy (Castañeda 2008) and another published in Latinos and American Popular Culture (Castañeda 2013)––provide a succinct history of Spanish-language radio, linking the industry’s early struggles to secure airtime with its current labors to be recognized as a competitive format within an English-dominant landscape of radio.

  • Casillas, Dolores Inés. Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-Language Radio and Public Advocacy. New York: New York University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814770658.001.0001

    The book investigates how radio as a sound format uniquely appeals to Spanish-dominant, immigrant listeners in the United States for its ability to provide an anonymous, real-time mode of communications. Like Gutiérrez and Schement’s inaugural study of radio, this book also focuses on programming directed at immigrant listeners, in particular, during bouts of anti-immigrant public sentiment. Focus group data and listener letters provide a sketch of the role of radio on the lives of immigrants.

  • Castañeda, Mari. “The Transformation of Spanish-Language Radio in the United States.” Journal of Radio Studies 10.1 (June 2003): 5–15.

    After decades of no scholarly attention given specifically to US Spanish-language radio, Mari Castañeda’s key article on the growth of Spanish-language radio due to shifts in communications policy as well as new Spanish-language programming in rural or non-traditional Latina/o markets forced scholars of radio and media to consider the emerging dominance of Spanish-language radio. This essay focuses on the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and its ripple effect on Spanish-language radio.

  • Castañeda, Mari. “Rethinking the U.S. Spanish-Language Media Market in an Era of Deregulation.” In Global Communications: Towards a Transcultural Political Economy. Edited by Paula Chakravartty and Yuezhi Zhao, 201–218. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.

    Like many of Castañeda’s writings, this chapter focuses on how the larger political economies and media deregulation policies have affected the growth of Spanish-language media. This is a sweeping overview of the Spanish-language media industry with particular attention given to Spanish-language radio and the momentous consolidation of Univisión with the then Hispanic Broadcasting Company (HBC). Castañeda argues that such industry shifts often play an influential role in the political recognition of Latina/os in the United States.

  • Castañeda, Mari. “The Significance of U.S. Spanish-Language Radio.” In Latinos and American Popular Culture. Edited by Patricia M. Montilla, 69–85. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2013.

    The concise historical arc in this chapter reminds readers of Spanish-language radio’s development from a brokerage system dependent on English-language radio stations willing to lease unfavorable airtime to Spanish-language radio shows to its present-day reputation as a formidable player in the radio industry. This chapter argues that Spanish-language radio’s stature within the larger radio industry should be lauded given its marginalized beginnings.

  • Gutiérrez, Félix, and Jorge Reina Schement. Spanish Language Radio in the Southwestern United States. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979.

    The first book to chronicle the significance of Spanish-language radio in the United States with information on the struggles to secure advertisers or sponsors for Spanish-language programming; early attempts to gauge when and how many listeners tune in; and how Mexican American radio hosts would broker early hours (“dead air”) blocks of time from English-language radio stations.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.