There's a new badge in town: Raleigh's Curtis Media is now home to "La Ley" 96.9, an all-Spanish, all-the-time FM station broadcasting Mexican regional music. With their 100,000-watt radio tower located in Princeton, their signal footprint extends north to the Virginia border and south to the Wilmington coast, with a huge listening area that covers the Triangle, Goldsboro, Kinston, Fayetteville, Lumberton, Camp Lejeune, New Bern, Greenville, and Roanoke Rapids. "La Ley" is now the most powerful Spanish FM broadcaster on the eastern seaboard between Miami and New York—signaling Carolina del Norte's coming-of-age as a Hispanic population center to be reckoned with.
"We didn't need stunts, we had the opportunity just to be the first," says John Hernandez, La Ley's general manager and part-time radio personality, about the station's opening in April. "We kicked it off a month early, because of the demand from the advertising community." Among their advertisers are local car dealers and shoe stores, national chains like Subway restaurants (which have a catchy Latin pop jingle), state lobbying groups like the North Carolina Egg Assocation, and even the Mexican consulate.
A savvy Texan with a background in TV and radio, "John" Hernandez is also the sonorous voice of "Chan"—of "Chan y Chana," La Ley's morning show duo. "It's based on [Mexican comedians] 'Chan y Chano.' Most people who grew up in the '60s or '70s would remember that show," Hernandez explains. He partners with deejay Imelda Murrieta, as the vivacious, fast-talking voice of "Chana."
Murrieta wears another hat from noon to 1 p.m. as "Imelda, La Lunchera," but she says people identify her most strongly with her morning show character. "When I go somewhere, people always say, 'Hey, Chana! Hola, Chana!'" she tells the Indy, speaking in Spanish.
"Radio is my passion," adds Agustin Garcia, who deejayed for local AM sender "La Supermexicana" before moving to "La Ley's afternoon drivetime slot. Weekend programming includes a Saturday sports show with Fernando "El Tanque" Zelaya, and a Caribbean music show Sunday nights with Freddy "El Boy," who hails from New York City via Fayetteville. A new female announcer, Fernanda, is the latest addition to the Saturday lineup, a sign of the station's rapid growth.
Secondary to commercial success, but still important to Hernandez is the station's role as community advocate and information source. "There are lots of opportunities for Hispanics to become a mainstream participant of this society," he says. Examples of the station's public service include announcements about family health, computer and GED classes, and a recent talk segment with State Director of Hispanic/Latino Affairs Nolo Martinez about a bill pending in the N.C. legislature that would prevent immigrants with taxpayer ID numbers from obtaining driver's licenses.
But, Hernandez acknowledges, it's not their primary mission. "We're not here to educate. Our mission is to entertain. We go by the book," he says, patting the Arbitron Radio Market Report lying open on his desk, with top-ranked songs marked with yellow highlighter.
La Ley's music programming is Mexican regional, aimed squarely at the 75 percent Mexicans who make up the majority of the Triangle's Latinos. "Everything is customized to this area," says Hernandez, comparing the Triangle's demographic percentages to Chicago's. Still, even a casual listener might have a hard time nailing down La Ley to one identifiable sound right away. "Mexico is literally a salad of ethnic diversity," Hernandez points out, "every state has got its own culture." Hence, the mix includes tuba-and-clarinet-driven banda, accordion-based nortena, cumbia (a popular dance rhythm), ranchera (country music), and Latin pop, with smatterings of Central American punta and Caribbean bachata and salsa thrown in.
The formula of playlisting "proven hits" in a single format—the standard operating procedure for radio-as-big-business these days—has drawn criticism from some corners of the local Hispanic community. "We get a handful—well, a bushel full—of calls saying, 'you're not playing enough salsa,'" Hernandez admits. But the strength of Mexican regional music sales in the United States is such that nortena groups like Conjunto Primavera—virtually unknown outside their marketshare—can chart above crossover artists like Ricky Martin and Shakira. Sunday's "Rumba de Ley" from 7 to 10 p.m. features tropical club rhythms, but Latinos "other than Mexicans" ("OTMs" as they are known inside the station), as well as some Mexicanos from the capital, may not feel "La Ley" speaks to them.
"I don't listen very often. They just play Mexican country music. I like salsa," says Arturo Armas, 27. "Soy Chilanguito—I'm from Mexico City. This music is more from guys from the north like Sonora and Mexicali."
"Esta bien," says Juan Carlos Ramos, 21. "I listen about three hours a day, when I'm resting between the hours of 12 and 3 p.m. They don't play the same songs over and over," he says, speaking in Spanish. "I like it. They play pretty songs," adds Aida, "but I don't get to listen very much. Just riding in the car to and from work."
As for the name—which in a dictionary means "the law"—Hernandez is ever sensitive to cultural idioms and the aural play of words. "It means the boss. The rule. The final word. Not necessarily the law." Though he says they do play on that sometimes, too, using a "paddywagon" ("La Julia") to do mobile promotions known as "traffic stops" ("Retenas de Ley"), where they give out free bumper stickers, keychains and CDs.
So, just how many kinds of cumbia are there? Three, according to Hernandez—one with its roots in northern Mexican nortena, one popular with the sonidos in southern Mexico, and one from Colombia. If you're not sure which is which, don't worry—this summer might be time to let La Ley 96.9 FM expand your aural horizons.