Each day before dawn, thousands of farmworkers in the West wake up to a prayer and the resonant plinking of a harp: “Lord, give me honesty and patience … so that we will never tire of the struggle,” a voice intones in Spanish.
They are listening to Radio Campesina, voice of the United Farm Workers union. The prayer, written by Cesar Chavez in the ’60s, is one of the only elements of UFW radio that hasn’t changed in the decade since two of Chavez’s sons got creative — and gave organized labor a whole new sound.
Cesar Chavez, who died in 1993, dreamed of a radio network that would reach farmworkers in even the most isolated ranches and labor camps. And in 1983, Radio Campesina went live from a tiny, noncommercial station in Visalia, California. The trouble was, few people listened. It was all talk, the delivery dry and earnest. It wasn’t good radio.
By 1988, Campesina director Anthony Chavez and his brother Paul resolved that the station could do better. A query of Campesina’s target audience brought surprising feedback. “People told us we were making their workday longer,” says Anthony. “They told us, ‘Play some music.'”
A bit chagrined, the brothers decided to change the format entirely — to Mexican country music, known as norteñas. Radio Campesina’s programming is now filled with Spanish cowboy, courting, and done-me-wrong songs. The announcing style is brash and alive, with plenty of reverb: “Buenas tardes, California! Es Campesina, y no mááásssss!” (“Good afternoon, California! It’s Campesina, and nothing else!”)
The norteñas formula is a winning one. That initial station has since blossomed into a network of six stations in California, Arizona, and Washington — and two more are in the works. The network’s crown jewel is in Phoenix, where Campesina’s 400,000 listeners have made it the city’s highest-rated Spanish-language station.
Overseeing a chain of country music stations was an uncomfortable switch for the Chavez brothers, who learned the word strike before kindergarten and grew up listening to Santana. “It was hard for us,” says Anthony. “We saw ourselves as educators. But we thought, well, what we have to do to get an audience is different from what we were thinking.”
Having abandoned the talk format, the brothers still had to figure out how to weave in the union message. Here they took a page from the masters of the public service announcement: the Mormon Church. “The Mormons really do an excellent job,” says Anthony. “Every time they come out with a new PSA, I’m on the phone with my brother: ‘Did you hear that one?'”
Nowadays, the network’s headquarters in Bakersfield, California, is a busy production house for radio vignettes bear ing the UFW stamp. In one, a man comes home at night drunk. He threatens his wife and frightens his children. Then comes the closer: “Is this machismo? Is this what it means to be a man? No, being a man means standing up for your family and advocating for your rights in the workplace. A message from the United Farm Workers union.”