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Radio Sombra: Live and Direct from Boyle Heights

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Artbound's editorial team has reviewed and rated the most compelling weekly articles. After putting two articles up for a vote, the audience chose this article to be made into a short-format documentary.

The magic of radio is how it can be both global and local at once. Regardless if radio waves come to us via distant transmission towers or beamed via satellite or broadband, radio still comes from some place. The signal has an origin point, usually leading back to a microphone and engineering board, ensconced in whatever can pass as a studio, whether a multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art facility, a crowded sports stadium booth, or a dimly lit basement, smelling of stale cigarettes.

Once upon a time in Los Angeles, the storefront radio show/station was commonplace, though perhaps few as renown as Dick "Huggy Boy" Hugg's KRKD shows of the 1950s, broadcast live from John Dolphin's famed, late night record store, Dolphin's of Hollywood. Despite the name, Dolphin's wasn't in Hollywood but just south of downtown, at Vernon and Central. As UCSB scholar Gaye Thereas Johnson chronicles in her new book Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity, Huggy Boy would regularly exhort L.A. youth to "get down here to Vernon and Central" and his success was such that the city began passing legislation to dissuade such impromptu gatherings.

The heyday of Huggy Boy's rock n' roll shows from Dolphin's is long past but in recent months, a new storefront radio station has emerged, less than five miles northeast from Hugg's old haunt. Radio Sombra began as an AM station in El Sereno several years ago, experimented with FM, but has found the greatest success as an internet radio station. Up until last fall, Radio Sombra broadcast out of Boyle Height's Centro de Comunicación Comunitaria but since last October, they've moved down a few blocks down E. 1st St. to Espacio 1839. This hybrid storefront quintuples as a book/clothing/record store, art gallery, and the gleaming new broadcast booth for Radio Sombra and its growing crew of DJs.

Both Espacio 1839 and Radio Sombra link back to a collective of DJs, activists and organizers, brought together by Marco Amador. Though an L.A. native, Amador spent several years in the Bay Area during the 1990s, during a particularly fertile time for college, community and pirate radio stations. It was there, coupled with time also spent in Mexico, that Amador began to build the idea around Radio Sombra. Unlike more bureaucratically-controlled community stations, Amador has little interest in micromanaging the content of the shows on the station. "we're really trying to push a model of autonomy here because we don't want to control the programs," Amador says. People interested in developing shows get training from Amador and others but after that, he says, "they're kind of on their own."

Espacio 1839 evolved out of a desire to develop a retail model for community reinvestment -- a vital step to stemming gentrification forces that often move capital out of neighborhoods. The store's different wares reflect the interests of Espacio's core collective of managers, all of whom are also foundational DJs on Radio Sombra: Amador, Lady Imix, Gomez Comes Alive, and Nico Avina. Together, they've become the collective force behind the station and store's growth...but they're recruiting others to join with them. I spoke with Amador at the store, seated next to the Sombra broadcast desk.

Oliver Wang: What's your first memory of radio?

Marco Amador: Listening to radio in Spanish and listening to radio about the Dodgers and about Fernando Valenzuela. I think that that's a very specific time for us Los Angelinos especially as Chicanos or of Mexican descent. It became a time where we became part of the media. We've always been here but we became part of the hero history of Los Angeles.

OW: What spurred you to think of radio as tool for community communication?

MA: At a young age, I left Los Angeles and I did work up north. I was living in the Mission District and we were organizing day laborers and started having contact with people who were running free radios like Free Radio Berkeley and I started to understand that radio could be used as a way of protesting as well as a way of communicating. It wasn't until I went to Mexico -- I lived down there for a few years and I was doing video and audio stuff -- that I really started thinking about bringing that kind of infrastructure into a barrio here in Los Angeles.

OW: What did you see as the potential of radio for organizing protest?

MA: One of the clearest examples that we've seen in the last few years was in 2006 when we had the huge immigration turn-outs. We had millions of people across the country and this whole concept of "the sleeping giant" being awakened. If you look at that -- if you look at this mass movement -- that conjunctional moment it was really created by radio media. It was these characters that were on the radio like Piolín, like El Cucuy, that had these national audiences of millions of people. Obviously there's all this background work, all these musicians were organizing, they had bases, they had education, but they had never been able to create a moment within their movement so when these two characters kind of took on the voices of these movements, this is why millions of people, this is why teenagers were taking over the downtown, the 110 and this is why there was close to 1.5 million people that were at city hall. It's because of this medium. Unfortunately, I think that there hasn't been enough reflection within the movements to see how important this medium is. The immigrant rights movement should own a radio station by now or something that could communicate on a mass level.

OW: It would seem that one of the goals of Radio Sombra isn't just about broadcasting, it's also about organizing people to develop their own communication outlets.

MA: There's such a lack of communication within our community. There's such a lack of access to information and education that these kind of mediums help build that bridge. Video production, radio production, anything where the voices of community members that typically aren't heard are given access to, you start changing the context. All of these projects are based on root theories of popular education. How do we transform ourselves from being objects of history to subjects of history where we actually start writing our own history? That's really what these infrastructures are all about.

OW: In setting yourselves up as an internet radio station, are you concerned that this may limit your audience? Things like broadband internet access certainly isn't distributed evenly throughout the city, especially in more working class neighborhoods like Boyle Heights.

MA: East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights included is still lacking the broadband infrastructure that a lot of Los Angeles has. They give you the lowest of the lowest so there's still that problem of what they call the digital divide. But a study came out that a majority of consumers of smart phones were Latinos. There's economic reasons. It's not because all the Latinos are now lawyers and they have Blackberry accounts but it's because there are socioeconomic realities right? So you can go and buy a laptop for $1200 then you can put internet in your home for $40 a month, that's quite a bit of an investment. Or you can buy a $70 phone and have internet and a [handheld] computer. So [smart phones] are computers that came into the market for poor working class communities. And that's why they started consuming them and buying them. We're on our phones and our phones are now our computers so we have to make the phone our new receiver for La Raza and Radio Sombra needs to be within that structure for them. They can just click on a link and it opens up in their phone and they can start listening.

OW: Radio Sombra exists as a mouthpiece for the local community but you also state that it's not necessarily populist; can you explain that?

MA: We were doing a fundraiser at a space and it turned out that there had been some kind of homophobic comments made coming from that space or people from within that space. As a core, we're completely against homophobia, sexism and racism and the core addressed it [on their shows]. We're here to try to bring something new, especially topics like [homophobia] where we try to talk about ideologies like that. It's important to challenge those...Radio Sombra is not here to just reflect populist ideals.

OW: How did Radio Sombra evolve into Espacio 1839?

MA: After managing the radio station together, the opportunity came up of building something bigger than that: building a radio station that was completely accessible to the community, accessible to youth, accessible to organizers, to artists and really just offering the equipment. That's really what it comes down to: the resources. So we manifested into Espacio 1839: it's a bookstore/record store and apparel but the radio station is the core. Espacio 1839 is a physical manifestation of Radio Sombra.

OW: What kind of new shows has this space helped develop now that you've been open for six months?

MA: We actually have one show called Por Vida and it's actually facilitated by a member of our community called Omar Ramirez, an artist/organizer. It's a youth show. He was like, "I want to start doing shows with the kids that I work with," so he works with the kids. They figure out playlists, they figure out who's going to produce the show that day and then they come in and then they run the show themselves. They're the DJs, they're the engineers and they do their own thing. We see ourselves as an infrastructure of media that anybody can plug into and through that process, learn how to use it.

OW: Why Boyle Heights? Why this particular neighborhood?

MA: We started in El Sereno, we had the station in East Los Angeles as well, and then we moved to Boyle Heights. One of the reasons we moved to Boyle Heights was that we were working on a documentary on military recruitment in the Latino community. Through our research, most of everything that we needed to film was here in Boyle Heights. The Department of Defense, they knew that Boyle Heights had a very high drop out rate. So they created a whole new pedagogy of teaching math and science specifically to be able to recruit people and bring them into the Department of Defense. That program is called STEM, it's experimental grounds was Boyle Heights. So that, with seeing some of the trends that were happening in Boyle Heights about gentrification, pushing downtown into Boyle Heights, we felt that Boyle Heights was strategic to do media work within the community, to do education work.

OW: You mention gentrification and, on one level, if one were to walk past Espacio 1839, they could see it as the kind of artistic, hip boutique space that always seems to be on the first wave of retail developments whenever you begin to see working class neighborhoods begin to gentrify. What makes Espacio 1839 different? How does it toe that line?

MA: The difference here is that you have people that want to reinvest into their community. There's this school of thought within us, within Chicanos that it's not about getting out of the barrio, it's about getting the barrio up. Bringing resources into the barrio. Re-investing into the barrio. For the most part, of the people that have come in here [asking] "what is this spot?" Once we start explaining what it is, then their whole perception changes. Part of the concept of this space was like, "what would Chicanos do 30 years from now? What kind of business and community center would they open 30 years from now?" Partly it's our nerdy Kubrick/Star Trek obsession, calling the place Espacio. It means space, you know Chicanos in Space.

OW: What's next for Radio Sombra?

MA: Part of the campaign right now is, because of the [new] location, we're bringing in a whole new block of shows. We've brought in about ten new shows and we're trying to bring in another ten new shows, and hopefully have this block of 20 new shows by the summer of this year. We want the shows to be very autonomous. What Radio Sombra provides is technical training. We train them on how to use some of the [equipment] and after that, they're kind of on their own. We don't want to control the programs. Part of the mission is to build a technical infrastructure in our community so that people understand computers, they understand the internet, they understand servers, they understand the technology behind these things and they can walk away from this place with a little more knowledge on the structures.

Espacio 1839 is located at 1838, E. 1st Street in Boyle Heights. It's open Wed - Sun, 12-8pm.

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