Richard Estrada in his element at KUCIEXPAND
Richard Estrada in his element at KUCI
Gabriel San Roman

Legendary Alt-Latin Show Illegal Interns Returns to Its Radio Roots at KUCI

From the bungalow of KUCI 88.9FM, radio DJ Richard Estrada cues a playlist of songs on Wednesday morning that gives sleepy Irvine a Latin Alternative awakening. The veteran host behind Illegal Intern Radio opens his two-hour show with the innovative blend of Andean folk and electronica from Chilean musician Rodrigo Gallardo’s collaboration with French-Ecuadorian electronic artist Nicola Cruz. The eclecticism turns to Los Angeles band La Santa Cecilia next and their new rockabilly-norteño “México Americano.”

Estrada’s role is a familiar one. Wearing a faded Maceo Hernandez shirt—“the demon drummer of East LA”—he mans the board at 6 a.m. while introducing listeners to new music from Latin America and Latino bands jamming at a barrio near you. Estrada laughingly trades text messages with Hernandez in between sets before turning his mic live to back announce Aztlan Underground track “Blood on Your Hands.” But the roots of Illegal Intern Radio stretch further back than the days of the activist rap-rock song first released in 1995.

“Illegal Interns” got its break during Spring Break in 1990. That’s when Buena Vision Cable’s general manager took a liking to Estrada and let him hop on the air with friend Flavio Morales when they interned at the public access station. The first Illegal Interns episodes came in the form of radio shows that aired over Buena Vision’s community message board before live cameras turned them into a bonafide television act. Morales’ two brothers joined in on the fun turning Illegal Interns into an early, important platform for the burgeoning Latin Alternative scene before it even had a name.

The variety show featured up-and-coming East LA bands like Quetzal, live jam sessions, and interviews with established rock en español Latin American acts on tour—something that never dawned on local media outlets in Latino LA. But newspapers eventually caught on to act with profiles on the show in the Los Angeles Times which deemed it a Chicano “Wayne’s World.” Illegal Interns had its best stretch, though, when moving over to KJLA in 1995. The public access station later turned into LATV with a lineup of shows that attracted upstart Latino hosting talent like current Today in LA traffic reporter Alysha del Valle and actor Anthony “Citric” Campos who stars on TV Land’s Lopez sitcom.

“Even behind the scenes we had our hand in a lot of programming there,” Estrada recalls. “It was a fun, special time.” Illegal Interns’ run ended when Morales became Executive Director at LATV in 2001. Estrada stopped producing The Hip-Hop Show on LATV two years later. Illegal Interns stayed dark after that and Estrada didn’t work in alternative media for years. He moved to Prescott, Arizona but grew tired of the Grand Canyon State. Being a single dad with a school-age son, he relocated in Irvine of all places.

Orange County’s slice of master-planned suburbia seemed like an unlikely spot for an Illegal Interns revival. But even during the heyday of Illegal Interns, the East LA-bred Estrada was no stranger to OC recording a Maldita Vecindad show at the Doll Hut in Anaheim for the program long ago. “We used to go to JC Fandango a lot,” he adds of the late, great Anaheim nightclub. Estrada didn’t even think about a radio show two summers ago when he heard a KUCI deejay put a call out for volunteers one day while driving, but figured he could network with folks at the station. He responded, took a weeks-long training course, turned in a skim tape, and ended up getting a slot on Wednesday mornings.

“I wasn’t even too sure if I wanted to use ‘Illegal Interns’ as a name,” Estrada says. Morales came up with the moniker to signify their intern media antics in taking over the broadcast airwaves. The two friends talked it over and agreed the name kept the tradition alive. The only difference these days is that Illegal Intern Radio is singular with Estrada on his own.

The program got off to a rushed start in the summer of 2015 when confusion about its debut date got lost in communication. “The first day I had my show, I got a call right after 6 in the morning,” Estrada recalls. He wasn’t at the station, but the deejay who phoned Estrada told him he was supposed to be on-the-air already. “I got my laptop, stack of CDs and rushed out of the house,” he says. “I didn’t have time to be scared and got through that first show a la brava.”

Estrada’s been on the radio before in a big, albeit token way. He recorded a punk band in City Terrace in the late 90’s when Morales frantically tried to track him down. KROQ wanted Illegal Interns on the “world famous” station for Cinco de Mayo. “They put us on the air for that one day,” Estrada says. “I remember the first song was from Control Machete. The phone lines lit up!” Back then, activists petitioned the station to play Chicano rock bands like Aztlan Underground to no avail, save for Illegal Interns’ sole show.

After 117 shows with KUCI, Estrada looks for community events to plug on Illegal Interns Radio while scouring for new music through Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and Spotify. A member from L.A. cumbia band Buyepongo hooked the host up with the lead single from their upcoming album. “I feel like I don’t even have enough time!” Estrada says. “There’s a lot of new music out there.”

The two hours Estrada claims on Wednesday mornings fly by when he plays a prerecorded interview with filmmaker Akira Boch to promote a recent Transpacific Musiclands concert at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown LA. It’s hard for Estrada to get musicians up early for in-studio appearances, but he’s netted on-location interviews with La Santa Cecilia, Las Cafeteras, and Downtown Boys. Halfway through the show, Estrada cedes the mic to his own former intern Josie Mendoza, a 24-year-old Santa Ana resident and UC Irvine student. Too young to remember Illegal Interns on TV, she cues up Latin Alternative songstress Carla Morrison’s cover of “Let Me Kiss You” by Morrissey after reading a station public service announcement.

The public access veteran feels his biggest rush after Illegal Intern Radio’s two hours are up. That’s the moment when he begins musing about the playlists, community events, ticket giveaways and possible interviews for next Wednesday morning. He’s also thinking about ways the show can branch out of the bungalow studio on campus and into the community.

“I’ve been wanting to throw showcases, so if I find the right spot that’d be something I’d really like to do,” Estrada says. He even hints about teaming up with Morales again next year in one form or another. But for now, there’s always his two hours of terrestrial radio that stretch beyond Irvine into Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, Tustin and Orange. “It’s therapeutic doing the program, more than anything else. I enjoy doing this weekly. It’s close to home.”

IIllegal Intern Radio broadcasts every Wednesday 6-8 a.m. at 89.9FM KUCI

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