Many media outlets reported this past November that Liberman Broadcasting was selling KHJ-AM 930 to a Catholic radio network. The station, of course, was a legendary frequency in Southern California during the 1960s and '70s, home to the mighty "Boss Radio" format that launched an army of famous LA DJs. Those November reports mentioned that history, with some noting that 930 had broadcast Spanish-language music since the 1990s under the nickname "La Ranchera," featuring nothing but classic corridos, norteñas and more Vicente Fernández than your mustache can ever handle.
A smaller amount of reporters noted that Liberman was moving La Ranchera to its FM station, Santa Ana-based KWIZ-FM 96.7. But only one newspaper, a trade website, mentioned the format it was replacing: "La Rockola," which AllAccess.com described as playing "regional Mexican" music.
The description, while technically true, is akin to saying a Packard is just a car. La Rockola was one of the most interesting local radio experiments in recent memory, one that essentially broadcast a stream of chatter and music you'd hear on a radio blasting from the windowsill of an apartment in Mexico City. This isn't overwriting on my part, but absolutely true: La Rockola took the sound of a very specific region, plugged it into the FM dial and turned it into a 24-hour desmadre fiesta, all from a run-down station on the Willowick Golf Course in Santa Ana.
The oldest continually operating Orange County-based radio station (since 1926, when it started as an AM signal), KWIZ has played Spanish-language music since the late 1980s but only had the La Rockola format since the early 2000s. It arrived during an era when Mexican migration patterns to the city (statistically, the most Mexican big city los Estados Unidos) had moved on from the michoacanas and zacatecanos of a previous generation to people from central Mexico–Puebla, Hidalgo, Morelos, Tlaxcala, Veracruz and more. Most colorful among them were the chilangos–people from Mexico City. These people didn't care for the banda, conjunto norteño and Mexican pop that dominate Southern California Spanish-language stations; they had their own musical tastes, a dizzying array of folk, metal, electronic, tropical–one continuous puro pinche pari.
Liberman Broadcasting (the largest privately held Spanish-language radio chain in the United States) switched KWIZ's format from Mexican pop standards to La Rockola to match this need. Imagine an English-language station in Southern California only playing music for homesick Gothamites, from the Boss to George Gerswhin to the Ramones, Jay Z and more–but only from there–and you get a sense of La Rockola's audacious, thrilling strategy.
It was the best OC radio station you never listened to, a sort of living, breathing anthropology course. Broadcasters spoke in the wisecracking, sing-song chilango argot; Saturdays were advertised as "Sabados Distrito Federal"–"Federal District Saturdays," a shoutout to Mexico City's official designation and a callback to a famous song of the same title extolling the megalopolis. Best of all, listeners were subject to Mexico City's favorite genres, most not heard on any other radio station in the United States, let alone Southern California.
There were sonideros, DJs spinning tracks while adding sound effects and toasting friends and fans à la the sound systems of Jamaica, and groups such as Grupo Kual, which used synthesizers on everything from voices to accordions to even bass lines to spin some of the loopiest dance music outside an EDM showcase. It wasn't good enough for La Rockola to play cumbias, the lingua franca dance form of Latin America originally from Colombia; La Rockola played variants from cumbia andina (Mexicans playing cumbias with such Andean instruments as charangos and multipiped flutes) to cumbia colombiana to cumbia stalwarts like Los Angeles de Charly.
La Rockola played bachata before it became popular in Southern Californian clubs, even though OC has next-to-no Dominicans, as well as other Latin American dance rhythms including merengue, punta and vallenatos. It would play oldies, from Perez Prado to legendary salsa group La Sonora Santanera and classic rock en español songs such as "Fuiste a Acapulco" that only a chilango could love. It was the only radio station in the United States I've ever known to play rock urbano, a bluesy style of rock born from Mexico City and popular seemingly only there. And in a nod to the many Oaxacans and people from the state of Guerrero that also swarmed into SanTana during the 2000s, La Rockola even spun music from their region, from fast-paced chilenas to a weird genre involving brass instruments and a fiddle that even I can't figure out.
The station blasted seemingly everywhere in SanTana, from loncheras to cars idling on Bristol Street, from bars to households. Almost everything about the station pertained to the city–its ads, its jokes, its sentido (feeling). It made sense–KWIZ's frequency, while reaching into Los Angeles, begins to fade out around Koreatown to the north and Mid-Wilshire to the west, and it's nonexistent south of San Juan Capistrano. With such a localized audience, there was no reason to acknowledge anything besides SanTana and Mexico City.
Amazingly, La Rockola lasted about a decade, even though its ratings never amounted to much–its audience was the definition of niche, after all. But there wasn't even a chance for La Rockola's personalities to bid adíos–the switchover happened without any warning to listeners. On Nov. 13, La Rockola simply posted a Twitter message saying in Spanish, "Ladies and gentlemen, as you've already heard that the concept of La Rockola no longer exists, thank you for everything. The concept . . ."–leading to a Facebook post that was quickly deleted.
The new La Ranchera 96.7 is already gaining listeners, and there is something wonderful about being able to listen to ranchera legends such as Pedro Infante and José Alfredo Jiménez in FM for the first time in, well, ever. But the demise of La Rockola is yet another nail in the coffin to Southern California radio, once the nation's leader in pushing boundaries and formats, now reduced to the same groupthink that has killed the industry. Hey, who says Mexicans don't assimilate?