Latino and Latin American music audiences in L.A. have no trouble finding chart-topping artists such as Shakira, Pitbull or Mana on their radio dial. But there are far fewer places to tune in to the likes of more alternative acts such as Café Tacuba, Zoe, Ximena Sarinana, Ozomatli and Aterciopelados.
Now there's at least one more: "The Latin Alternative," the 2-week-old program of cutting-edge Spanish-accented music, from neo-funk to cumbia-laced electronica, airing on Cal State Northridge's radio station KCSN-FM (88.5) on Thursday nights from 9 to 10 p.m. The station bills the new program as the first nationally syndicated public radio show that focuses on Latin alternative music but is hosted in English.
The show, which now airs on 16 public radio stations across the country, is co-hosted by Josh Norek, a co-founder of the Latin Alternative Music Conference and frontman of the group Hip Hop Hoodíos, and Ernesto Lechner, author of the book "Rock en Español: The Latin Alternative Rock Explosion," and a journalist who contributes to the Los Angeles Times.
In some ways, the program's arrival is long overdue. Los Angeles is home to the largest Latino population in the United States, and several Spanish-language stations here are among the region's top rated in any format. Southern California also is home to a cosmopolitan cadre of English-speaking listeners who are devotees of progressive Latin music.
But the majority of big local commercial stations hew to playlists that are heavy on pop superstars or else traditional regional ranchera and musica norteña.
"We've always believed there's a bigger market" for stations that specialize in contemporary Latin sub-genres, says Norek, who grew up in Albany, N.Y. (where "The Latin Alternative" also airs). "It was not easy being the one Latin alternative fan in upstate New York," says Norek, who now makes his home in Northern California and periodically commutes to L.A. to tape his show with Lechner.
Norek says that part of their program's purpose is to provide context to the music they play for listeners whose first language may not be Spanish. That might mean explaining a song's lyrical wordplay or decoding its references to current events. "Music there is far more politically conscious than most music you’ll hear here," he says.
Sky Daniels, KCSN's program director, says the new program complements other shows recently added at the station, including one hosted by Nic Harcourt, who formerly helmed the mike for KCRW's "Morning Becomes Eclectic."
"We incorporate a lot of new music because as a noncommercial station I certainly don't have the musical pressures that my brethren have," says Daniels, adding that he hopes to gradually incorporate even more Latin music in the station's other programming.
Norek describes his and Lechner's musical tastes as broadly compatible. "When I first met him it was just like a brother from another mother," he says. "We still have differences of opinion at times, but it’s a polite debate."
'Travel Tips for Aztlan' rides cutting-edge of Latin radio
'¡Viva Mexico!' celebrates the many forms of Mexican music
Latino pop-rock is the best of many worlds
-- Reed Johnson
Photo: "Latin Alternative" co-hosts Ernesto Lechner (left), Josh Norek. Credit: Josh Norek.