Latina radio station owners fend off conservative critics, tout cultural focus
Growing up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Stephanie Valencia would tune in with her family on weekend mornings to a public radio station playing Mexican music and call in song dedications to relatives.
That sort of local, cultural appeal is what Valencia, 40, and her business partner, Jess Morales Rocketto, 36, say they want to cultivate and maximize at the 18 mostly Spanish language radio stations they bought last year from TelevisaUnivision.
Quietly and with little notice, the two Latinas and their newly found Latino Media Network (LMN) began operations March 30 at three radio stations in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, a region of highly-coveted Latino votes that has drawn renewed attention in recent election cycles.
There was far more fanfare and blowback last summer, when the Latinas’ $60 million purchase of the 18 stations, including these three valley stations, became public.
That news triggered an outcry from Republicans, who asserted the buy would silence conservative voices, even though conservative media owners have been expanding into Spanish-language media as well.
Valencia and Morales Rocketto, who worked for former President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton respectively, have downplayed their partisan backgrounds and fended off conservatives' criticism that they secured financing from an investment firm associated with the foundation of liberal philanthropist George Soros. Repeatedly, they have said they do not plan to use the stations to push the Democratic Party’s message.
In a recent interview with NBC News, the two women said their vision is to harness Latino cultural touchstones in music, sports and entertainment to build trusted news and consumer information sources.
Few Latino owners — but many listeners
Lost in last summer’s commotion has been the fact that the two Latinas, neither hugely wealthy, have barged into the ranks of majority media ownership. Few other Latinos are found there — Latinos were majority owners in only 9% of FM and 3% of AM noncommercial radio stations and in 5% of FM and 3% of AM commercial stations in 2021, according to the latest Federal Communications Commission broadcast ownership report. That’s even though Hispanics are avid radio listeners.
Maria Contreras-Sweet, one of several Latino minority partners or advisers in the purchase, said that while Latinas have made political strides, they need to accelerate their economic parity.
“This is that kind of effort, where two young women have understood how to gain access to capital to buy a business — it’s a triple bank shot,” Contreras-Sweet, who ran the Small Business Administration under Obama and founded a commercial bank aimed at Latinos, said, borrowing a billiards term to describe the LMN purchase.
Radio reaches 97% of the Latino population monthly, more than live or recorded television, smartphone content, TV-connected devices, computers or tablets, according to a 2022 Nielsen report.
For this growing segment of Americans, radio is a prime source of information. Its popularity has also put a focus on stations’ content and elevated criticism of conservative voices propagating the spread of misinformation.
The stations Valencia and Morales Rocketto purchased are in eight of the top 10 markets, which the Latinas said reach 33% of U.S. Latinos.
“Radio is such a constant for this community that if you’re looking to make a bet, radio and Latinos is a pretty good one,” said Stacie de Armas, senior vice president of diverse insights and intelligence at Nielsen.
“We own the properties that are serving our community, which is a huge reason why we took this leap,” Valencia said, “and took the chance when we knew Univision was selling these stations and that they could potentially end up in non-Latino hands.”
Cultural focus — and political counterbalance?
LMN's acquisition of Miami's Radio Mambí, a fixture in the Cuban American community, drew the most outrage when the purchase was made known. The conservative station is hugely popular in Miami, but it and others have drawn criticism over some hosts’ comments that include the spread of false information, such as that the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol was started by antifa or claims that Joe Biden's 2020 presidential victory was due to fraudulent elections.
Americano Media, which bills itself as the Spanish-language Fox News, switched last year from broadcasting its programming on satellite radio to providing content on a Miami station that replaced its sports programming with the conservative talk format. The partnership with Audacy, a free broadcast and internet platform that owns the station, includes some Radio Mambí alums who left when LMN bought it.
Since the stations’ purchase, Valencia and Morales Rocketto have pushed back when asked if their programming will serve as a counterweight to right-wing commentary and targeted misinformation.
According to Morales Rocketto, because of their previous work in administrations, she and Valencia understand the limits of political discourse and messaging. “We really believe in the power of not only the legislative process or only the government to make change; we really see how the media and culture and entertainment influence how you think and feel,” she said.
The two women said they’d like to provide more programming and content on financial literacy, particularly with so many Latinos starting small businesses, as well as on health and parenthood.
Nonetheless, in today’s political climate, their ownership of stations in eight of the top 10 Hispanic media markets can’t be overlooked, said Stella Rouse, a politics and government professor at the University of Maryland.
Even if they aren’t seeking to turn the stations into a left-wing Fox News, LMN will provide a needed counterbalance, she said. “If there’s an opportunity, even if it’s indirect, that’s a step forward because that’s — radio stations that are not going to be perhaps taken over by others who might have this right-wing misinformation agenda.”
Al Cárdenas, an attorney who chaired the Florida Republican Party and was an adviser to former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, said he wants Hispanic radio to return to more content creation, which is why he helped buy the stations. Cárdenas, who split from Republican backers of former President Donald Trump, said he sees the LMN purchase as an attempt to create stations and content that “emphasizes knowledge rather than fiction.”
“There might be at the outset other investments that will have a higher yield — but this goes to the heart and soul of who I am as a Hispanic,” said Cárdenas, who added that he listens to Spanish-language, Hispanic radio while driving.
A Latino financial ‘barn raising’
Valencia and Morales Rocketto said they got the idea to get into the radio market through their work at Equis Research, a Democratic, Latino-focused research and survey firm. Some of their most recent research has focused on who can best persuade uncertain Latinos that disinformation or misinformation is false.
Their work meant spending a lot of time talking to Latinos, learning their main information sources.
“The more and more we looked at the data, radio was like a glaring alarm bell, that’s what people were listening to,” Morales Rocketto said. “It was like smacking us over the head with a radio.”
From the moment they first learned that TelevisaUnivision was selling the radio stations to the time the deal was announced, it was about 85 days, Valencia said.
Valencia had first intended to buy one station and sought the help of Tom Castro, a Houston capital investor who had once owned as many as 53 different radio stations.
“She had the idea she wanted me to help her understand where the news deserts were in the Latino community, because she wanted to see if she could address those, to increase the civic awareness of the Latino community and ultimately the civic participation,” Castro said.
“I had always wanted to use radio for this purpose, but you know, building a company with lenders and investors, they never allowed us in my companies to do as much of this — so I thought I had an obligation to help,” he said.
Valencia and Morales Rocketto said they had to rally their network’s collective influence — they described as a “Latino barn-raising” — since Univision was already on the “2-yard line” in finding buyers.
“Univision was like, ‘Who are these ladies? They’ve never really done anything in the radio business, they are not media types,” Morales Rocketto said. “We really had to rely on our community to make calls for us, to say, ‘Take them seriously,’ ... and to Univision’s credit, they realized that we were serious and took our call.”
Tom Chavez, an entrepreneur who invests in technology and digital companies and who helped with the radio station’s purchase, said his backing makes sense because he believes in Valencia and Morales Rocketto’s mission — as well as the potential of Latino entrepreneurship.
“One of the tricky things in our community is a certain kind of reticence when it comes to matters of wealth,” he said. “Latinos have to honor values of putting family first, but also recognize that wealth matters, right?”
Chavez said being a minority partner brings all of that together, while the purchase helps maintain different Latino regions’ specific cultures — from the Texas-Mexican culture in the Rio Grande Valley to the Cuban culture in Miami.
Valencia and Morales Rocketto say the radio stations are just the beginning. “Radio is the initial platform for which we launched Latino Media Network,” Valencia said. “But the true vision is ultimately building a multiplatform audio company,” not just to distribute through their own assets, but also to others, in particular Spanish-language broadcasters.