Immigrant Stories: Enjoying a career based on a lifelong love of radio
Intro: Twelve years ago, Samuel Bernal came to the United States from Mexico City to take a job with La TriColor, the valley’s Spanish language radio station. Since his arrival, he has used the power of radio to promote understanding and cooperation between the Latino and Anglo communities. On March 11, the Colorado Broadcasters Association presented Bernal and his station with three awards of excellence. In April, Garfield County presented Bernal with a Humanitarian Service Award for his work in radio.
Gallacher: So radio has played an important part in your life.
Bernal: Yes, since I was a kid. One of the oldest pictures I have is of me with the radio my grandmother brought me from one of her visits to the United States. It was really special. It was a brightly colored little transistor radio, and I took it with me everywhere I went.
The other thing I loved to play with was my dad’s pocket recorder that he used for meetings. I used to enjoy recording my voice and the voices of my cousins and pretending like I was a radio personality.
When I was 7, I was calling radio shows and making song requests.
And when I would hear my own voice on the radio it was pure magic.
By the time I was a teenager, it was the ’80s, and my father thought that my music was a bad influence on me. He refused to let me listen to Michael Jackson because he thought he was a “punk.”
Gallacher: What was it about Michael Jackson that he didn’t like?
Bernal: My father saw some of Michael’s videos, and it reminded him of the street gangs in Mexico.
Gallacher: Yeah, “Thriller” probably really alarmed him.
Bernal: Yes, so he wouldn’t let me listen to the radio, and you know how that can be, the most forbidden is the most desired. So I convinced my mom to let me listen to the radio when I came home from school, and that gave me about an hour before my dad came home.
Gallacher: What would you listen to?
Bernal: All the ’80s music, Cindy Lauper, Rod Stewart and Michael Jackson. He was huge in Mexico. And then as I got a little bit older and started falling in love, I would make music tapes for my girlfriends. But I didn’t think music was enough, so I would also add my own stories and poetry. I would spend the whole night recording.
That recording process was so enjoyable for me, that’s how I discovered that it was my passion.
Gallacher: So you would write and record your own stories interspersed with music?
Bernal: Yes, I discovered that I really liked to write as well as record. Writing, music and recording was the perfect combination for me.
Gallacher: Did you spend a lot of time alone as a kid?
Bernal: Yes, I was an only child, and, when you are the only one, you have to develop your imagination. I think all of that time alone forced me to be more creative. So when I started entering radio competitions I was able to do well.
Gallacher: Were you able to play outside?
Bernal: No, we lived in the heart of Mexico City, there was no park, no place to play. There were no kids my age, and the streets were busy and dangerous.
Gallacher: So you were able to compete in radio DJ competitions?
Bernal: Yes, I would enter and do pretty well for a kid with no formal training. It was the end of the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s, and radio was powerful in Mexico. It was the coolest thing, like Facebook or Google is today.
Gallacher: How did you get your first job in radio?
Bernal: Well, I graduated from school, and my family didn’t have money for college. I was feeling very sad and afraid that I wouldn’t be able to make it. And then one day I heard a guy on the radio that I had competed against in radio competitions, and he was a radio DJ already. That’s when I decided that I would visit every radio station in Mexico until I found a job.
I was committed to being in radio even if it meant that I would work for free for a while. I knew that the Mexico City radio market was very competitive, so I was determined to travel all over Mexico if I had to.
Gallacher: So you were prepared to work for no money?
Bernal: Yes, it is very common in Mexico.
Gallacher: In a way, it sounds like our apprentice programs here in the United States. What is the word for apprentice in Spanish?
Gallacher: The same word. That’s one we “borrowed” from you Spanish speakers. So what was your plan for getting in the door?
Bernal: Well, since I had entered a lot of radio competitions, I knew that if I just showed up and asked for a job they would take my name and send me away. But if I said I was there to pick up my prize from a radio competition, they would give me a security badge and send me to the manager’s office.
So I showed up at my first radio station, looking my best, and my plan worked. They gave me a badge and sent me to the manager’s office. And there he was, this young guy in his 20s, and I gave one of the best speeches of my life. I told him I had never worked in radio but it was my passion since I was a kid. I told him I would work for free and do anything that needed to be done just for a chance.
I think he was impressed that I was willing to work for nothing. He said, “Actually, we need someone to answer the phones in the studio. Would you be willing to do that?” I couldn’t believe my luck. I was so excited.
My shift was from 9 in the morning until 6 at night, but I would always stay late, sometimes midnight. It was my paradise being around the radio personalities and learning the business. I would have slept there if they had let me.
I always tried to do more. My job was to answer the phone and record the song that was requested, but I got the caller’s age and noted what part of the city they called from.
Gallacher: So you developed marketing stats?
Bernal: Yes, and so after a month they started paying me.
Gallacher: How old were you?
Bernal: I was 20, and then I started studying journalism when I was 23. I had studied English in school and always dreamed about working in another country. One day one of my classmates told me she was taking a job as a news producer in Colorado, and I asked her to let me know if any jobs opened up. Three months later, she called to tell me there was a job as a TV reporter. So I applied and got the job and came to the United States.
Gallacher: That must have been hard for your parents to say goodbye to their only son.
Bernal: Yes, it was hard to leave, but in some ways the distance helped us grow closer. It gave us a chance to see one another differently and appreciate each other more. My father followed my career very closely and was very proud of me.
Gallacher: Did he ever get over his Michael Jackson fear?
Bernal: We joked about it a lot. I told him, “See, it’s your fault I’m in radio right now. If you had let me listen to Michael Jackson I might be doing something else.”
Gallacher: You and your radio station recently won three awards from the Colorado Broadcasters association.
Bernal: Yes, we won for best public newscast, best public service announcement and the best community event.
Gallacher: Can you talk about how important radio is to the Latino community?
Bernal: Our culture is based in an oral tradition. We are storytellers at heart. I think we are more based in talking than reading.
Because of the work we do in the valley, it is easier to get informed listening to the radio than reading. A lot of our listeners are up at 4 in the morning because they live very far from work, so they are listening to the radio while they drive and oftentimes at their job. Radio is a big part of their daily life.
Gallacher: Have you noticed a change in your listening audience since the election.
Bernal: Yes, a lot of people are more worried and afraid.
Gallacher: How does your radio station address their fears?
Bernal: The first thing we always try to do is to go to the facts, because with fear comes a lot of rumors. We try to respond to our audience as quickly and positively as we can. I think it is important for us to be as positive as we can in these times.
There are always two ways to present our information and both can be true. I think there is more good than bad in our community and the world, and I always want people to know that.
Our radio station makes a point of letting our listeners know about all the resources there are in the valley and all the people that are doing good work. It is important to describe the happy, healthy aspects of our community and to not make fear a business.