Felix Contreras and Jasmine Serena Garsd are the founders of Alt.Latino Radio, a radio show that represents the crux of traditional and innovative Latin music. As part of our radio series, Contreras sits down with us and discusses the inception of the radio show and their musical choices. Since Connecticut Latinos love their radio, and tune in more frequently and longer than any other ethnic group, we dig deeper into this radio show and explore this unique Latino soundscape. While they call it Latin alternative, it is much more than your typical alternative music. On Alt.Latino’s website, the hosts say, “Borders and boundaries mean nothing to us” and by the music they dig up and share with their listeners this is 100 percent truth. Nothing is off-limits.
CT Latino News: How did Alt.Latino come to be?
Felix Contreras: Alt.Latino was initially a podcast. It was started 9 years ago (June 12, I believe, to be exact). It started as a podcast by myself and a woman named Jasmine [Serena] Garsd. We were both employees for NPR news and we wanted to do a podcast about Latin alternative music. We didn’t think it would have much of a chance on public radio, with programming directors. I mean, at the time, there was nothing out there like it, and since most of the music, almost all of the music, is Spanish-language we didn’t think we would have much luck getting on public radio stations, so we devised it as a podcast.
I got the idea to do that, to make it a podcast, because while I was a producer/support for the news/arts desk I was given the opportunity to cover this release from the PEW Hispanic Research organization that indicated the Latinos were the highest users of mobile devices—this was like 10 years ago, right—so, as we put together an idea for a show, I suggested we do something that people could use on a mobile product, since the 18 to 34 demographic (English dominant) that’s where they were going.
So, we were strictly a podcast until about 2 or 3 years ago when we started offering it to NPR member stations for free and there were a handful of NPR programs that were half-hour programs, and we designed it as a half-hour show. Most public radio shows are an hour in length, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, etc, etc. So a half an hour put us at a disadvantage. A lot of times we would be combined with Latino USA, initially, because at that time they were a half an hour, and we would also be combined with All Songs Considered, which is also offered to radio stations, they also do a half-hour show. So, a lot of times we were sold in blocks, in these little programming blocks.
CTLN: Why did you decide to do the show in English and not Spanish?
Contreras: So, Alt.Latino is produced in English with Spanish-language music to fit to public radio stations that are English public radio stations. And we have about 55 stations that use us. Mostly small to medium markets, there are some large markets, but mostly smaller markets. The majority of the Latino population in the U.S., research shows, they are bilingual. The smallest number of people are the Spanish dominant. So, the population growth as a model is by birth; it’s not by immigration anymore. So that’s why we figured we would do it in English and because we had a better shot at aligning with the established public radio identity at the time. And remember this is almost 10 years ago.
CTLN: How has Alt.Latino grown with the Latino population?
Contreras: The only way to indicate growth is by the number of downloads from our site or wherever you get your podcasts. So trying to get a handle on just how many downloads there are, you have to go to all those different sources. So it’s always a bit of a challenge. But the bottom line is, just anecdotally, from what people send in via email, social media, or direct messaging through social media, it’s a small audience but it’s a loyal audience. I have heard from people that have been listening the entire 9 years. So, that’s that. It’s small but dedicated and it’s difficult to trace.
CTLN: Why drives you to do Alt.Latino?
Contreras: Because we didn’t see very many things out there like this. What we saw were isolated instances of people doing radio shows around the country that were talking and playing and covering alternative music … there is a guy at Berkeley, there is a guy in southern California, there is a guy up in Portland … so there were isolated instances with not a lot of coverage beyond whatever their local market was. And we really thought that this music was exciting and there was stuff there that people who speak Spanish, people who were bilingual, there was music and musicians there that most people had not heard.
CTLN: How do you choose the bands that you cover?
Contreras: Again, it’s sort of self-isolated by choosing Latin alternative music. We didn’t play Pitbull because Pitbull had plenty of outlets in commercial music. We were interested in those musicians who were part of that alternative universe, musicians who were independent, musicians that were on small labels, musicians who were doing something very different than the pop music world. So that’s what we wanted to do, we wanted to feature and highlight this world.
We got busy and we got to the audience that listens to that music because it does have an audience, so those are the people we wanted to hit, and we wanted to expand that audience, because we thought, and still think, that once people are exposed to this music and the musicians and their musical theories and their musical approaches they will come to embrace the music. Maybe because they come to see some of themselves in it, or it’s something new and totally different and these are the curious people that listen to public radio.
I try to put stuff in there that people can say, ‘I can hear a little bit of myself in this show, and in addition, I am discovering all kinds of great new music.’ At its core it is a show about music discovery—a curated show about music discovery, in an area that does not get a lot of coverage in other media outlets, either mainstream media, public radio, internet, blogs … there just aren’t a lot of outlets that cover this music.
CTLN: How do you find the bands?
Contreras: They find us now. The first couple of years it was tough to find the bands, there were a couple of labels that were very strong that had been doing this for a while and others were just starting out. So it was, ‘Hey, we are doing this podcast for public radio, can you send us some of your music?’ And they are like, ‘Is Robert Siegel gonna talk about this?’ and we’re like, ‘Well no it’s not Robert Segal it’s Jasmine and myself we’d love to talk about it because we know a little bit about the music and we can talk about it from a place of being informed and being a fan.’ But now 9 years later, people find us.
The show is known now for having an editorial approach that is pretty wide, and that we listen to almost anything, from almost disco dance stuff to experimental to folkloric. And so the editorial approach is pretty wide and it has our brand. Bands can use those blurbs on their albums that they put on movies and stuff: ‘NPR’s Alt.Latino says the record is great,’ or whatever, they can put it on their publicity, they can put it on their website, they can put it on their albums, little plastic stickers, because it has the NPR brand, and like with every other aspect of NPR music that brand carries a significant amount of influence in the industry.
CTLN: Do you feel like your timing was right when you established this show?
Contreras: We were sort of riding a wave, rather than creating a lead. Because Pitbull is going to be more popular in terms of what people listen to, in terms of downloads and sales, even Mexican regional, just because there are so many people out west that listen to that music. So that’s going to dominate the record sales and the streaming stuff. So, again, we are still this boutique, niche part of the music industry. This is Latino alternative music and it’s called Latino alternative here in the states, but down in Mexico someone might refer to it as hip hop because they are singing hip hop but it’s in their indigenous language. So we are still working within that corner of the music business, but I will say that ever since Despacito, two summers ago, now I’ve expanded the scope, the editorial scope, to look at pop music because Despacito redefined everything.
Before Despacito it was a Latin artist would cross over to mainstream language or culture, right, but Despacito changed that. It became the mainstream culture coming over to Spanish language, and the whole world was singing ‘Des-Pa-si-to.’ Right … It’s so easy to say. The astronomical number of views on YouTube, the streams on Spotify, Apple Music, etc., it broke the machine because it was so popular, and it was an indication that the mainstream had come over to the Latin side.
And everything since then is taking advantage of riding that wave. There are more people who don’t speak Spanish that are listening to Spanish pop music than ever before and it’s because it’s now part of that culture, it’s now part of the mainstream,
CTLN: Is Alt.Latino at odds with mainstream music?
Contreras: People of various ethnic backgrounds listen to mainstream pop music. I grew up on the Jackson Five, that’s mainstream America pop music, even my background, and my culture I am a specific demographic but when it comes to listening to music my participation in mainstream was very clear. And it’s the same now. Mainstream artists encompasses everybody and not just white English-speaking people.
Despacito was once in a lifetime gamechanger. And so, as a result, I could not ignore pop music anymore the way I did. Like I said, Pitbull had his outlets and I didn’t need to cover him. But now, Pitbull didn’t have nearly the kind of influence that the pop stars are having now, so I have to now broaden the scope. And we do that a number of different ways, we do that a little bit on the show, since we are multi-platform we have this weekly Spotify playlist, where we cover five songs, every week new songs and that’s where we cover the new pop stuff, that’s where we have our finger on the pulse of what is going on pop wise. Sometimes things come up that moves over into the podcast, but sometimes it doesn’t but at least, we don’t need it covered but we need to know about it.
CTLN: How do you see the future of alternative Latin music?
Contreras: It is always going to be multi-level, there are always going to be different tiers and different levels, because the little corner again that we focus on Latino alternative scene there is so much creativity in that world that I have my mind blown at least once a week when I hear something that I had never heard before.
These musicians are creating, you know the way they mesh and collide genres, in that little area of Latin alternative is astounding. The combinations and creativity is completely astounding. So I am always saying to people to open up their ears.
If all you ever listen to is J Balvin, you’re gonna be happy, because he will always be there and he will always have some music, and he will always have concerts and you can watch him on TV, watch him on Fallon. He does what he does and he is a talented guy and he is very good at what he does, but, again, it’s like music in general, if you have big ears and you want to hear as many of the styles and forms that you can listen to then you’re gonna be rewarded when you listen to what we call Latino alternative music because it’s all over the place, there are so many things to choose from.
A band like Bomba Estéreo from Columbia, I don’t know what they call themselves, they started out electro-cumbia, but they’ve advanced and become so sophisticated in ways that there is no way to describe in one word, or a catch-all phrase, or a marketing phrase, other than if you know their music and you say Bomba Estéreo than you know what you’re talking about.
But that’s what makes it so much fun, you just go down a rabbit hole and you are like, ‘Oh my god, look at this band.’
CTLN: What is the best part of doing this show?
Contreras: I keep telling people I get paid to listen to music all day. And yea, it is a joy. One of the best parts of this job is discovering this music, looking for stuff, and then playing something that maybe someone hasn’t heard before. It’s the joy of discovering this little band in a small town in Argentina and putting them on Alt.Latino and then suddenly people from around the world are listening to this little band from a small town in Argentina.
But the deeper purpose here for me is the other thing that I say, ‘It’s an incredibly creative time!’ Musicians are breaking genres, breaking boundaries and creating amazing music … and what it is, is it’s a reflection of, especially here in this country, it’s a reflection of that generation of the Latino or Hispanic or Latin demographics, mixed marriages, mixed cultures, mixed languages, mixed influences. The younger generations, the 20 somethings, and 30 somethings, the teenagers, they are much more mixed culturally than my generation, and I’m 60 years old—the tail end of the baby boomers. Those people married within their cultural, very rarely did they go outside of their culture. Now, the demographics will show that people marry outside of their demographics all the time. And as a result, if you are a Mexican, Italian, or Argentine African American, you automatically think differently, you automatically, by existence, are a hybrid. It is a combination, a meshing.
So the musicians they have that approach. It is completely natural. It is not foreign to them to say, ‘I’m gonna mix electronic with AfroCubism.’ It’s not foreign to them because it makes sense because that is how they are raised, they are cultural combinations and it shows in the music. The music that we are playing is a reflection of the Latino demographics in the U.S. It’s a good time man.
Start listening to Alt.Latino here, today.