Multi-culti radio

KXPA serves as Seattle's United Nations of the air.

Chatting away a mile a minute, Igor Khais of Moldavia settles down at KXPA 1540AM a little before 7am, getting ready to put Puget Sound's 70,000 Russian-speaking people in a good mood with his live two-hour morning show.

Though the thirtysomething 魩gr頨as slept less than five hours, he has no problem delivering the latest from around the world, from Putin in the Kremlin to Clinton in the White House. Sometimes he does guest interviews, like when a bunch of zany Russian truckers plowed through the city in their semis on their way to New York or the time a group of old-timer Russian musicians from St. Petersburg found their way to his microphone. Just what do they think of Americans? Well, maybe Americans would rather not know.

And most Seattle residents will never know, for Khais delivers his daily performance in Russian. That's the whole point at KXPA, Seattle's first multicultural and multilingual radio station serving the city's growing bilingual and non-English-speaking population. For the last year and a half, be it in Hawaiian, Tagalog, or Spanish, the station has filled a void for many of the city's residents who want more news about their country of origin and their local community—and want to hear it in their native tongue.

And it's not just the language that makes the difference; it's the content as well. Don't expect to hear any Bruce Springsteen coming out of KXPA's airwaves—some of Russia's legendary pop diva Alla Pugachova is more like it. "I include three or four Russian songs," explains Khais. "The old ones—you know—10, 20, 30 years old. None of the new stuff. They can buy that around town. [The old stuff] is what people like to hear."

For Khais, who also produces an Ukrainian language program on Saturdays, the day begins when others are going to sleep. "I have all the news in my head," he says, admitting that he stays up until all hours searching for news and putting together his early morning program for an odd assortment of listeners—everyone from newly imported Microsoft computer programmers to Seattle's Russian consulate employees.

Besides news and occasional songs, he offers weekly insight on what to do around Seattle and discusses hot topics of the day.

"In the beginning, I made a lot of mistakes," Khais admits. Like most of his colleagues, back in his mother country he was not involved with radio at all. But that doesn't stop the station's multitude of multilingual hosts from following their passion. They stop by the tiny station, a sort of mini United Nations, one, two, three, or more times a week, greet each other, and get down to the arduous work of producing shows, writing scripts, finding songs, and sifting through news.

But there's more. Instead of being employees of the station, the hosts buy airtime from KXPA's owners. The DJs act as their own shows' financiers, creators, producers, writers, and editors. They also are responsible for finding their own advertisers, and oftentimes writing, editing, and recording the ads as well in the station's small recording studio.

While the Russians have claimed he morning spot, station manager Craig McDonald will tell you that most of the time the airwaves are pumping out espa� a reflection of the massive growth in the Northwest's Spanish-speaking population.

One of those newcomers is calm and collected DJ Noe Menendez, who arrived in Seattle from Mexico some 11 years ago looking to make more than the $150 a month he earned teaching high school south of the border. When the opportunity came up to strut his stuff on Seattle's airwaves, there was no way he was going to say no. Now when he's not tending to business at his Spanish-language video rental store or newly opened Mexican restaurant, he's on the air, a man with a message: Spanish radio should be for the family, he says emphatically, especially if it's broadcast during the day when children are listening. The gang lyric stuff that stations play on the waves in LA, he says, is bad for the blood.

If Russians want to hear news, "Latinos want to hear music and soccer scores," he says. Menendez illustrates his passion for the game by recalling his spontaneous decision to cross the Canadian border to record a match for his listeners. There was only one problem: He had forgotten his immigration papers at home. He finally managed to get into the United States after a couple of tries and got the scores on the radio for all the folks back home.

As voices for the growing immigrant community at large, the DJs at KXPA have caught the attention of advertisers from JC Penney to Western Union and even local law firms who see the city's multinational residents as good business prospects.

"We're practically operating at 100 percent," gushes KXPA's manager McDonald, referring to their near 24-7 operating hours. He adds that the station's New York-based parent company, the Liu Corporation, plans to open its 32nd multilingual station in Vancouver, BC, soon and recently brought one on line in Blaine.

While everyone involved in the station agrees there's money to be made, most of the hosts add that it's not just about that. Fitsum Kesmu of war-torn Eritrea, a former television anchor and program director, spends eight to 10 hours a week putting together a 30-minute program of politics, current events, and national music. The program, he explains, helps him feel like he's contributing something to his community. Kesmu speaks for all the DJs when he says, "Every time I come here I have a feeling of fulfillment."

 
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