KEDA vs. KEDA: Will the spirit of Radio Jalapeño survive?

On Friday, July 29, “Güero Polkas” (Ricky Dávila, the Wolfman Jack of San Antonio radio) signed off the air for the last time in 44 years. It was his last show and the beginning of the end of KEDA Radio Jalapeño 1540 AM, the family-owned conjunto radio station that has broadcasted from an old building on South Flores Street since 1966.

But was it the end, really?

The Flores-based KEDA station will broadcast for one more week, after which it will move to a new building reportedly located around the Medical Center area. It is the end of the Dávila dynasty in local radio, but the new owners (Corpus Christi-based Claro Communications) will keep the KEDA Radio Jalapeño name, two DJs (who may or may not be part of the old KEDA team) and a computer that will replace the DJs who became heroes for the local conjunto-loving family. Also, the new station will broadcast on both AM and FM airwaves.

“The new format is going to be conjunto with a little bit more Tejano,” said Dani Jo Dávila, granddaughter of the Dávilas who owned the station, and niece of Güero Polkas. As we talk, fans come in and out of the office to pay their respects. She explains the new station’s format will follow that of KROB 1510 AM, the Corpus conjunto station also owned by Claro Communications. “We heard they’ll only have two DJs and the rest of the time they’ll run automated off the computer. Who, if any, of the DJs [from the old KEDA] they going to keep, we don’t know. Güero Polkas? He said that he is retiring.”

Dávila said the station’s employees didn’t know about the sale until two days before it happened, and that Danny Casanova, another key DJ who also owns DJ Express (a mobile DJ service), had already decided to move on, giving notice on July 25.

“He was already going to leave,” Dávila said. “The timing was just weird.”

The weekend of July 30-31 was KEDA’s last weekend running as normal. Héctor Via-Via did his last two shows Saturday and Sunday morning, and Nelda Sáenz “The Queen of Conjunto” was on the air Saturday afternoon, while Mark Weber “El Taquache” (an Ohio native who fell in love with conjunto music) said goodbye on Sunday afternoon. Until August 14, the last official day for the old KEDA, the rotation will be with DJ Double EE (Eloy Espinoza) taking over Güero Polkas’ 6 a.m. slot, followed by a computer they call “Dora” at noon, Nelda Sáenz “The Queen of Conjunto” from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m., and all three of them (“Dora” included) taking over the last weekend’s slot.

“After that, we don’t know if [the new owners are going] to keep any of the DJ’s or if [they’re] going to hire [their] own people,” Dávila said. She’s sad and relaxed, as are the rest of the KEDA employees, who all sound like people who know they did an important job and who, hopefully, will have a role in the new version of KEDA, because nobody else does what they do.

“Nobody else plays this type of music,” says DJ Double EE, who is playing music on the air. “You’re not going to hear Los Aguilares, Flaco Jiménez, or Tony de la Rosa on any other station but Radio Jalapeño.”

A DJ and an accordionist, Double EE was with KEDA for 13 years.

“I’m going to try to stay in radio, and I would like to stay working with KEDA under the new ownership,” he said. “It’s just kind of sad because being here for 13 years it’s like your second home, or actually your main home. Everybody knows everybody, everybody’s family. It’s just going to feel weird.”

He said he made contact with the new owner, Jerry Benavides, who told him he would get back to him on Monday about a possible job. “The only thing we can do is wait and pray and see what happens,” Double EE said. “I could try other stations elsewhere, but I would like to try to stay here to keep the conjunto alive. That’s what it’s all about.”

And he wants to make things clear: KEDA is not dead.

“People have been calling the past couple of days and a lot more [Friday], confused that the station is going to close and end, that KEDA’s gone forever,” Double EE said. “We’re here to say that that’s not true: We are going to continue our broadcasting until the new people take over.”

After that, nobody at the old station really knows what will happen. They don’t even know where the new station will be located.

“We’ll be in this building [two more weeks],” Double EE said. “I heard there’s a location, but they have not told us where it’s at. All I know is it’s in the Babcock, 410 area, Northwest side. H-E-B is going to take over this building and I don’t what’s going to happen from there, if it’s going to be offices, or if they’re going to tear it down to make more space for parking.” Benavides didn’t return the Current’s phone call for comment.

Mike Betancourt is one of the former DJs who came to pay respects to the station that gave him his first chance on the air. He had originally come in to get a couple of bumper stickers, and he stayed for eight years.

“[Former owner] Manuel Dávila gave me my job and he nicknamed me Magic Mike,” Betancourt said. “So that stuck, that’s how people knew of me, but no one hardly ever saw me. During the seven to eight years I was here, maybe I came out three times in public. But it was fun.”

He was the overnight DJ until two years ago and, despite his lack of experience, Dávila saw in him someone who knew what the station was all about.

“Working here meant playing the same music that I grew up listening to and getting paid for it,” Magic Mike said. “The rewarding part was the people that would call in and meeting all the musicians that I grew up with. It was a dream. I even got a couple of phone calls just now, while I was hanging out. People who hadn’t heard me on the air for a while. They called up just to say hi, which was rewarding enough.”

Just like Double EE and every single one of the members of the KEDA family, Magic Mike remembers charity was an important part of the KEDA equation.

“We would have benefits for people who didn’t have money or the means to bury a loved one,” he said. “We did BBQ fundraisers for someone who needed a wheelchair ramp, stuff like that. Hopefully the new people that take over will continue that tradition.”

When I asked him whether he’d like a position at the new station, he simply says, “I talked.”

“But this is not about us, it’s about KEDA,” he added. “The end [of the old KEDA] is sad, but what can you do? It’s the small radio stations like this that keep people happy.”

When I was leaving, a door opened downstairs and from it emerged none other than Danny Casanova, the man who wore many hats at the station and who had given his notice on July 23.

“I did everything here,” Casanova said. “This was a family-owned station and whatever you did when you worked here, you did many things.”

Now the owner of DJ Express, which had its offices on the lower floor, Casanova said he will now concentrate on that business from his house.

“If KEDA was the first radio station, well, I was the first mobile DJ.” He started the business on Valentine’s Day, 1978, and never looked back. Among other roles at KEDA, he was a DJ for the last eight years. “Today was going to be my last day regardless.”

He proudly shows me computer drives which contain what he calls “the world’s largest conjunto/Tejano archive in the world.

… The whole history of Tejano, Chicano, and conjunto music is right here on a hard drive,” Casanova says. “That was my job here: turning records into CDs and MP3s. I probably got the most complete collection of Chicano music there is. I don’t think anyone has come close to me.”

He has no bad feelings towards KEDA’s new incarnation, but is concerned about the proposed new format.

“There still has to be some sort of personality there,” he said, referring to the computers that will do the heavy lifting at the new station. “[The new owners] wanted the [KEDA] name, that’s what they wanted. But there’s a good thing with these people: They’re going to put the station on FM, which is something we always dreamed about.”

But Casanova also has a skeptical view of the future of radio.

“Radio is going to be gone in five to 10 years,” he said. “We’re living in an electronic world and things are changing. Internet radio and satellite radio [are taking over], and radio in itself as we know it is going to be gone. It’s kind of like newspapers: little by little, they’re left behind. These newspapers are dying. So is radio.”

Yet, he’s rooting for continuation and has high hopes for the new KEDA.

“I think they’re going to try and compete a little bit with [San Antonio’s leading Tejano station] KXTN,” Casanova said. “They’ll give them a run for their money. The station is good and they’re going to succeed.”

In the office with Casanova is KEDA’s account executive Fidel Castillo, a man on a mission.

“It’s a sad day, of course, knowing that in the morning we won’t have the Güero Polkas show,” he said. “That’s why I’m hoping we could maybe start a campaign to make sure the Güero Polkas is back on the air in the morning. He left the building and he’s just going to think about what’s going on. For the show just to be gone is sort of a shock to San Antonio.”

That’s nice. And, hey, if there’s going to be a campaign, I’ll go picket with these folks. But if you believe Güero Polkas is about to retire, you’re dreaming — he’s just too big, at least in the conjunto/Tejano world, to suddenly vanish. I don’t believe it for a second. After 45 years on the air, the man needs a well-deserved break. But he should, and hopefully will, come back whenever he pleases, either to the new KEDA or on his own, but he’s got to come back. And if he decides to come back, and the new owners play their cards right, they could make KEDA bigger than ever.

But you can’t have KEDA without the real KEDA.

If, like Casanova said, all the new owners want is the name, and they’re willing to settle for a couple of DJ’s and a whole lot of computer, they’ll have KEDA in name only. The personable spirit of the real KEDA will remain at a vacated building (or under an H-E-B parking lot) on South Flores Street. And if Güero Polkas is not re-hired, the new KEDA better watch its butt — whenever Güero Polkas decides to come back, it’ll be the conjunto/Tejano event of the year.

“I just hope people will continue to listen to conjunto music in San Antonio,” said Casanova. “Tejano, country, and disco were a craze. Conjunto music is a culture.”

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