Growing up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Stephanie Valencia tuned in with her family on weekend mornings to a public radio station that played Mexican music and dedicated songs to the relatives.

That kind of local cultural appeal is what Valencia, 40, and his business partner, Jess Morales Rocketto, 36, say they want to cultivate and maximize on the 18 mostly Spanish-language radio stations they bought last year. passed to TelevisaUnivision.

Quietly and without warning, the two Latinas and their newly founded Latino Media Network (LMN) began operating March 30 at three radio stations in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, a region of highly coveted Latino votes that has drew attention in the recent elections. cycles

There was a lot more fanfare and pushback last summer, when Latinas bought all 18 stations for $60 million, including these three valley stations, were made public.

that news provoked an outcry from Republicans, who claimed that the purchase would silence conservative voices, even though conservative media owners have also expanded into Spanish-language media.

Valencia and Morales Rocketto, who worked for former President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton respectively, have downplayed their partisan backgrounds. and rejected criticism from conservatives that they obtained financing from an investment firm associated with the foundation of liberal philanthropist George Soros. They have repeatedly said they do not plan to use the stations to push the message of the Democratic Party.

In a recent interview with NBC News, the two women said their vision is to harness the cornerstones of Latino culture in music, sports and entertainment to create trusted news and consumer information sources.

Few Latino owners, but many listeners

Lost in the commotion last summer has been the fact that the two Latinas, neither of whom are very wealthy, have broken into the ranks of majority media ownership. Few other Latinos are there: Latinos were majority owners of just 9% of FM and 3% AM non-commercial radio stations and 5% of FM and 3% AM commercial stations in 2021 , according to the last Federal Communications Commission transmission ownership report. That’s despite the fact that Hispanics are avid radio listeners.

“We own the properties that serve our community, which is a big reason we took this leap,” says Stephanie Valencia, left, with Latino Media Network co-owner Jess Morales Rocketto.Courtesy of Latino Media Network

Maria Contreras-Sweet, one of several minority Latino partners or advisers in the purchase, said that while Latinas have made political gains, they need to accelerate their economic parity.

“This is that kind of effort, where two young women have figured out how to get access to capital to buy a business — it’s a triple banking opportunity,” Contreras-Sweet, who led the Small Business Administration under Obama and founded a bank commercial aimed at Latinos, he said, borrowing a billiards term to describe the LMN purchase.

Radio reaches 97% of the Latino population monthly, more than live or recorded TV, content from smartphones, connected TV devices, computers or tablets, according to a 2022 Nielsen report.

For this growing segment of Americans, radio is a primary source of information. Its popularity has also centered on the stations’ content and has raised criticism of conservative voices propagating the spread of misinformation.

The stations purchased by Valencia and Morales Rocketto are in eight of the top 10 markets, which Latinas say reach 33% of US Latinos.

“Radio is such a big constant for this community that if you’re looking to place a bet, radio and Latinos is pretty good,” said Stacie de Armas, Nielsen’s senior vice president of information and diverse intelligence.

“We own the properties that are serving our community, which is a big reason we took this leap,” Valencia said, “and we took a chance when we found out that Univision was selling these stations and that they could potentially end up with non-customers. latinos. hands.»

Cultural approach, and political counterweight?

LMN’s acquisition of Miami’s Radio Mambí, a fixture in the Cuban-American community, provoked the greatest outrage when the purchase was announced. The conservative station is very popular in Miami, but it and others have come under fire for comments by some hosts that include spreading false information, such as that the January 6 riots at the US Capitol were started by antifa or claim that Joe Biden The 2020 presidential victory was due to rigged elections.

Americano Media, which bills itself as Fox News in Spanish, 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 streaming and internet platform that owns the station, includes some Alumni of Radio Mambí which left when LMN bought it.

Since purchasing the stations, Valencia and Morales Rocketto have responded when asked if their programming will serve as a counterbalance to right-wing commentary and targeted disinformation.

According to Morales Rocketto, from her previous work in administrations, she and Valencia understand the limits of political discourse and messaging. “We really believe in the power of not just the legislative process or just the government to make change; we really see how media, culture and entertainment influence how you think and feel,” she said.

The two women said they would like to provide more programming and content on financial education, particularly with so many Latinos starting small businesses, as well as on health and parenting.

However, in the current political climate, its ownership of stations in eight of the top 10 Hispanic media markets cannot be overlooked, said Stella Rouse, a professor of politics and government at the University of Maryland.

Even if they don’t seek to turn the stations into left-wing Fox News, LMN will provide the necessary counterbalance, he said. “If there is an opportunity, even if it is indirect, it is a step forward because these are radio stations that are perhaps not going to be taken over by others that might have this right-wing disinformation agenda.”

Al Cárdenas, a lawyer 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 creating more content, which is why he helped buy the stations. . Cárdenas, who has split with former President Donald Trump’s Republican supporters, said he sees the LMN purchase as an attempt to create stations and content that «emphasize knowledge rather than fiction.»

“There may be other investments up front that will have a higher return, but this goes to the heart and soul of who I am as a Hispanic,” said Cárdenas, adding that he listens to Spanish-language Hispanic radio while driving. .

A Latino financial ‘barn’

Valencia and Morales Rocketto said they got the idea to break into the radio market through their work at Equis Research, a Latino-focused Democratic polling and research firm. Some of his most recent research has focused on who can best persuade insecure Latinos that disinformation or misinformation is false.

His job meant spending a lot of time talking to Latinos, getting to know their main sources of information.

“As more and more we looked at the data, the radio was like a glaring alarm bell, that’s what people were hearing,” Morales Rocketto said. «It was like hitting us over the head with a radio.»

From the time they first learned that TelevisaUnivision was selling the radio stations to the time the deal was announced, some 85 days passed, Valencia said.

Valencia first intended to buy a station and sought help from Tom Castro, a Houston equity investor who once owned as many as 53 different radio stations.

“She had the idea that 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 them, to increase the civic awareness of the Latino community and, ultimately, civic engagement” , Castro. saying.

“I always wanted to use radio for this purpose, but you know, building a company with lenders and investors, they never allowed us at my companies to do so much of this, so I thought I had an obligation to help,” he said. saying.

Valencia and Morales Rocketto said they had to marshal the collective clout of their network, which they described as a «Latino barn» as Univision was already on the «2-yard line» of finding buyers.

“Univision said: ‘Who are these ladies? They have never really done anything in the radio business, they are not media types,” said Morales Rocketto. “We really had to trust our community to make calls for us, to say, ‘Take them seriously’…and to Univision’s credit, they realized we were serious and answered our call.”

Tom Chavez, an entrepreneur who invests in technology and digital companies and who helped with the purchase of the radio station, said his endorsement makes sense because he believes in the mission of Valencia and Morales Rocketto, as well as the potential of Latino entrepreneurship.

“One of the hard things in our community is a certain type of reticence when it comes to wealth issues,” he said. “Latinos have to honor the values ​​of putting family first, but also recognize that wealth is important, right?”

Chávez said being a minority partner brings all of that together, while the purchase helps maintain the specific cultures of different Latino regions, from the Texan-Mexico 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 the Latino Media Network,” Valencia said. “But the real vision is ultimately to build a multi-platform audio company” to not only distribute through its own assets, but also to others, particularly Spanish-language broadcasters.

The radio stations they now own in the Rio Grande Valley are an AM sports station, an FM station that plays “old Spanish” and another FM station that plays regional Mexican music. Valencia said his goal is to ensure that there are more sources of entertainment and information, so that «Latinos can make their own decisions.»