On the airwaves: the immigrant influence in New York radio

A version of this story is featured in the Fall 2014 issue of Hofstra University’s Pulse Magazine.

Immigrants impact the culture of New York in many ways, one of them being music. Music is a universal language, and some of DJs that spin some of your favorite tracks on the radio have fascinating immigrant histories. Their cultures influence the music play for our listening pleasure on the radio. Here are the profiles of radio hosts Nino and Rosa Magarelli, Fiona Ritchie, Dahved Levy and Alex Sensation.

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Nino and Rosa Magarelli

From: Bari, Italy

Radio Show: Ciao Italy, WRHU 88.7 FM

Age: (Rosa) 59 (Nino) 63

Profession: (Rosa) Retired (Nino) Assistant Superintendent at Cedar Grove Cemetery

How did Ciao Italy come about? (Nino) When I came in this country about 40 years ago, I was tuning some radio station that played Italian songs. I was amazed to listen to some songs but I was disappointed. They never brought back from Italy the latest, like the new artists and the new songs. So after the years I created some kind of ambition to create my own show. So after so many years, finally, my dream came true and I created the show Ciao Italy Top 40. My show is only what’s on the chart in Italy. So whatever comes out today, tomorrow – I have that. My show is to bring everything that’s going on in Italy today to American soil. Exactly what’s on the top of the charts, the new songs, the new singers, all these events coming up in Italy I’ll bring them over here. I’m very proud because some people, they’re stuck in the ’50s and ’60s. This is 2015 almost, so I like to bring something new. That’s what my show is all about.

What is the best thing about hosting Ciao Italy? (Nino) When you achieve some goal and then they reward you – that’s the most important thing in our life because we accomplished something. We created something that the people recognize. That’s what makes us feel much more proud and much more willing to go ahead.

What memory at WRHU sticks out the most? (Rosa) When we do the marathon and when we see all the people that come in to donate and support. The day of the marathon for us, it’s a big, big event. (Nino) The marathon means they’re funding for the radio station because this is a non-commercial radio station, so once a year we ask our listeners to donate. We open up all the doors in our studio so people can come inside and see what we’re doing – especially the way we program and the way we act behind the mic. So that day of the marathon, they’ll be able to come personally into the studio and see exactly what’s going on. And if they want to pledge, why not?

What artist influences you the most? (Rosa) My favorite is Patty Pravo and the song was “Pazza Idea.” (Nino) I grew up with this group in the ‘60s when they were nobody. Theyre called the Pooh. It’s a very romantic group and as of today they still produce records after 40, 50 years almost in the business. I’m still stuck with them. But I like the American songs too. In the 80s, that was my time. Love it, love it, love it.

How does the music on your show enlarge the cultural contribution in this area? (Nino) I always say that music is the soundtrack of our life. It’s a part of our culture and it’s a part of our life, too. We broadcast if something happens in the community. If we don’t broadcast nobody knows what’s going on. This could be an event, could be a dinner dance, could be anything. So this is a part of our culture too. To keep you informed of Italia-America and what’s going on in the community. (Rosa) And bring them memories back. That’s what we do, that’s what we bring back: memories for people.

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Fiona Ritchie

From: Perthshire, Scotland

Radio Show: Thistle and Shamrock, WFUV 90.7 FM

Age: 54 (but I feel about 21)

Profession: Radio Broadcaster, Producer, Writer

How did you get involved in radio? I was a student in Scotland, where I’m from, and I came over to North Carolina to study for one semester. I came back to Scotland to finish up my studies and then I thought, “I’ll go back to the States for a little while.” When I went back over I got involved in public radio and really loved it. I was working at a radio station and mostly helping promote the station, doing fundraising, and all kinds of things. Somebody said “Well, why don’t you do a program with music from where you’re from?” I had some recordings I could play and started a couple of little programs with music from  here to [Scotland], and people really liked it. So I started to do a weekly program. Pretty soon somebody said “You know, I think people would like this beyond North Carolina.” So we started making the program available more and it got picked up for national broadcast pretty soon after.

How long have you been broadcasting? Forever! It’s been here nationally around the U.S. since 1983.

What is something that you feel you’ve accomplished through your show? I like to think that before there was any internet – you can do music in so many ways right now, you can go online, you can go on YouTube, you can listen to Spotify, or you can stream radio stations from all over the world – but before people could do that, people would only turn on whatever radio they could pick up in their own town. It wasn’t so easy for people to hear different kinds of music. So I like to think I helped some people to discover music and sort of open up a new world of music for a lot of people. And now they can access it quite easily themselves, so I like to think that I introduced people to music that they’ve grown to love.

What is one of the many great things about doing the show? There’s so many! When I was living in North Carolina I used to go out and visit different radio stations across the U.S. Even when I came back over here and went back to Scotland, I would still come back to the U.S. over there and visit different stations and do events for them. So, I’ve had opportunities to travel to every corner of the U.S. and do events with radio stations in Alaska, Louisiana, in upstate New York, all over the place. And I’ve met people in quite far, quite remote locations and learn what radio means to them.

That’s what has been the most amazing for me – getting to know people in the most remote parts of the U.S., especially going to Alaska, which was just amazing. It’s been great. That’s a tremendous gift that the radio program has given me, is the chance to do a lot of traveling.

How do you feel knowing that you have an internationally known radio program? I think it’s amazing that so many people over the years have connected with me through the radio. And I think it’s a total privilege that so many radio stations have given up an hour of their precious air time to the radio program. I think it’s amazing.

How does the music on your show enlarge the cultural contribution in this area? A lot of people in the U.S. might have roots that go back to Scotland or Ireland, so I think for people who have got roots over here the music means a lot to them. But I like to hope that people enjoy hearing music that sounds like it’s from somewhere that’s got a kind of an authentic feel about it. I hope that anybody can get enjoyment out of listening to music that sort of transports them to a different place. I hope that what I’ve been able to do is just contribute some really good authentic sounding music that transports people out of their everyday life and gives them an opportunity to hear music that gives them a chance to connect to a different place. So, I hope Ive been able to put that sort of feeling into what I do and keep it on the radio.

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Dahved Levy

From: Bridgetown, Barbados

Radio Show: Caribbean Fever, WBLS 107.5 FM

Age: 100 plus minus a day so that I know that nice people like you would never pass away.

Profession: Real estate, author, promoter… (I’m doing everything to keep the lights on and not go to jail)

What are some goals that you’ve met with your radio broadcasting career? When I was a young man going to City College and going to school, my idol was a guy called Frankie Crocker on the radio. I would go to his concerts and go to his parties. I said, “One day, I want to do big concerts.” So I ended up doing shows at Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall, the new Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, at the Apollo Theater and  the Beacon Theater. Those are a lot of things that I always dreamed of doing. To be able to do big concerts, and do big events and do big parties. And I’ve done that a few times over.

You’ve interviewed people from Bill Cosby to Donald Trump. Who was your favorite?: I got a lot of them, but two that stand out right now. I interviewed Minister Farrakhan and I interviewed Winnie Mandela. I interviewed Hillary Clinton, and Bill Clinton, all that stuff. But Minister Farrakhan – that interview was good. And then the interview with Winnie Mandela where I interviewed her in her home in Shilalo, in South Africa. Going to Nelson Mandela’s home and knocking on the door and all that stuff. All these things are the greatest things – being in South Africa, being in Senegal, being in Ethiopia, being in Egypt. I’ve traveled all over the world because of my radio station.

How does the music on your show enlarge the cultural contribution in the area? The music on my show enlarges the culture in the area in a very significant way because our show is Caribbean based. That means they’re including our French Caribbean, Spanish Caribbean, English Caribbean, Dutch Caribbean, Indo Caribbean, and African music and Afro Pop. New York City has the largest population of Caribbean people outside of the Caribbean. Our show is on a major radio station, BLS, top three radio stations in New York. It’s the home of Steve Harvey; its where Wendy Williams came from. So not only am I speaking to the Caribbean people, I’m speaking to the American people. It has a big impact, a huge impact; because what happens in New York funnels out to all the other places in the world. Everybody’s watching what’s going on in New York. We are in the city that has the people who shape minds, who are the trendsetters, and the motivators. So we believe that when were on the radio and were giving our news and our information and our entertainment, that it reaches the Caribbean people. And then those Caribbean people, they’ll reach out to their family and friends at home in the Caribbean. So it has a three full effect. We’re reaching the Caribbean people here, and then also you are influencing non Caribbean people who might be interested – who might have ’ve gone to Barbados or Jamaica or St. Lucia for a vacation – and love the music and love the culture. So it has impacted tremendously.

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Alex Sensation

From: Bogotá, Colombia

Radio Show: La Mezcla, MEGA 97.9 FM

Age: 36 (but I look 25)

Profession: On-Air personality, Producer, Professional DJ, Artist

Did you know this was what you wanted to do? Were you always into music? Well, as any Latin person, we love music. Not only that, everybody loves music – but especially Latinos. Our lives revolve around music. I really never knew this was for me or I never thought that I was going to end up here. I basically just stumbled upon it. I first started  deejaying clubs when I was young. I was a teenager. And through the clubs I got hired in radio. One of the program directors of the radio station was in the club one night and he liked what I do. He liked my style of playing and he offered me a job and that’s how I got into radio. It’s just opportunities. God opened the door for me and I just went ahead and took advantage of the opportunity and never turned back. Whenever an opportunity came open I just went right ahead and took it.

What was your main goal when you first started your career? As I began doing radio, playing music, and learning basically hands-on, I started also helping artists. That’s one of the things that I love to do is listen to an artist that was getting hot in the streets and in the clubs, but was never on the radio or didn’t have a record deal. I would break them in through my show and I think that’s one of the biggest accomplishments that I did at the beginning of my career. That was one of the great things.

What do you consider the best thing about what you do? I live what I do so if you ever get a chance to see me live or if you get to listen to the show, its very high energy; its a very good vibe. I try to make people feel welcomed and united. I like to cater to my audience in the actual clubs and on the air. I’m very caring to them and I attend to their needs. I think that’s one of the best things for me from what I do.

How would you describe your life since you’ve become a well-known DJ? Yeah, it  is fun, but you have to have a lot of discipline. A lot of people just see the glamour and the fun and the partying, but not the discipline. I always have to be 100 percent. I go on the air four hours a day and I perform for four hours. I have to mix live. I have to speak live. I use a lot of my energy. So its a live show you’re getting, a live show for 4 hours a day. And I have to do that all year round, non-stop, year after year after year. So you have to be there mentally and mentally prepare for that. I have to be in good shape.

Do you have any future plans beyond La Mezcla? The next step would be my artist side. Ive been, for about a year and a half, producing an album with different big artists in the streets and will be releasing that album in 2015. I want to be like the first Latin DJ to take advantage of what DJs like David Guetta and DJ Khaled did. That’s what the next project will be. Then hopefully maybe in the future some TV; I’ve had propositions for a TV show. But I’ve been busy with radio and my DJ business and just music. So I have to balance it all out.

How does the music on your show enlarge the cultural contribution in the area? One of the things that I learned when I was on radio, is how do I attract or how do I cater to these different nationalities. You’re living with people from South America, from Central America, from the Caribbean, and we all have different music. There is some genre that connects all of us but then each country has their own music, their own culture. So, I started mixing a little bit of each from the area. It became a show that caters to everyone and it unites. One of the things that I promote most on the air is unity within the Latino cultures that live here in the United States. Everybody is on  their own team basically. That means the Colombians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, etc. So I’m trying to break that mold and just have all the Latinos working together, and if music can do that, that’s great.

Introduction by Dana Gibbs.