Radio host José Massó takes a phone call from a listener during the bilingual “¡Con Salsa!” radio show on 90.9 WBUR-FM in Boston on Saturday, Jan. 24, 2009. In addition to playing salsa artists, Massó uses the long-running show as a community forum during which listeners can send their love to prisoners over the airwaves. (AP photo/Josh Reynolds)
|Massó introduces a song during the “¡Con Salsa!” radio show on 90.9 WBUR-FM in Boston on Saturday, Jan. 24, 2009. For many prisoners, radio shows like “¡Con Salsa!” are their only connection to family and friends outside prison walls. A wide variety of callers dedicate songs, make confessions, give news, send love and even put the voices of their children on the air. (AP photo/Josh Reynolds)|
Every Saturday night when he was behind bars, Papo Gonzalez would sit in his dark cell, put on his headphones, turn on “¡Con Salsa!” and wait for his wife’s words.
Eventually, the radio show’s host, José Massó, would read a message just for Gonzalez: “Saludo for Papo from Luisa. Good night. I’m thinking of you.”
For many prisoners, radio shows like “¡Con Salsa!” are their only connection to family and friends outside prison walls. The callers — girlfriends, fathers, wives, brothers and mothers — dedicate songs, make confessions, give news, send love, even put the voices of their children on the air.
“I’d like to dedicate a song to Carlos Moreno out in the Bay Area, ‘Stand By Me,’” one female caller said recently during the California-based “Art Laboe Connection.” “I just want to let you know that I love you and we miss you. … Good night.”
Maria, from Albuquerque, N.M., asked Laboe to tell her husband, Junior, she couldn’t wait to be back in his arms.
“We listened, hoping for a saludo from a familiar voice,” the 37-year-old Gonzalez said in Spanish. “It gave us hope and made us want to go out and get straight.”
Neither Massó nor Laboe remember exactly when they began getting prison “shout-outs,” but they say such calls are now a big part of their weekly programs.
“People through their calls were making a connection to that soul by just saying the name and wanting to hear the name,” Massó said.
The 58-year-old began “¡Con Salsa!” 34 years ago on Boston University’s public radio station, 90.9 WBUR-FM, while he was a high school teacher in the city. At the time, the show was the one of few in New England that played Latin music. In addition to playing salsa artists like Hector Lavoe and El Gran Combo, Massó used the show as a community forum.
The show now runs from 10 p.m. Saturday until 3 a.m. Sunday. It can be heard in most of Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire and parts of Connecticut. Like Laboe’s show, it also is streamed live online.
Gonzalez’s wife, 35-year-old Luisa Peña, said “¡Con Salsa!” allowed her to keep in touch during Gonzalez’s two recent stints in prison.
“It was very important because I love my husband and wanted to tell him good night,” Peña said. “It was a struggle and it hurt.”
The 83-year-old Laboe, an Armenian American whose real name is Arthur Egnoian, began doing radio dedications in the 1940s and was later one of the first disc jockeys to play R&B and rock music in California.
But Laboe became a folk hero among Mexican Americans when he began hosting “live dances” in El Monte, Calif., during the 1950s and 1960s, said Anthony Macias, an ethnic studies professor at the University of California-Riverside. The events were one of the few opportunities where African Americans, Latinos and whites could dance together, Macias said.
On Los Angeles’s legendary KPOP, Laboe also played songs by Latino artists who couldn’t get airtime on other stations.
“Ever since then, Latinos have been loyal to him,” Macias said. “Generations of families have grown up to his voice.”
Laboe’s current show, the Sunday evening “Art Laboe Connection,” is syndicated on 13 commercial stations in California, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona. He plays mainly oldies, along with some recent R&B hits and gets dedication requests “at least once every minute,” Laboe said.
Macias said the songs that go with the dedications often enhance the messages. For example, songs like Little Anthony & the Imperials’ “I’m on the Outside (Looking In)” and War’s “Don’t Let No One Get You Down” speak of perseverance, while salsa songs like Ruben Blades’ “Buscando America” discuss the promise of justice and equality, he said.
“The music is part of the whole experience,” Macias said.
Both hosts get dedication requests for those serving in the U.S. armed forces who listen via live stream. Still, messages to prisoners remain a large part of the shows.
“There’s a strong oral tradition in Latino communities,” said Mari Castañeda, a communication professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “And these shows allow people to tell the world what they are going through, that it’s possible to love someone who’s been placed outside of society for whatever reason.”
Castañeda said the shows are popular particularly with Latino listeners because the hosts don’t judge and they allow callers to speak freely — sometimes asking for forgiveness for infidelity or even breaking up over the airwaves.
For many families, it’s the best way to get out a quick message because prisons may be far away or limit visits. In Massachusetts, for example, visitation rules vary among institutions and phone calls can be made only during certain times, said Diane Wiffin, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Correction. But prisoners are allowed to listen to the radio through headphones, she said.
“Some of these guys are locked up in a place where they are not able to have visitors or even make phone calls,” Laboe said. “However, they can listen to the radio.”
Laboe said he’s even heard callers introduce prisoners to new family members.
“The first time they hear their child,” Laboe said, “is on my show.”
Massó reads all saludos over the air because he runs the show alone, while Laboe reads requests and allows callers to give dedications themselves.
During a recent “¡Con Salsa!” show, a woman named Teresa e-mailed Massó, asking him to read a saludo to her “amor” Rafael Olivencia, who is serving time in a Concord prison.
“From Teresa to Rafa,” Massó read. “Remember the beach, papi. Can’t wait to have that back.”
Meanwhile, an unnamed caller phoned Laboe to wish her husband a good night.
“This is going out to Juanito Santos, my husband,” the woman said. “I love you forever, big daddy. Sleep with the angels and dream of me. The song of ‘Sabor a Mi.’”
She then blew a kiss over the air and Laboe played her song.