History Department
History Department

"Onda Latina" online audio database showcased

Onda Latina feature masthead

Each year the Division of Instructional Innovation and Assessment (DIIA) and the Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services (LAITS) hosts an exhibition of the best projects produced during the past year. And "Onda Latina" made the 2010 cut.

John Mckiernan-González, assistant professor in the Department of History, had the idea for the "Onda Latina" project — an online searchable database of radio programs produced in the 1970s and '80s in the spring of 2008. (The title of the project was derived from the Spanish word onda, which means radio wave, and therefore was frequently used in the name of early Spanish-speaking radio programs.)

Onda Latina main team that created online database

The main "Onda Latina" team: Dr. John Mckiernan-González, Kelly Kerbow-Hudson, Mike Heidenreich, Claudia Rueda, Eleanor TenBarge

During this period there were two locally produced community radio shows with programming geared to the issues of the growing Mexican American community: "The Mexican American Experience" and "A esta hora conversamos." Both were committed to broad and eclectic programming.

Topics covered on these programs included political activities of Mexican Americans, Mexican American folklore and folk medicine, corridos, Tejano music, Mexican American musicians, voting rights, education, health, farm workers’ unions and working conditions, and some Mexican and Central American topics.

"I am very interested in the ways people use historical research and historical narratives to claim rights in the United States, and consider 'The Mexican American Experience' radio show to be a wonderful multi-ethnic example of this kind of project," Mckiernan-González says.

As a result, he wanted to make the audiotapes from these programs available to the general and scholarly public in the form of a web portal.

Have you ever listened to "Latino USA" produced by KUT-FM in Austin? Everyone has at least heard about the award-winning, nationally syndicated public radio show that went on the air in 1993. And its equally acclaimed host, Maria Hinojosa, who has won multiple broadcast journalism awards and now has her own PBS show, "Maria Hinajosa: One-on-One." "The Mexican American Experience" was the direct precursor to "Latino USA" Mckiernan-González says.

Its audio tapes are of significant historical value, as the program was the first weekly radio show produced by the Longhorn Radio Network that featured different dimensions of Mexican American culture, history and community. The network was a distribution service and production center of public service content for radio stations across Texas and the greater Southwest.

But the audiotapes from these programs were inaccessible to the public, not only because of the degradation of the cassette tapes, but also their physical location — the Nettie Lee Benson Library on The University of Texas (UT) at Austin campus. The objectives of Mckiernan-Gonzalez's project was to solve both of these problems. The library made the reel-to-reel analog tapes from the Longhorn Radio Network available for this purpose.

The undertaking became a collaboration between the Nettie Lee Benson Rare Books and Manuscripts Room, the Department of History, the LAITS division, the Center for Mexican American Studies, and the Faculty And Student Teams for Technology (FASTTex) division of the College of Liberal Arts (COLA). UT Librarian Kelly Kerbow-Hudson "acted as the University Libraries representative, facilitating obtaining permission to use the programs and assisting in the planning and concept of the 'Onda Latina' website."

The very first hurdle was dealing with the degraded quality of the tapes. Some were in such poor condition, that any attempt to listen to them would have risked the complete destruction of any trace of the actual contents.

Culture category page starting with Dr. John Mckiernan-Gonzalez interviewing KUT-FM's John Hanson

Partial screen shot of "Culture" category page that starts with interview of John Hanson; broadcast date, Dec. 31, 1969

Therefore, in order to preserve the recordings, each tape was "baked" in an oven — just like a cake would be baked — at a consistent temperature for four hours to make it temporarily playable without the risk of destroying its contents. LAITS Radio/TV/Film Specialist Michael Heidenriech, project manager, did the "baking and cleaning" of the tapes and some post-production work on the digital files.

"In total, over 800 hours was spent converting the 'Mexican American Experience' reels into a digital archive," Heidenreich said. LAITS then placed a digital recording in the UT library digital database.

They also created software that allows people to search the metadata/keywords and a short description of each show to find ones with relevant material to their interests or research idea. The software links each show and its metadata to a well-designed web portal created by DIIA Web Applications Developer Eleanor TenBarge of FASTTex.

The result is the "Onda Latina Collection" which consists of 206 digitally preserved audio programs that includes interviews, music, and informational programs related to the Mexican American community and their concerns from 1976-1982.

The collection is divided into four major themes:

  1. Culture
  2. Society
  3. Identity
  4. Politics

Together they give a window to the variety of Mexican American responses to the rise of a more conservative United States. The hosts brought in an incredible variety of people to speak on Mexican American issues, from Texas Attorney General Mark White to comic book artist and judge Margarito Garza. "Students and librarians love this website," Mckiernan-González said.

In order to create the database, doctoral candidate Claudia Rueda of the History Department listened to every episode of the "The Mexican American Experience" and wrote short summaries for each one. This information was then compiled and used to create the list of keywords.

"It was an amazing experience," Rueda said. "There were interviews with now legendary Tejano musicians, important Chicano politicians, and even a surprisingly amusing episode about a ventriloquist and his dummy, Don Chema."

Also included in the radio archives were interviews with nascent academic scholars, such as UT's Professor José E. Limón, the Mody C. Boatright Regents Professor in American and English Literature and former director of the Center for Mexican American Studies.

One of the goals of the database is for students and researchers to be able to use the radio programs on the "Onda Latina" website to develop their own research projects to further facilitate the understanding of Mexican American history. "The political activism in the Mexican American community throughout Texas is one that has yet to be fully explored with all its implications for today," Rueda says.

This enterprise, besides making previously inacessible recordings available to the general public, is remarkable for the quality of the recordings, the accessibility of the web portal, and the impressively detailed metadata available on each show.

Story and graphics by: M.G. Moore
Photos by: Daniel Garza (excluding photo of TenBarge)