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How a Spanish-language radio station became a key source for COVID-19 news in SW Kansas

Perhaps the most valuable currency to be found during the COVID-19 pandemic, Enrique Rodriguez Franz says, is trustworthy information.

At a time when gossip, rumors and misinformation are running rampant, Franz says, having someplace reliable to turn to – especially when you don’t speak English – is priceless.

Franz has made coverage of the struggle to overcome COVID-19 a primary focus at KSMM-FM, La Mexicana radio in Liberal, where he is the general manager.

La Mexicana is a significant voice in the Hispanic communities of “the Golden Triangle” in southwest Kansas, which includes Seward, Finney and Ford counties and where a majority of the population is Hispanic. Significant numbers of Hispanics work at meatpacking plants in the region.

“With the pandemic, the health crisis going on, we need to be at the very front of informing people – giving people facts,” said Franz, a native of Nicaragua who came to southwest Kansas to visit an uncle while on vacation as a teenager in 1993 and decided to stay because of the unrest in his war-torn homeland.

Even in the age of social media, smartphones and music apps, radio continues to hold a central role in Hispanic and Latin American culture, Franz said. 

“Social media could be great, but it also brings a lot of misinformation,” he says. “And that, in the Hispanic community, is a big concern because when you have your friend and the friend of your friend of your friend of your friend … that is telling you things that they don’t know but they make it sound like they do know, then that is creating a lot of confusion, a lot of misinformation.”

To counteract the grapevine effect, Franz has been “very, very active” in reaching out to officials on the local, regional and state level for interviews to get reliable information.

Franz praised the Kansas Department of Health and Environment for its efforts to translate information into Spanish and lauded Kansas Secretary of Labor Delia Garcia for her interviews, providing voices of authority during a confusing time.

“Information is the only tool you can have now,” he says. “That’s a big challenge we have – we’ve got to keep information flowing to do the right thing based on fact … not gossip.”

Franz’s work is important, Garcia said, because he is a local voice that Spanish-speaking residents trust.

“That goes back to that distrust of government, or just in general … when they don’t know if this person is reliable or not,” Garcia says.

Delia Garcia, labor secretary in Gov. Laura Kelly's administration.

Franz’s work is important, Kansas Secretary of Labor Delia Garcia says, because he is a local voice that Spanish-speaking residents trust.

First- and second-generation Hispanics, in particular, have an inherent distrust of government because of bad experiences with government officials where they came from, she said.

“They do trust community people, so they would trust and listen to Enrique over, perhaps, a U.S. senator,” Garcia says.

While she has credibility with at least some southwest Kansas residents because her father is from Garden City, Garcia said, many residents don’t know her. But people have been impressed by the state’s efforts to present information in Spanish, and that is beginning to build trust.

“Let me work with Enrique, let me work with all these other radio stations in Wichita and Kansas City and other places to get the information out and hopefully, we will build that trust,” Garcia says.

Covering the pandemic has taken on fresh urgency for the station with the recent surge of COVID-19 cases in southwest Kansas

After he was exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus, Franz had to temporarily shut down the radio station to have it cleaned. He also went into a self-imposed quarantine. His test results came back negative but he remained in quarantine as of Tuesday.

Franz posts updates on the station’s Facebook page and has been using social media to keep listeners updated while his show has been off the air. The station has kept broadcasting.

Social media “is a great tool,” he said. “We’re using it for the right purposes.”

Like most Spanish-language radio stations, La Mexicana was virtually all music and entertainment until Franz decided to inject more news and information into the format in 2010.

Franz, now 44, decided to stay in the U.S. because he recognized the opportunity to build a much better life here than he would have had in Nicaragua. He became a citizen, joined the military and will tell anyone within earshot that, even with its flaws, the United States remains the greatest nation on the planet.

That’s part of why he changed the station’s focus. He didn’t want his friends and neighbors just getting by, he said. He wanted them to be able to take their lives to the next level.

“I want people to have a better life,” he says. “I want people to be informed. I want people to be passionate about these facts – and using these facts to make good decisions.”

Along with news about the pandemic, Franz has been stressing the importance of taking part in the U.S. Census and the elections later this year. He doesn’t care how people vote, he said, he just wants more Hispanics to become eligible to vote, then register and have their voices heard.

“My message is: ‘Let’s educate ourselves. Let’s be part of the conversation.”

He’s also trying to be something of a bridge between the Spanish- and English-speaking communities, so understanding and acceptance can replace suspicion, racism and hostility.

“The vision is we have to be compassionate,” he says. “Most people that are against the immigrant community, it’s just a misunderstanding. When you haven’t been to that place, you can’t really be sensitive to things like this.”

The Hispanic community needs to learn to trust more, he said, so they can feel comfortable doing things like participating in the census. That’s vital, Franz said, so the federal government understands just how much certain services are needed.

The Journal, the print and digital magazine of the Kansas Leadership Center, is publishing a digital newsletter that explores what is working, what isn’t working and what’s being learned during the response to COVID-19. To receive updates, subscribe here: https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/contact-us/join-our-email-list/

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