Incredible conversation with Luis Medina
Good afternoon, everyone. We are here with broadcaster, DJ and event producer Luis Medina. Mr. Medina, how are you today?
I am well and ready to talk to you right now.
Mr. Medina, you have a very long career as a radio presenter. You got started in this business in 1974. What led you to spend so much time in your career on the radio?
In 1971 I was studying architecture at San Francisco State University, but in 1974 I changed my major to broadcasting and communications in the Department of Radio and Television. When I was a kid, I was always fascinated by broadcasters on TV with their microphones. My parents gave me a toy microphone, and I always imagined I was broadcasting. At the time I was accepted in the broadcasting program, I already loved salsa because my cousin Stella played popular music for me since I was about 8 years old. I loved all kinds of music. At home, we always had the radio on, and my parents always listened to tropical music, which was very common at that time.
In 1974 my cousin Eduardo invited me to go to a radio station called KBRG to visit some friends who had a program called Venezuela Suya. In another studio in the station, there was a radio producer named Arturito Santiago, who was the master of ceremonies for the Gran Combo de Puerto Rico when they did dances in San Francisco hotels. When I saw him doing his job, I was intrigued. Two months later, my cousin called to tell me that he’d gotten involved in a community radio station called KPOO San Francisco and asked me if I wanted to help him with the show. I brought a stack of LPs, and we did the show from midnight until 6 am. I went a few times to help, but I could not maintain that pace because I was still in college.
A few months later, he called me to tell me that he had a show from 3pm to 6pm on Sundays. He told me he was talking to other people I knew in order to do the show together. I got a segment of 45 minutes to an hour to do whatever I wanted, so I decided to start programming salsa. I helped produce several programs until I had my own show. In 1979, while I had a four-hour show on Saturdays on KPOO, KBRG’s program director, Al Carlos Hernandez, called me. KBRG was a powerful FM station at that time. That gave me the opportunity to do a commercial show.
I am part Venezuelan and part Mexican, but I grew up in the United States. I spoke Spanish perfectly until I was five years old, but when I started school, I just wanted to speak English in school and at home. When I turned 18, I decided to get my culture back and relearn to speak Spanish again. However, I’m wasn’t completely fluent in Spanish because I have to translate mentally from English. I explained the situation to Al Carlos, and he told me that he did not care. That’s how I became the first radio announcer to do salsa programming in English on a Spanish-speaking station. The program was called Sabor Caliente and it lasted about a year and a half, until they let me go due to philosophical differences. After that, I did specials in KPFA, until Víctor Castro, who produced the program Ahora, invited me to alternate weeks with him. I produced salsa shows on KPFA from 1983 to 1995.
What Medina has to say about all his combined activities
How do you balance your radio activities and event production and your job as a DJ?
When I was a student at San Francisco State University, I became co-director of the university’s productions to present musical acts. From 1974 to 1976 I presented acts from various genres such as rock, R&B, and jazz, among others. I also presented some salsa and Latin jazz shows, including Pete and Sheila Escovedo, who were part of Roger Glenn’s band, Benny Velarde and others. I became friends with Pete and Sheila before Sheila became Sheila E and I also worked with Pete’s brother, Coke Escovedo in the 70s.
Then I met Roberto Hernandez, who had an organization that helped produced the first major street fairs in the San Francisco Mission district together with a coalition of community agencies. I got involved with the fairs, which presented the famous singer Joe Bataan among others. It was the era of Latin rock, but salsa was also booming. I was part of the renaissance of salsa music that occurred on the radio, but I also had the opportunity to play an influential role in the community in the Mission. In 1977, the Mission Cultural Center opened in a furniture store ran by artists that were organizing it. I became part of the music committee and we presented performances and salsa groups that were growing in fame at that time. I was involved on the activities of the center until the 1980s, when some of us created a production group called CMP (Cultural Music Productions). During the 80s we did a series of dances, in which I worked as master of ceremonies. I already had experience as master of ceremonies because when I was at KBRG, they gave me the opportunity to introduce some great shows with Celia Cruz, La Sonora Matancera, Oscar D’ León, Cal Tjader and La Orquesta Broadway. I was also master of ceremonies for Brazilian carnivals for about five years. With CMP I was involved in dances with Willie Colón, Bobby Valentín, Oscar D’ León, and boxing champion Roberto Durán (who at the time wanted to be a salsa singer).
Eventually I left CMP, and I was contacted by Roberto Hernandez, who offered me the position of entertainment director of his new organization, MECA. I accepted and started to help him program the schedule for events such as the San Francisco Carnival, and the 24 Street Fair. I worked with Roberto until 1994 and we presented Santana, Los Lobos, Eddie Palmieri, Luis Henrique, Willie Colón, Yomo Toro, Mighty Sparrow, The Neville Brothers, Shaggy, and many more. When Roberto Hernandez left the organization, I stayed for four more years and worked with Manny Oquendo and Libre, John Santos, Pete Escovedo and Pancho Quinto. In 1998, the president of the organization Patricia Aguayo and I had some problems, so we stopped working together.
A radio DJ and a party DJ are two completely different things. It took me a little while to adjust to being a live DJ. In the early 1990’s, the producers at the Alta Vista club hired me from time to time. Then, they moved to a ship called Alta Vista del Mar in Pier 3, and occasionally hired me as their DJ.
In 1994 I met a very ambitious young Venezuelan by the name of Adrian Goddard and started working with him at his club, 330 Ritch. It was a winning combination of Adrian’s talent as an event producer and my talent as a DJ and MC. I worked there for about nine very successful months, but then I had an opportunity with KPFA and I was forced to leave the club because the schedule conflicted. My priority was to produce my own salsa show (ironically, this program didn’t last long, but in 1997 they offered me the same slot, which would become the program Con Sabor, which I still produced today, 25 years later, at KPFA, on Saturdays from 9-11pm.)
A little later, Kimballs Carnaval hired me as a Latin House DJ, as this rhythm was very popular at that time. I wanted to please them, but it wasn’t a good fit. Eventually I was hired as a salsa DJ by the club Kimballs West. This opened other opportunities and I became the DJ in residence at the most prominent salsa clubs in San Francisco at the time, the legendary Jelly’s Cafe, where I DJ’d until it closed in 2010 and the popular Café Cócomo, which closed in 2014. I now DJ and MC primarily for special events and private parties.
Something very important in my story is that in 1997 I worked with Bill Martinez and Arturo Riera and they both gave me the opportunity to be master of ceremonies for a very important series of concerts featuring Cuban musicians who were allowed into the States for the first time. I was the first master of ceremonies for a Los Van Van concert in San Francisco and I also represented my show and KPFA for their concert at Stern Grove in 2019. That was one of many times that I worked with that group. I also was the MC for Orquesta Aragon, Cubanismo, NG La Banda and other Cuban acts.
During the pandemic, I was offered a show with an online radio station called World Salsa Radio. I started the show Sabiduría con Tumbao on Wednesdays from 5 to 7 pm. What makes this show different from Con Sabor is that Sabiduría Con Tumbao is a conceptual program that focuses on certain musicians, musical themes and movements within salsa and Afro-Latin music. On the other hand, Con Sabor offers a broader perspective of salsa, Latin Jazz and música cubana from the classics to the latest.
Since the pandemic started, I produce all my radio shows at home. I managed to master the technology and built my own home studio. I am not afraid of technology or modern things. I go with the flow because I’ve learned that I should be at the forefront of technology and music. If I do not know something, I am going to research it right away. I keep an open mind and ears and I appreciate and listen to all kinds of music, something that was key when I was music director at KPFA from 2001 through 2014. In terms of my own programs, I really love salsa from the 70s, but I’m not stuck in any time period.