Jesse ”Chuy” Varela is a famous radio host from the San Francisco Bay Area who currently works at KCSM Jazz 91 and constantly interviews all kinds of important figures of the present day such as artists, singers and musicians of all genres, but especially jazz. We had the opportunity to talk with the well-respected communicator to learn about his transition from musician to announcer and his history in general.
His career as a musician
He began his career as a musician in the entertainment world when he was just in high school in his native Mexico. He started playing the guitar at a very young age and his uncles taught him to play ”La Bamba” and other very famous songs in those years, which led him to continuing on this path. That’s why it did not take long for him to start playing grupera music in Mexican groups in Oakland.
However, a great passion for jazz came over him, which made him learn to play this genre with the guitar. One of his greatest inspirations during those years was Carlos Santana and the great work he was doing in the Bay Area. Varela did imitations of Santana and played his songs, which generated a great deal of interest in the circle in which he developed and helped him to get much work in groups that saw potential in his talent. About these years, he commented that, on one occasion, the singer’s father, Don José Santana, went see him play, which was a source of great pride for Jesse and his budding career.
Although the Mexican artist was one of his major influences, there were other big names from other genres that helped him expand his horizons, such as Eddie Palmieri and other salsa singers who already had a recognized career.
As he pursued his professional career, he began to be part of jazz groups at Diablo Valley College and other schools, until he realized that this set of activities was financially unprofitable, so he began working as a volunteer at KPFA in Berkeley and later at KJAZZ. ”I managed to show my qualities as a volunteer and intern, so they decided to give me a part-time job and I became a reporter at KPFA. At KJAZZ, I started doing shows and I was given The Latin Jazz Show, which continues to air.
His first big break came during the promotion of some shows by Tito Puente, whose tickets were not selling well, so the artist needed all possible support to arouse public interested in his shows. That made the owners of the club where the shows were being held decide to use this station to broadcast commercials to publicize them. It was then when the programming manager wanted Varela to interview Puente, who gladly accepted.
After interviewing the artist and putting the material on the air, many listeners contacted the station because they were fascinated by the work done by the announcer, to the point that the timbalero himself asked the programming manager to give a chance to this young communicator, since he saw great potential in him. That is when he was given the space dedicated to Latin Jazz, something for which Varela will always be grateful to Tito Puente.
Announcer of the first bilingual program in the U.S.
Jesse told us that he began working as a volunteer in a bilingual program called ”La Onda Bajita”, which was entirely focused on a young audience. What it is looking to do with that program was to make young people see that violence and gangs were very negative for their lives and that difficulties overcame with education and effort. He also liked to play ”oldies”, Chicano music, salsa, Latin rock, among other genres.
Throughout his career, most programs hosted by him were in English, although he also served as public affairs director and reporter at KPFA in Berkeley, where he did a lot of bilingual work. At the same time, he worked for Radio Bilingüe in Fresno, which led him to use both languages in his reports and expand his audience. At that time, he covered controversial topics such as discrimination towards Latinos, farm worker leader Cesar Chavez, the situation with crime and guerrillas in Central America, among others.
These reports took him to visit these countries and many other places where he discovered typical music and rhythms. This interest he has always had in music led him to become the music director of KPFA for a while until he moved to KCSM, where he has been working for 22 years.
Although today he works as an announcer, he says he always wanted to be a sound engineer to have his own salsa groups, but ended up learning a lot about mixing, editing and much more. What he liked most in this world of radio was the possibility to interview artists and he considers this to be one of the best talents he has to offer. Getting the story or report from interviewees is a pleasure for him and helps him understand this business better.
Many veteran announcers adviced him and helped him a lot to perfect his skills and improve his work as much as he could. Some of them even gave him their record collections so he could learn more about music and soak up more the topics he had to cover in his programs.
Jesse is also dedicated along with other colleagues to give classes to young people who wish to train for this career and be part of the new generations of announcers with all the knowledge of the old school.
What does a radio station need to work properly?
To tell you the truth, a radio station needs money to function properly. In the case of public and college radio stations, we are forced to ask our listeners to support us with their donations and subscribe as supporters. We have been fortunate to have a very generous audience in that regard,” said the announcer. He also added that the pandemic was to some extent beneficial for shows like his, as they got a great amount f audience due to the quarantine.
Varela mentions that one of the biggest problems facing most public broadcasters is communication. ”There is a division between the administrations and workers. The boards do not have the best ideas regarding the use of available resources. Many times, they start spending in an uncontrolled way without notifying the public about how they invest that money” said the communicator.
In the opinion of Varela, the most important thing for a station to maintain is public trust and to let people know that their money will be used in the best interests of the station. When administrators use those economic resources for trips, dinners and luxury hotels, listeners will consider it an abuse. I have seen this unfortunate situation on every station where I have worked,” the announcer continues.