It was a few minutes before 7 a.m. on a recent weekday and the sun was struggling to wake up.
So was much of Santa Fe.
Patricio and Estevan Gonzales knew it was their job to help.
The brothers were perhaps a minute late in getting to their radio station — 99.9 on the FM dial, 810 on AM, but best known to everyone simply as Que Suave — so there was a bit of hustling and bustling as they rushed into the operating booth to greet the city with a hearty “good morning, Santa Fe” around 7:01 or 7:02.
Despite their tardiness, the Gonzaleses were in no danger of losing their jobs at KSWV, running as they do an iconic, nearly three-decade-old business that succeeds by simply being hyper-local, and maybe, hyper-quirky.
In an era when radio has become more corporate, formatted and demographics-oriented, Que Suave is a throwback to the days when microscopic local news, stream-of-consciousness talk and, say, a plug for a car wash to benefit a local high school sports team still holds sway.
In any case, the Gonzales boys of Que Suave can pretty much do what they like, when they like.
And that makes them a rarity.
Where once such locally owned independent radio stations dominated the country’s landscape, the numbers are declining. The Federal Communications Commission reported in October that there are 4,626 AM stations and 6,737 commercial FM stations licensed in the U.S. Only some 1,500 are local independents, according to the BIA Kelsey Advisory Service, a media ad company that keeps track of such data.
Que Suave is one of those gritty little businesses. It will broadcast both oldies music and Spanish-language tunes; provide news and weather updates; and offer an array of community-based programming about health care, veterans’ issues and opportunities in the great outdoors. Every now and then, someone will read on the air from local obituary notices. On Sunday morning, you can tune in to hear a Catholic Mass. Many evenings, you’ll hear live broadcasts of local high school basketball games.
And there’s light banter and humor, too.
“Who has one of the hardest jobs ever?” Patricio asks his brother on the air.
“I would say your wife,” Estevan replies.
“It’s old-school radio,” says Patricio, 60, during a commercial break. “We’re radio the way radio was in the ’50s and ’60s. We’re not scripted. We’re off the cuff and we say whatever comes to mind.”
“I think there’s a real heartbeat out there in Santa Fe that is in touch with our radio station,” adds Estevan, who at 46 is the youngest of the three Gonzales brothers (the third is former Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales) involved with the station. “We try as hard as we can to be part of this community and have this community be part of us.”
The formula, if you can call it that, works for some advertisers — who, after all, pay the freight.
Gabriel Garcia, co-owner of The Auto Angel in Santa Fe, says he has been an advertising client with the station for at least 10 years and says the station’s unique approach is what keeps him coming back.
“The No. 1 reason for us choosing to work with a small local radio station is exactly that: It’s small and local,” he said. “They are part of what we consider the backbone of America, and it’s even more grassroots because it’s the backbone of Santa Fe. You can hear things on the station that pertain to you — things happening around the city, things happening outside my house, things happening on my curb.”
The Gonzales brothers say that’s because their father, George Gonzales, repeatedly told his sons, “Un pueblo bien informado es un pueblo libre” — “A well-informed community is a free community.”
It was George, a former mayor of Santa Fe himself, who, with his sons Patricio and Anthony, started KSWV on Jan. 5, 1991 — George’s birthday. The senior Gonzales, who was born in 1938 at his family home on Agua Fría Street, played music as a teen and later became a popular radio announcer on KTRC before he began launching his own radio stations, starting with the Spanish radio station KDCE in Española (the family has since sold that station). George died in 2015; Anthony died in 2009.
Estevan came on board following Anthony’s death and immediately began upgrading the Que Suave’s profile via social media venues, including Facebook and Instagram.
“I come to this place always trying to honor the memory of my dad and Anthony,” he says. “They were all about honoring the community and giving people a voice.”
The New Mexico Broadcasters Association has given the station awards for overall excellence, best talk show and best website, and it has entered it into the association’s Hall of Fame.
It’s not easy work. Estevan and wife Adi — who has her own show on the station — and their three children are the janitors at the station on Taos Street. They might not say how much they make each year (Estevan jokes that employees get paid in food and soda), but they are getting by.
“Like most small businesses, we are affected by economic swing patterns in the country,” Estevan says. “We live within our means — sometimes chicken, sometimes feathers.”
Plus, he adds, the music and digital content services now available to anyone with a computer are “disrupting the broadcast industry and the need to evolve is ‘do or die.’ ”
Music-rights fee increases, he adds, are another challenge.
For sure, Que Suave is not the only iconoclastic station in New Mexico, or even in the North. In all, New Mexico has 164 commercial stations, says Paula Maes, New Mexico Broadcasters Association president. Of those, she says, just 36 are “small ma and pop operations in various parts of the state.”
Ann Marie Cumming, spokeswoman for the National Association of Broadcasters, calls such stations “part of the fabric of America. They have deep connections with the audiences they serve and provide information and entertainment geared toward the interests of local communities.”
Estevan Gonzales acknowledges the station does not know what its market share is in Santa Fe because traditional market surveys are, in his view, flawed. He just knows there are listeners out there and advertisers buying spots.
“I like what they bring to my ears,” is how The Auto Angel’s Garcia puts it.
But Patricio Gonzales says he thinks there’s one main reason Que Suave swims rather than sinks.
“Nobody owns us,” he says.
And thus starts another sunny morning on Taos Street.