Mike’s Tropical Market, a corner store on Buffalo’s Lower West Side, is a gathering place for the Hispanic community it serves. Patrons drop by for pig’s feet, breadfruit and to listen to the city’s only Spanish-speaking radio station.
Emisora De Dios (Station of God), at WBBF-AM 1120, is always playing in this bustling market. Meat-cutter Willie Sandoval said the Christian radio station helps a lot of street people who don’t go to church.
“My customers come here to buy meat, and they take some time to pray,” said Sandoval, 53. “Everybody likes the station. It helps a lot of people, and nobody knows that.”
WBBF broadcasts Christian programs and community information from sunup to sundown. It serves eight counties, reaching Lockport and Dunkirk, and extending across the border into Fort Erie, Ont. The station offers a vibrant voice for many of Buffalo’s 29,000 Hispanic Americans.
“They listen all day long,” said the Rev. Samuel Rivera, 58, who has operated WBBF for three years under a lease-management agreement with Cumulus Media. “They wake up with us. Some of them have radios in the basement. There’s not much on Spanish TV these days but soap operas about adultery and fornication. I give them an option.”
But now the station, whose studio is located inside Assembly of Christian Churches on Ontario Street, is fighting for survival. At issue is a 100 percent increase in the monthly lease fee – from $4,000 to $8,000 – charged by Cumulus.
“They’re still giving me a break,” admitted Rivera, who serves as president of the Hispanic Pastors Association. “We settled on $8,000. I’m praying that we make it. We must continue to work hard to get donations.”
Last year, Cumulus informed Rivera that the monthly lease fee would increase, Rivera said. Last month, he said, he was given notice that his lease to operate the frequency owned by Cumulus would be terminated. Immediately, Rivera reached out to community leaders, including Casimiro D. Rodriguez Sr., chairman of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York, and Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown. Each responded by writing to Cumulus. In a letter from the mayor dated Dec. 20, Brown wrote of the importance of the Christian programming and the “potential ramifications to the community if it no longer makes it to the air.”
Rivera was born in New York City. His father was a pastor for 43 years. Rivera’s younger son, Juan Carlos, began to preach two years ago.
“We don’t just want to preach the Gospel, although that is our main concern,” said Juan Carlos Rivera, WBBF program director. “We want to help the Hispanic community in other ways – financial counseling, health, home purchase. The Hispanic population has an exaggerated amount of health problems.”
Cumulus owns two AM stations, 1120 and 1270, and three FM, WGRF-96.9, WEDG-103.3 and WHTT-104.1. On Jan. 7, Cumulus changed 1270 from swing music to sports talk and began airing the CBS Sports Network around the clock. Original plans, said Steve Bearance, Cumulus vice president and market manager in Buffalo, would have shifted swing music to 1120 and pulled the plug on Rivera’s Christian format. The letters, Bearance said, led corporate executives to alter plans and leave 1120 on the air.
“There is no doubt that had a big pull on us,” Bearance said. “It’s an important audience and it was a good partnership for three years. I didn’t believe they would be able to [pay the fees]. It is a big increase, but we didn’t want to take it away from the Hispanic community.
For now, Bearance said, a verbal agreement with Rivera exists, but he expected a new lease management agreement to be signed by week’s end.
“There are only two ways it can go,” the elder Rivera said. “If it’s the Lord’s will, we will continue. If not, we won’t.”