Most of the time, only static is transmitted through the speakers of radios tuned to 1710 AM in west Mesa’s Nuestro Neighborhood.
But at 5 o’clock every evening, the hissing void comes to life with cheerful Latino music and the lively voice of 79-year-old Mesa resident Jack Hannon.
Since October, Hannon has spent an hour each night trying to reach out to his neighbors through his radio station, “Radio Barrio” — or in English: “Neighborhood Radio.”
The station is operated, literally, out of a small shed in the backyard of Hannon’s South Macdonald home. He uses a shoebox-sized transmitter perched in a tree to broadcast the signal about a half-mile in all directions.
The goal of his program is to give Hispanic immigrants a way to enjoy the music of their culture while at the same time learning practical English words.
The radio, he says, is a nonintrusive way to accomplish those goals. Radio Barrio is a low-powered, unlicensed station that runs on 1 milliwatt of power. Hannon hopes to use a higher-powered FM frequency some day, but for now he’s content serving his barrio.
During the broadcasts, Hannon’s neighbors can switch on the radio and hear something like this:
“It’s time to study,” Hannon will say in Spanish into a small microphone. Then he tells his listeners he will repeat helpful phrases.
“La repetición es la madre de aprender,” he says. “Repetition is the mother of learning.”
He then reads several phrases out of a book called “English on the Job.”
“Estoy buscando trabajo,” he says. He repeats the translation aloud three times: “I’m looking for a job.”
When he’s not teaching English or making public service announcements, he’s playing music.
He’ll play everything — from Spanish rock to mariachi music — although he often tries to play Spanish music from American-based bands.
Last Friday, for instance, he featured three songs from a Tempe-based band called Nosotros.
“(The music) is indirectly saying it’s ‘OK to continue your culture,’ “ Hannon said. “Learn English, but don’t get rid of your culture.”
Some neighbors say they have benefited from his program.
María Rodriguez, 52, who lives several doors down, has learned words to help her communicate while working in nursing homes and clinics, she said.
Rodriguez has learned to ask patients how they are feeling, and she knows how to ask about room numbers. She said she thinks Hannon’s work is important to the community.
“He’s a teacher,” she said in Spanish. “He is a very wise person. In the three years I’ve been here, he’s always been friendly.”
Hannon, an adjunct sociology instructor at Mesa Community College who is white, is fluent in Spanish and has a passion for Mexican culture.
He launched the station through a nonprofit organization he founded in 2002 called La Plaza de las Tres Culturas (The Plaza of the Three Cultures).
The organization’s mission is to promote adult cultural education. It often works with MCC to promote language learning.
“He’s quite a motivator,” said Raquel Leyva, a member of La Plaza and a retired chairwoman of the MCC Reading Department. “He loves the Hispanic people and culture.”
The group works not only to help teach immigrants English and “translate United States culture,” but also to teach Spanish language and culture to whites, she said.
Several years ago, the organization worked with MCC to create several English night classes for adults in the Mesa Unified School District.
Attendance was booming, but after Proposition 200 passed, Hannon and Leyva noticed that many students never returned.
Hannon believes many people are afraid to participate in something paid for with tax money, even if they’re legal.
That’s where the radio station comes in. It provides a safe way for people to learn English in the privacy of their homes. Of course, it’s still too early to know the station’s full impact.
Despite a sign outside his house — the extent of his advertising program — some neighbors said they’ve never heard Hannon’s show.
“I arrive home from work around 5. I eat, I rest for 10 to 15 minutes, I take a bath and I go to sleep,” said Raul Higareda.
Neither he nor his daughter, Cecila López, know anything about the station’s mission.
Some residents in the neighborhood don’t know that Hannon, one of the only “gringos” in the area, speaks their language.
“Everyone in the neighborhood speaks Spanish, and sometimes when he says ‘Buenas tardes,’ there are people that won’t answer him,” Rodriguez said in Spanish. “I tell them that he speaks Spanish. He’s a very sociable person.”
López said Hannon should put up a bigger sign to let more people know about his station.
She and her father eagerly jotted down the call numbers and times of the show and said they are grateful for his outreach to the neighborhood.
They will even tell their friends, they promised.
“I knew the station was there, but I never imagined that it served to open our eyes so that by listening we can learn English,” Higareda said. “That is very important.”