Explore the life of Raoul A. Cortez, a Mexican American media pioneer, celebrated broadcaster, and dedicated community activist. Discover his remarkable journey in this biography.
Raoul Cortez stands as a true trailblazer in the realm of Spanish language radio and television within the United States. Born in Veracruz, Mexico in 1905, he ventured to San Antonio at an early age in pursuit of prosperity. Initially, he served as a journalist for La Prensa newspaper and also worked as a sales representative for the Pearl Brewing Company.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Cortez took ownership of a Theatrical Agency, through which he introduced renowned Mexican and Latin American entertainers to the United States. It was in 1940 that he embarked on a significant endeavor, purchasing airtime on KMAC Radio and producing captivating Spanish variety shows for the station. In 1944, Cortez made an application for a broadcasting license to establish his very own radio station.
To circumvent wartime constraints on foreign language media, he framed the station’s mission as one focused on rallying the Mexican-American community behind the war effort. In 1946, KCOR-AM made its debut, marking a historic milestone as the nation’s inaugural full-time Spanish language radio station owned and managed by a Hispanic. Remarkably, it still operates today, bearing the same call letters that carry a portion of his surname.
Cortez also founded the “Sombrero” radio network, a network of stations spanning the country, united with the goal of enhancing and promoting radio broadcasts. In 1955, Cortez extended his broadcasting influence into the realm of television by launching KCOR-TV Channel 41. This marked the inception of the very first television station exclusively targeting the Hispanic audience, as well as the foremost UHF station of its kind.
Sadly, Raoul Cortez passed away in 1971. His accomplishments did not go unnoticed, and in 1981, the City of San Antonio paid homage to his legacy by naming the Raoul A. Cortez Branch Library. In 2006, the National Association of Broadcasters presented the Spirit of Broadcasting Award jointly to Cortez and his son-in-law, Emilio Nicolas. A year later, Radio Ink, a professional publication, established the Medallas de Cortez Hispanic Radio Award to commend outstanding achievements and leadership in Hispanic radio.
In a testament to his enduring influence, Raoul Cortez is now featured in an exhibit recently unveiled at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, titled “American Enterprise,” which narrates the saga of innovation in American business history.
Born in 1905 in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, Raoul A. Cortez was one of nine siblings. His family’s ties to the world of broadcasting were rooted in his father’s ownership of a radio station in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. As a young man, Cortez engaged in street-side egg sales to generate funds for purchasing airtime on local radio stations. With this airtime, he created a variety show where he also sold advertising.
In the early 1910s, the Cortez family emigrated to the United States, a move prompted by the onset of the Mexican Revolution. Raoul eventually settled in San Antonio, Texas, embracing a diverse array of occupations such as window dressing for Penner’s men’s store and working as a sales representative for Pearl Brewery. It was during this time that he delved into the field of media, initially as a reporter for La Prensa, a Spanish-language daily newspaper based in San Antonio.
Cortez’s primary objective was to accumulate the necessary funds to secure airtime on the local KMAC radio station, allowing him to produce his own Spanish-language variety show and manage the advertising slots for his programs.
His visionary ambition led him to conclude that a full-time Spanish-language radio station was an imperative need. He aspired to broadcast Spanish-language content around the clock. However, during World War II, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had temporarily ceased issuing broadcasting licenses for new radio or TV stations, fearing that non-English programming might disseminate anti-American propaganda. With the conclusion of the war, the FCC resumed license issuance, and Cortez was among the early applicants.
In 1944, he applied for a license to establish his radio station. To navigate wartime constraints on foreign language media, he underscored the station’s mission to mobilize the Mexican-American community in support of the war effort. The license was granted, paving the way for the inauguration of KCOR 1350 AM in San Antonio in 1946. This station marked a significant milestone as the inaugural all Spanish-language radio station in the United States, owned and operated by a Hispanic. It adopted the distinctive slogan “La Voz Mexicana, the Voice of Mexican Americans.”
KCOR’s identification code integrated the regulation that radio stations east of the Mississippi River start with ‘W’ and stations west with ‘K’. The following letters were drawn from Cortez’s surname, resulting in KCOR. Operating on an AM frequency conferred broad coverage, and Cortez engaged talent from Mexico and South Texas for live music performances on air. The station’s programming also centered on addressing the Mexican community’s challenges and victories through call-in shows and advisory programs.
Cortez took a significant step by establishing the “Sombrero” radio network, connecting various stations across the United States to enhance and promote radio broadcasts. In 1953, he recruited Manuel Bernal, a renowned Mexican radio professional with musical and writing talents, to produce commercials and musical programs. Bernal’s contributions extended to composing numerous radio jingles.
KCOR radio continues to broadcast in Spanish on the same 1350 AM frequency, featuring programming from Univisión Radio, as it has done for decades.
One testament to KCOR’s positive influence was its support for local Latino and Black artists. Notably, Albert “Scratch” Phillips, one of the first Black disc jockeys in San Antonio, was employed by KCOR in 1951. His nightly rhythm and blues show left a lasting impact on the local music scene, introducing many to the music that would inspire them to become musicians. Scratch Phillips supported both local African-American and Chicano R&B groups and is credited with introducing Soul Music to San Antonians.
In 1955, after years of advocacy, Cortez launched KCOR-TV Channel 41. This was the first television station specifically targeting a Hispanic audience in the continental U.S., and it operated on the Ultra-High Frequency (UHF). Initially, due to budget constraints, programming was limited to the evening hours, but gradually, Cortez secured sponsors who recognized the value of advertising to the Hispanic community, leading to full-day broadcasting with a range of daytime shows.
Emilio Nicolas Sr., Cortez’s son-in-law, played a significant role in station operations and advertising solicitation. However, attracting advertisers in the early days was challenging because most television sets couldn’t receive UHF channels without a converter box, which was relatively expensive at the time.
In 1961, financial challenges associated with being a UHF station compelled Cortez to sell KCOR-TV to a group of investors, including Emilio Nicolas, Sr. and Mexican media magnate Emilio Azcárraga Vidaurreta. Under new ownership, the station’s call letters changed to KWEX.
Cortez’s influence extended to his involvement in leadership roles with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a prominent national organization advocating for the civil rights of Mexican Americans. He served as director for District 15, encompassing San Antonio, and held two consecutive terms as president in 1948 and 1949. During his presidency, Cortez oversaw the landmark Delgado v. Bastrop Independent School District case, marking the end of segregation against Mexican Americans in Texas public schools.
Cortez actively contributed to the well-being of South Texas citizens, including raising funds to aid victims of the 1954 floods in the Rio Grande Valley. He collaborated with Mexican President Miguel Aleman and U.S. President Harry S. Truman to ameliorate the conditions of Mexican immigrant workers through the bi-national “Bracero Program.”
Raoul Cortez received a multitude of awards and accolades for his outstanding contributions to Hispanic broadcasting and his tireless advocacy for Latino rights in the United States. In 1981, the city of San Antonio honored his legacy by christening the Raoul A. Cortez Branch Library, a lasting tribute to his accomplishments. In 2006, the National Association of Broadcasters presented Cortez and Emilio Nicolas with the prestigious NAB “Spirit of Broadcasting” award, acknowledging their groundbreaking efforts in bringing Hispanic programming to American audiences. In 2007, the professional publication Radio Ink established the Medallas de Cortez, an esteemed accolade designed to recognize excellence in the realm of Hispanic radio broadcasting. In 2015, an exciting new exhibit, titled “American Enterprise,” graced the halls of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., spotlighting Raoul Cortez and KCOR’s remarkable journey.
Raoul Cortez’s remarkable journey came to an end on December 17, 1971, in San Antonio, Texas. He left behind a lasting legacy, survived by his wife, Genoveva Valdés Cortez, and their children, including his son Raoul Cortez Jr., and daughters Rosamaria Cortez (Toscano) and Irma Cortez (Nicolas).