¡Escuchame! 5 Questions With Dr. Kathleen Franz

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is working on a new initiative, Escuchame: The History of Spanish Language Broadcasting in the U.S.  The museum has rich collections related to television, but few that tell the story of Spanish-language broadcasting in the U.S. This initiative will document stories from early Telemundo and Univision stations as well as other public and independent stations. Documenting these stories will help show the influence these stations have had on the national narrative and the way the history of American television is written.

Portrait of Dr. Kathleen Franz

Dr. Kathleen Franz, Chair of Work & Industry and Curator of Business History at the National Museum of American History.

To understand more, and how our Affiliate network may participate, I asked five questions of Dr. Kathleen Franz, Chair of Work & Industry and Curator of Business History at the National Museum of American History.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to be interested in your area of expertise?
In graduate school, I studied with one of the leading historians of advertising history in the U.S. and really became enthusiastic about the history of television and advertising as business history but also as popular culture. My work sits at the intersections of those two things.

Your current project centers on capturing the history of Spanish-language television in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. What sparked that idea and why is it important to capture this story?
I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and saw first-hand the long history and power of Spanish-language broadcasting in the U.S. through the pioneering station of KWEX whose roots go back to the 1950s. However, general and popular histories of television often leave out the history of Spanish-language TV in the golden era of the 1950s and 1960s. So, building an archive that housed, preserved, and made available the stories of women and men who created stations and the networks is really important, because the earliest Spanish-language broadcasting goes back to the era of radio in the 1930s, and the earliest television stations are there in the golden era with the first successful network, Spanish International Network (SIN), created in 1961.

A common thread to this huge collection of materials—time-worn press credentials, painted tennis shoes, photographs, mic flags, scripts—is that they represent decades of Spanish-language broadcasting from the network Telemundo. (NMAH)

What have you enjoyed most about this initiative? What has been an unexpected discovery, if any?
First, I have two wonderful collaborators at the museum, Dr. Mireya Loza, curator, Department of Work and Industry, and Melinda Machado, director, Office of Communications and Marketing, who have helped make contact with stations around the country and we’ve done the oral history and object collecting as a team. I’ve learned so much from working with them and meeting the various people who run the stations and put the programming on every day. We also had tremendous support from a private donor — of the Nicolas family in San Antonio who founded KCOR in 1954— the Smithsonian’s Latino Center, Telemundo, and Univision. I can’t name everyone here but I am so grateful for the support of the networks! This has been a serious collaboration to capture and preserve this history. One of the best, and unexpected discoveries, was a painting of the Televisa studios in Mexico City commissioned by Emilio Nicolas in the early 1960s. It’s so unusual to have an artist’s rendition of a TV set and the image captures the look and feel of that exciting era in television. Mr. Nicolas traveled regularly to Mexico City to produce programming at the studio and bring it back to the US Spanish-speaking market for SIN.

What would you like to share with Affiliates? And what would you like Affiliates to share with you?
I’m always delighted to talk to local audiences and I would be happy to talk about the collecting and sharing resources with Affiliates. In turn, it would help us to work with Affiliates to do collecting or memory days at their sites, especially ones who are in cities with long-running Spanish-language stations. We really want to capture what audiences thought and how they viewed and used the stations in their own lives.

What is your next project and what are you looking forward to with it?
Dr. Loza and I would like to publish an edited volume of the oral histories and we’ll be working on that over the next 18 months or so. I’m also currently working on the National Museum of American History’s major women’s history initiative exhibition for the centennial of Women’s suffrage. That exhibition will open at the museum in 2020 and then travel the country starting in 2021.

Dr. Franz is open to the possibility of visiting our Affiliate network in the fall to share more about this initiative. Do you have connections to Spanish-language television history? Contact your National Outreach Manager for more information about bringing Dr. Franz to your neighborhood.

Telemundo Microphone cubes

This series of microphone cubes used over the years by Telemundo 51 WSCV-TV in Florida was donated by Marilys Llanos, senior political reporter at at the station. (Photo by Laura Duff, Smithsonian Institution)