Jesus “Chuy” Morales had a background in radio before coming to West Michigan and meeting his now-wife, Angelina. They are co-owners of La Mejor GR. Courtesy Radio La Major GR
A 6-year-old Latino-owned digital radio station plans to make a bigger splash in the community with help from a local racial equity lender.
La Mejor GR, based at 1945 28th St. SW in Wyoming, recently received a small business loan from Grand Rapids-based Rende Progress Capital (RPC), a racial equity-focused loan fund established in March 2018 by Eric Foster and Cuong Huynh. RPC did not disclose the loan amount.
The Spanish-language for-profit station broadcasts community news, music and international soccer coverage live online at lamejorgr.com, as well as on YouTube and via the station’s Android and iOS apps.
La Mejor GR was co-founded in 2013 by Angelina Morales, executive director, and her husband, Jesus “Chuy” Morales, operations director. They also are its co-owners.
They have 16 to 18 employees, including radio hosts, photographers, news reporters, camera crew, producers and social media specialists.
Angelina Morales is Puerto Rican-American, born in the U.S., and her husband immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico about 20 years ago.
Jesus Morales had a background in radio before coming to West Michigan and meeting his now-wife. Previously, Angelina Morales worked at various organizations in the area, including Susan G. Komen Michigan and Grand Rapids-based book publisher Zondervan.
When the couple founded the station, they designed it to be “without borders,” meaning they wanted to bring news from Latin America to West Michigan Spanish speakers, while also breaking down barriers to information within this community for English language learners.
La Mejor GR, Angelina Morales said, is the only Hispanic media organization in Michigan that has received media accreditation to broadcast international soccer game coverage, including the U.S. vs. Mexico Gold Cup final in Chicago, which Mexico won 1-0 on July 7.
The station also has forged a partnership with the city of Grand Rapids in which people from different city departments come onto the show — with translation — to talk about the various services and happenings that a new resident who speaks no English might not otherwise be able to learn about.
“There are a lot of organizations in town that provide valuable resources, and sometimes that information was just not making it to the Hispanic community,” Angelina Morales said.
She said they decided against a traditional radio approach, which would include pitching ad spots to the city so it could share certain messages. It didn’t seem like enough.
“What we wanted to do was really educate the listeners,” she said.
“If you recently moved to the city of Grand Rapids, you need to get water service. So, we would bring somebody in from the water department — ‘This is what you need to do to get service. You just need to call 311 or come to such-and-such location.’ We’d also have the city come in and talk about how to recycle. So that’s one of the things we offer.”
Additionally, the station hosts staff members of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce twice a month to share about the organization’s offerings and events.
La Mejor GR also offers in-person health and wellness programs. These include free La Mejor Fitness Zumba classes taught by Spectrum Health Healthier Communities instructors at the health system’s Programa Puente, or Bridge Program, location at 1357 Grandville Ave. SW — as well as a men’s soccer program run by Spectrum Health at Roosevelt Park in the same neighborhood, at 739 Van Raalte St. SW in Grand Rapids.
The loan from RPC will help La Mejor GR upgrade hardware, including its 6-year-old computers; and acquire new software, including an updated app to reach more customers, and better analytics tools that will help the station zero in on its primary geographical listener base. It also will help provide working capital for operations and marketing.
Angelina Morales said La Mejor GR expected to begin upgrades around Aug. 1 and roll out the new hardware and software about 30 to 45 days thereafter.
Foster said in addition to the station meeting RPC’s racial equity and business criteria, he and his team wanted to support La Mejor GR because of its mission.
“We note their slogan, ‘Without borders,’ guiding their promotion of education, local business and news on issues from technology to health that are impactful to the community,” Foster said.
The Hispanic chamber referred the couple to RPC for the loan after the station was denied a traditional bank loan because it didn’t have the capital to afford a bookkeeper to navigate the process of record-keeping and loan paperwork.
Morales said she and her husband have attended various classes and programs at the chamber that have helped them grow and develop and train their staff members.
Additionally, they said the chamber’s push to increase small businesses’ marketing knowledge through workshops also has directly benefited the station, as entrepreneurs begin to understand the long-term benefit of promoting their businesses and turn to the station to buy advertising spots.
Ana Jose, program manager with the Hispanic chamber, said she was glad to be able to help La Mejor GR.
“They really needed it. They’d been trying to get some funding for years and years and years, and finally, they were able to get that opportunity,” she said.
Angelina Morales said the capital will energize the station as it makes broader plans beyond the upgrades, including adding a mobile unit for community visibility and event coverage, building an internship program and eventually relocating to Grand Rapids, “the center of the Hispanic community.”
She added she and her husband are thankful Rende provided the opportunity — and she had a word of advice to share with other entrepreneurs.
“Follow your dreams,” she said. “It’s tough work, but it’s something that can be done.”