Oct. 6, 2021
Alum and radio host Oscar Contreras embraces his role as a uniter. ‘I really like doing this stuff.’
The Radio Poder 1380 AM morning drive host offers a religious message, mixed with encouragement and community connections.
Wearing a cloth mask with a woven Guatemalan textile design, Radio Poder 1380 AM host Oscar Contreras sits in the middle of the radio station’s large central room with other masked visitors to the first lunch potluck mixer since COVID-19 took hold in Richmond.
As host of the event at WBTK’s Henrico County office, Contreras leads the group in introductions of their programs, businesses and initiatives. Attendees include representatives from the Children’s Museum of Richmond, Chesterfield Food Bank, Richmond Metropolitan Habitat for Humanity, Dominion Energy and Latinos in Virginia Empowerment Center.
“I really like doing this stuff,” said Contreras. “Connecting people is the ultimate. If I hear of someone who wants or needs something and someone else who has that thing, I like putting people together to see how they can work together. I like that very much.”
Radio Poder means Power Radio and Contreras conveys information in a mix of English and Spanish to empower his listeners. On this particular day, he has just completed a 6 a.m. to noon shift full of those connections, with a morning drive show that includes weather and news announcements along with devotional talks, recorded sermons, music, saludazos (or shoutouts), birthday wishes and Bible trivia.
In between segments, Contreras gets a call from a listener who tells him she is drowning in pain because of her mother’s death in her Central American homeland. Contreras listens, asks questions and prays with the listener, encouraging her to focus on positive thoughts and memories.
One hour before the networking lunch, Contreras leads a “ping pong informativo” (informational ping pong) segment with eight guests from area school districts as well as Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Chesterfield County, the city of Richmond, the Richmond City Office of Elections, Henrico County Public Library and the Patrick Henry YMCA in Ashland. Two guests sit in an adjoining studio and six speak remotely, visible on one of the four computer screens. The entire segment is broadcast on air and on the radio station’s Facebook page.
Topics cover school news, government services, rental assistance, community events, crime fighting tips, non-emergency numbers, mental health workshops and vaccine clinics, with messages such as: “Do not let your children come to school if they are sick.”
“Bendiciones,” or blessings, is how Contreras bids his guests farewell. Other days, Contreras broadcasts sermons in Spanish from pastors on YouTube on themes he selects and elaborates to “share the Gospel.”
Contreras, who was named a Richmond Times-Dispatch Person of the Year in 2020, has sat in the host chair at WBTK for 15 years, which is also when the Christian station changed from English to Spanish speaking. Contreras, who was a photography student at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts at the time of the switch, was already a listener and called in to offer to help. The manager said they needed a Spanish-speaking host who was connected to the community.
While Contreras was not studying journalism or broadcasting, he had his hand on the pulse of Spanish speakers in the Richmond area.
“Oscar is a very good radio host that is very well-connected with the community,” said Glenn Motto, WBTK station manager. “That's his passion, to work with and to make the lives of people better in the community by connecting them with resources that are available. That's his strength. He's just always had that heart for making people better, reaching out to people, letting people know about what's available in the community and solving problems that he sees in the community. He knows exactly who to talk to, to be able to help, to get it fixed.”
Drawn to community and creative work
Born in Guatemala, Contreras immigrated to Culpeper County, Virginia, with his mother when he was 12 to reunite with his father, who had come to the U.S. a decade earlier. Contreras transferred to VCU from Germanna Community College, gaining experience in community work as a teen. He took photographs for his high school yearbook, got involved in social services and community organizing as an AmeriCorps volunteer, where he organized the Latino festival in Culpeper County that continues to this day.
Contreras pursued photography at VCU and aspired to work at National Geographic. Magical is how he described working on his art in the darkroom, even as digital photography was developing. While at VCU, Contreras continued community work at the Richmond Office of Multicultural Affairs as a community liaison, growing as a leader and helping Spanish-speaking Latin American residents. In 2006, on a VCU-sponsored, art-focused trip to Peru, he met Rachel Harris. They were married in 2008, during spring break right before he graduated.
The move to radio proved to be another creative outlet.
“In the beginning I felt insecure,” Contreras said. “But with audio, I am able to go out to events, take photos, come back and report. I learned I could use my creativity in different ways.”
He listened to National Public Radio to absorb the key news of the day. He also absorbed criticism from listeners and family to develop his own style.
Contreras and his wife are homeschooling their four children. The couple also lead a marriage class at Branches Baptist Church, where Contreras is a deacon.
Media for a growing Spanish-language population
Census data reports that 7% of the approximately 1.3 million residents of the Richmond metro area identify as Hispanic. Though Radio Poder does not track numbers of listeners, Contreras said those who tune in are mostly bilingual women. Countries of origin represented include Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico.
There are a few other secular Spanish-language radio stations in Richmond, with a fair amount of community content. But Radio Poder, which is part of Mount Rich Media LLC, is mission driven as a family oriented, Christian broadcaster.
Contreras’ radio shows include a mix of scripture, encouragement and community information. His messages reflect the current themes and rhythms of Richmond, specifically the growing population of Spanish speakers who need up-to-date local news and information.
Contreras’ message is one of affirmations and positivity with original phrases he uses to uplift his audiences
“No dejes que nada ni nadie robe las bendiciones que el Señor tiene para ti el dia de hoy,” he says into the microphone regularly, which translates to: Don’t let anyone rob your blessings that God has for you on this day.
On the morning show Enfoque La Communidad (Community Focus), Contreras hosts local leaders, such as Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras, to deliver timely and critical information in English that Contreras translates into Spanish.
“I want to challenge other Richmonders to intentionally build relationships across people groups and have honest conversations to clear the air of any misperceptions and truly learn about each other,” Contreras wrote in an essay for the recent Richmond Racial Equity Essays project.
To mark Radio Poder’s 15th anniversary, the station is holding a Hispanic Heritage Month event honoring 75 Personas de Poder, or People of Power. The label of Hispanic or Latino has grown on Contreras, who thought of himself as Guatemalan when he first came to Virginia. He said he realizes the terms Latino and Hispanic cover a very diverse group — Caribbean, Central American, South American, foreign born, born here — but also that they describe a distinct American culture, one that has grown in the United States and in the Richmond area.
“We are starting to see the children of those people who settled here 20 years ago being now 18, 19, 20, being university [age], and seeing them involved now in community things and in politics,” Contreras said. “A few weeks ago, one of the participants from the show Enfoque (In Focus) who works in Chesterfield said she's had parents describe Chesterfield as nuestro pueblo (our town). And that speaks a lot for someone that's from a different place, to be able to say: ‘This is my home.’ It takes time. Now [that] a good amount of Latin American people have identified Virginia as their home that sets the stage to start building influence in the long run, whatever that's going to be.”