With just a couple of beats before the bouncy tune ends, Melissa Santa Cruz turned away from her two in-studio guests, slipped on her earphones, raised the volume of her microphone and turned on her on-air radio charm.
The queen of Tejano radio in Tucson entered her comfort zone.
“That’s my rush I like about live radio,” said Santa Cruz, whom I visited Wednesday during her morning program.
Most Tucsonans don’t know Tejano radio because the regional music is not mainstream and is geared toward a niche bilingual audience. But to that loyal audience, Santa Cruz has long been associated with the polka-driven music of South Texas which is heard on KXEW-AM, Tejano 1600.
Her voice is also heard on My92.9, adult contemporary hits geared toward women, and in her 30-year career listeners have caught her on 93.7 KRQ, which plays top 40 hits, and hip-hop Hot98.3, all FM frequencies and all part of the local iHeartRadio group located at the corner of West Fort Lowell and North Oracle roads.
She’s done it all in a radio career that began on a country radio station in Globe soon after she finished broadcasting school in Tucson.
“I never thought I’d be doing this for so long and to be successful,” said Santa Cruz, a 1985 graduate of Tucson High School.
Like the rest of media — newspapers, magazines, television — radio has radically changed. The internet has created vastly more options for listeners and local radio stations have trimmed their personnel levels. There are fewer live voices as more radio personalities pre-record their programs.
But Monday through Friday, fans of Santa Cruz can hear her upbeat, positive voice in the morning, giving happy birthday shout outs, talking about a topic she wants to share or calling on her listeners to support a family in need.
It’s her way of staying connected to her dedicated listeners.
And they connect with her.
“Hi, mija,” is a familiar greeting from her older female listeners who call her.
“What other way do they have than having a station that’s theirs,” Santa Cruz said.
In the studio, the 50-year-old Santa Cruz is in constant motion, answering the telephone and viewing three computer screens. All the music is delivered through the computer; there are no CDs, or LPs like she used when she began her radio career. She’s also tied in to social media, a growing component of radio.
Santa Cruz is so busy in the studio, she doesn’t get a chance to enjoy the songs, which she would even if she has heard them an untold number of times.
This music lover has no favorite song. They’re all good.
“If you can dance to it, if you can cry to it, if you can sing to it, if you can drink to it, it’s a great song,” said Santa Cruz.
She rocks it with the old school Tejano sounds of Little Joe y La Familia, Sunny Ozuna and the Sunliners, Latin Breed and the new crossover artists like Gabriel Zavala, Stefani Montiel and Ricky Valenz. The sound, which is also known as Tex-Mex, originates from San Antonio and the south Texas valley, a mixture of European polka and Mexican rancheras and cumbias, R&B, country and more recently rap.
Just as surprising to her that she’s made it this far is the fact that she got into radio in the first place. As a young girl, Santa Cruz saw herself as shy. But if you ask her family, she added, she was outgoing and full of personality, a youngster who would mimic television personalities like Lupita Murillo, the longtime KVOA reporter.
As it turned out, she said, radio became the perfect career for her, allowing her to develop a public persona, different from her private side. “It takes me out of my shell,” said Santa Cruz, who is the mother of two grown sons and is a grandmother.
In her private life she and David, her companion, live on a 5-acre ranch in the Avra Valley where they tend to horses, cows, chickens and their barbecue grill.
In the studio, she tends to her radio family, which goes beyond Tucson because of the internet stream. Just her Tucson family boosts her ratings: she is part of two large familias, Santa Cruz and Gallego.
While radio is all about the coveted ratings, Santa Cruz doesn’t obsess about them. She has a fan base and she knows how to talk to them via the radio.
It’s her music-loving family of sorts.
“For me it’s all about the music and it’s about the community.”
It’s her comfort zone.