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Latino radio turns up the volume

Hispanic-language stations try new formats, attract advertisers
/ Source: The Associated Press

As he waited for the bus on a searingly hot day in Denver, Chaz Aguinaldo leaned back and listened to the syncopated beat and Spanish lyrics coming through his headphones.

No Beck for Aguinaldo, no Black Eyed Peas — he was tuned in to KMGG-FM and a new format the radio chain giant Clear Channel Communications Inc. calls Hurban, for Hispanic urban. The playlist includes everyone from crossover stars like Shakira to Daddy Yankee, the Puerto Rican artist who mixes hip hop and Latin beats in a musical fusion called reggaeton.

The DJs, like the songs, mix English and Spanish freely, sometimes in mid-sentence. Clear Channel’s slogan for its new Hurban stations is “Latino and Proud,” something that resonates with Aguinaldo.

“It’s in both English and Spanish, the way it should be,” he said.

English is still the language of choice for most of the nation’s nearly 14,000 radio stations, but a booming Hispanic population is pushing dramatic change: Spanish-language radio is at an all-time high, with more than 678 stations across the country, according to Arbitron Inc.

“That number could double in two years,” said Mike Henry, a Denver-based radio consultant.

In 2000, the U.S. census counted 35.6 million Hispanics and that number has grown to 41.3 million. Estimates of Hispanic purchasing power now top $630 billion, up nearly threefold from $233 billion in 1990, and it’s expected to reach $926 billion in 2007, according to Denver marketing firm Heinrich Hispanidad.

“When the population is over 40 million, people take notice, including advertisers and broadcasters,” said Alfredo Alonso, a Clear Channel official hired to convert 20 to 25 of its 1,200 English-language radio stations to Spanish formats.

Spanish-language radio is no longer about mom-and-pop stations that operated for years on the fringes of the AM dial. Hurban has a growing appeal for broadcasters and syndicated shows dominate mornings and afternoon drives in certain markets, many of them drawing the 18- to 34-year-old crowd coveted by advertisers.

While Hispanics account for nearly 14 percent of the U.S. population, expenditures by companies trying to reach this market account for only 3.2 percent of total advertising dollars, according to the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies. Broadcasters are hoping to close the gap.

“We’re not even close to that,” said Jeff Liberman, president of Entravision Communication Corp.’s radio division, which owns stations in 20 of the top 50 Hispanic markets.

The 2000 census figures were “a kick in the shins,” said Ellen Neuborne, editor of the trade publication Marketing To The Emerging Majorities. Before that, she said, many companies had overlooked the Hispanic market.

“Now, they have the numbers to make the business sense clear. It’s not just a theory. You can count them and there they are,” she said.

The trend has attracted heavy hitters.

Los Angeles-based Univision Communications Inc., already the country’s No. 1 Spanish-language television broadcaster, in 2003 became the top Spanish-language radio broadcaster with its acquisition of Dallas-based Hispanic Broadcasting Co.’s 65 stations.

ABC Radio Networks recently announced plans for the Hispanic Advantage Network, which will distribute syndicated shows, professional baseball coverage and ESPN Deportes — ESPN’s sports in Spanish.

San Antonio-based Clear Channel, meanwhile, recently converted English-language radio stations to the Hurban format in Albuquerque, N.M., Denver, Houston and Miami. In other cities, it has switched to more traditional formats playing Mexican regional music — a combination of mariachi and other traditional styles — or contemporary Spanish-language hits.

Clear Channel with its Hurban format is aiming at a bilingual crowd, hoping its programs will have crossover appeal. In other markets, an increase in first-generation Spanish speakers is enough to support a format switch.

While Los Angeles, New York and Miami have long had large Hispanic populations and Spanish radio stations to reach them, areas like Charlotte, N.C.; Kansas City, Mo. and Providence, R.I., are now among the top 50 Hispanic radio markets. And in some markets, Spanish-language radio beat out all other radio stations for listeners during the key morning drive time.

Spanish-language stations have survived for years by offering content listeners can’t get from other media.

Denver’s KBNO-AM — Que Bueno (Spanish for “how good”) to its listeners — had been No. 1 from October through July in the 18-to-34 category during morning drive. It plays Mexican regional music and public-service programming such as a consumer watchdog show and another that allows callers to take their classified ads to the airwaves.

“Our strength is our localization — community service and community involvement,” said station vice president Mike Ferrufino. “There is a dearth of information access for Spanish speakers and we provide information.”

Clear Channel’s switch has many industry experts watching: Until now, Spanish-language stations lacked much competition while English stations split their market dozens of ways.

“I think it’s good in that the market is growing,” Ferrufino said. “I think people are only now becoming more familiar with the power of the Hispanic market, whether politically or economically. Competition will only help us get better.”