Radio can’t ignore pull of vast Latino populace

The highest-billing radio market in the country, Los Angeles is a constantly changing mass of highly competitive airwaves — and one that’s frequently criticized for having too many boring and repetitive formats. Responding to the current lack of vitality in much of the local programming, one station’s ad campaign touts “less music by dead guys.”

But the times, they are a-changing. One sign is the explosive growth of the Spanish-language market, most dramatically exemplified by the new 101.9, which produced Top 10 numbers with a banda format within months of its changeover from KSCA’s adult album alternative (Triple A) format.

“Spanish music is a fantastic format,” says Jeff Pollack, president of the Pollack Media Group. “Spanish formats continue to grow. 101.9 as a Spanish station is succeeding. (The old 101.9) had its flashes of excellence, but too often it simply didn’t incorporate all the components necessary to be a successful adult rock station.”

Mark Morrison, KSCA’s former program director, now with KCRW, graciously agrees, calling his successor “an unqualified smashing success beyond anyone’s imagination — except maybe the people who spent $115 million buying the station, which was a ridiculous amount of money in many people’s eyes.”

The new 101.9 also represents a key trend: niche marketing for different types of Latin music. “With the ethnic makeup of the marketplace, they could fringe off (existing Spanish formats) and still be very successful,” says Steve Ellis, VP of promotion, Mercury Records. “Now that radio stations see they can sell those numbers to the agencies, you’ll see more and more stations trying to take a bite out of that pie.”

Haftel, the parent company of 101.9, also owns the highly successful KLVE, which programs adult contemporary Latin music. The result of intensive market research, 101.9 is programmed to appeal to younger Spanish-speaking listeners. “101.9 is pure Spanish music, not necessarily what you’d think Spanish youth would like,” Morrison explains. “It’s ranchero music, it sounds like Tex-Mex.”

“There’s a huge (Latin) audience, and we’re so far behind in servicing it properly,” says Chris Douridas, music director for local National Public Radio station KCRW and a fixture on the L.A. airwaves with his program “Morning Becomes Eclectic.”

“I wish that commercial radio in Los Angeles would be more adventurous,” says Douridas, voicing a familiar complaint. “Very few commercial outlets are willing to take chances on new artists. Even the Latin stations are being fairly safe in their (programming) parameters. I’m looking for a station to include more of the Rock en Espanol movement.”

Not likely. Despite a decline in oldies formats, L.A. stations overall are more conservative than ever, in keeping with the rest of the country. Douridas cites “traditional pop songwriting, Duncan Sheik, Paula Cole, around the dial.”

“Pop hits and R&B is what’s happening nationally,” Pollack concurs. “It’s the growth of Top 40 music. We’ve moved away from grunge and alternative as far as being mass-appeal music. (Before), alternative was driven by great music and superstar bands, which made it appear that (it) took a larger share of the pie than it actually did. If you look at the charts today, how many rock bands are actually in the Top 10? (Music) is cyclical, and today we’re into Top 40 hits, strong hip-hop records.”

That cycle indicates that oldies and classic rock will be back in a few years. “There’s always going to be a station (programming) music that hasn’t been on the air for a while,” Morrison explains. The irony is that these oldies formats work because, as Morrison explains, “they’re fresh. There’s an all-Beatles station right now, 1260 AM. People like songs they know.”

Those interviewed agree that KROQ (106.7 FM) does the best job of maintaining commercial viability and a cutting-edge playlist. “They balance a gut feeling with good research,” says Morrison, who also credits the alternative station’s aggressive and innovative promotions, for instance arranging to host Depeche Mode’s only U.S. concert of the year and giving away all the tickets on air.

“It’s important to be very pro-active about making your radio station more than just a bunch of songs,” Morrison declares. “Just being a jukebox isn’t good enough any more. On KROQ, between every song, there is something that tells you you’re listening to KROQ and reminds you how cool they are.”

Of the smaller stations, L.A.’s adventure pick du jour is surely the electronica-heavy Groove Radio 103.1 FM. But those interviewed give it only a dim hope for success. “It’s a good-sounding radio station, but they have a weak signal,” Ellis says.

“I think very few (electronic) bands will be successful,” Pollack says. “The music is too polarizing. It’s not about songs. You can’t sing it, you can’t remember it.” He predicts that a few bands, such as Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers, will break out, and that elements of electronic will be adopted by rock and pop bands.

As far as the market goes, top-40 station “KIIS-FM has made a program director change (Dan Kieley joined the station last month from KDWB Minneapolis) and I think it will be a more straight-ahead pop station, like Z100 in New York,” says Mercury’s Ellis, who also predicts L.A. stations KIBB and Star 98.7 will be taken over by radio group Chancellor. “When that transition is complete, I think you’ll see big shakeups in the market. I think KIBB will become a dance-leaning station and Star will become a much more aggressive modern (adult contemporary station).”

And what does this all mean for young artists looking to get on the air? Nothing, Pollack says.

“Just do a good record,” he says. “Great music transcends the necessity of fitting in somewhere — and what exists could change in six months. If you want to have a long career, don’t try to be the second Spice Girls.”

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