Just 15 years ago, Spanish-language radio in Los Angeles was made up largely of sleepy AM stations with formats that ranged from regional Mexican music to . . . well, to more regional Mexican music.
Since then, the market has exploded--so much so, in fact, that it’s now the largest, fastest-growing Spanish-language radio arena in the nation. And it’s among the most sophisticated as well. Buoyed by an influx of hundreds of thousands of political refugees from Central America and by the hard edge of recent U.S. laws aimed at immigrants, Southern California’s Latino population has begun expecting more than music from the radio.
And that’s a challenge that KKHJ-AM (930) embraced Tuesday when the station switched formats to become the only Spanish-language all-news station in the country.
“We did a lot of research [and] we saw the need for a news station,” says Andy Mars, the corporate vice president for Liberman Broadcasting, which owns KKHJ. “Given the current political climate, we think it’s appropriate.”
Mars says the station will mix long news blocks with shorter news-driven talk shows, adopting a format similar to English-language stations such as KGO-AM in San Francisco and KMOX in St. Louis. To make that work, he said, the station is hiring four reporters and recently reached an agreement with CNN’s Spanish-language unit that gives KKHJ exclusive rights to the network’s programming in Southern California.
But the inspiration for the format change actually came from the success of the Spanish-language news operations at KMEX-TV Channel 34 and KWHY-TV Channel 22.
“We’ve seen what KMEX’s success has been. And we saw the [ratings] spike that Channel 22 has had with its news,” Mars said. “We’re real excited about this.”
KKHJ’s move was undoubtedly motivated, too, by flagging listenership. Since popular drive-time host Renan Almendarez Coello left the station two years ago, its Arbitron ratings have fallen by nearly 75%, dropping it to ninth among local Spanish broadcasters. The station tried to arrest the freefall by duplicating KTNQ’s switch from all-music to talk, but the content of most of its shows was unfocused at best and, at least to some listeners, bordered on the obscene at worst.
In fact, the format switch comes just two weeks after the National Hispanic Media Coalition asked the Federal Communications Commission to deny KKHJ’s license renewal application based on what it called the station’s “indecent programming.”
The coalition’s petition focused largely on Alfredo Najera’s wide-ranging talk and advice show, “Alfredo Contigo,” which coalition Chairman Alex Nogales described as being as “raunchy as [it] can possibly get. Howard Stern is nothing compared to these guys.”
Ironically, Najera was one of just two major on-air personalities to survive the change. He’ll now co-host daily two-hour news-talk shows beginning at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
More ratings problems could be ahead for KKHJ, however. A longtime consultant to Spanish-language radio stations throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico says the main reason KKHJ has the all-news format to itself is because nobody else has been able to make it work. “It’s an act of desperation,” he said.
Morning Addition: As if your morning commute wasn’t busy enough already, KSSE-FM (97.5) added to the congestion Nov. 10 when the station debuted a personality-driven morning program. The show, which airs weekdays 5-10 a.m. and Saturdays 6-10 a.m., features comedy, stunts, entertainment gossip, interviews and live broadcasts from outside the studio.
Since its launch in April, KSSE has nearly doubled its audience, becoming the fifth-most-listened-to Spanish-language station in Los Angeles. And it’s done that despite a Riverside-based signal that can’t be heard north of the Cahuenga Pass.
General Manager David L. Haymore and programming director Nestor Rocha achieved that success by concentrating on a format of youth-oriented “contemporary hits” featuring pop stars such as Fey, Shakira, Chayanne and the Barrio Boyz. In fact, the station focused so tightly on its music, it was on the air six weeks before it introduced its first deejay--afternoon drive-time host Irma Covarrubias.
But while the station’s overall listenership has grown, its morning ratings have lagged. One reason is that all four Spanish-language stations ranked ahead of KSSE in the latest Arbitron ratings have popular morning shows anchored by major personalities.
Still, the addition of the three-person morning team doesn’t reflect a change in KSSE’s philosophy, Haymore says.
“We knew all along that this would be the most important component,” Haymore says. “We’re going to have a morning show that is totally different than any other in the L.A. market.”
Haymore said the station did an exhaustive search of available talent in the U.S. and Mexico before choosing former Radio Ritmo deejay Juan Carlos Munguia as the new show’s host. Maryanna Cabrera will work opposite Munguia in the studio with former KSSE intern Victor “Christian” Serralde reporting from the streets of Los Angeles.
“Christian has just turned out to be a spectacular star in the making,” Haymore says of Serralde, who also serves as a guest co-host of KMEX-TV’s entertainment-themed talk show “Onda Max.”
Nevertheless, Haymore promises the chatty morning show will continue to emphasize music.
“The music . . . that really is the base of the radio station,” he says. “We’re only going to talk when we have something to say.”
Next month, Haymore says, the station plans to complete its on-air lineup by announcing the hiring of a personality for the weekday 7 p.m.-to-midnight slot.
Angels on the Airwaves, Part II: XPRS-AM (1090), which does its programming from Hollywood and its broadcasting from Rosarito, Mexico, has signed a two-year deal to carry Spanish-language broadcasts of Anaheim Angel baseball beginning next spring.
The Angels were widely criticized for canceling XPRS’ broadcasts six seasons ago in a cost-cutting move. But when Disney took over the organization early in the 1995 season, management said the return of a Spanish-language radio network would be a priority.
“We’re very excited about this and the Angels are very excited about this,” said XPRS spokesman Kahled Abdelwahed.
The team has committed to live broadcasts of all 175 Angel games, beginning with the team’s spring-training contests in Arizona. That marks a major change from XPRS’ last deal with the club, where only selected road games were carried and only then by broadcasters in Southern California who translated the play-by-play call of the team’s English-language announcers.