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Salsa King

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s early on a Monday morning and the Old Town Pasadena home of Air Advertising is empty and quiet, save for the sound of classical music wafting from the office of executive director Oscar Abadia.

It seems a strange fit for the man some credit with popularizing the vibrant, tropical strains of salsa and merengue music in Southern California. Sort of like dropping in on Luciano Pavarotti and finding “Muskrat Love” on the CD player.

“I studied classic music for eight years,” Abadia explains. “It’s better music to work to, you know? I also put it on when I’m going to bed. But when I am at a party or show, I love the other music.”

And apparently he’s no longer alone. Thirteen years ago, when Abadia’s weekly salsa-merengue show debuted on KLVE-FM (107.5), the genre was largely considered an acquired taste, like jazz or, well, classical music. Today the 10-hour overnight show, which begins at 8 p.m. each Saturday, draws as much as 10% of all radio listeners during its time period--nearly twice what its nearest rival gets.

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There are myriad reasons why Southern California has suddenly developed a taste for salsa, of course, from changing immigration patterns and the success of Hollywood movies like “Mambo Kings” and “Dance With Me” to the mainstream popularity of Latin American artists such as Ricky Martin and Elvis Crespo. But Abadia deserves at least some of the credit, says Bill Marin, president of Prestigio records and a former vice president at RMM records, the world’s largest independent tropical-music label and one that launched the careers of such major acts as Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Marc Anthony and La India, among others.

He Fled Native Colombia and Landed on His Feet

“He has to take a big part of the responsibility,” Marin says. “And one reason why is that show’s always been [ranked] in the top three. But more important is that KLVE has continued that program and continued to maintain the acceptance of tropical music in this city.”

Actually, Abadia didn’t so much invent the show as he did import it. In his native Colombia, Abadia spent 10 years working for the nation’s three largest radio networks, eventually winding up as host of his own weekend salsa show with the country’s dominant broadcaster, Radio Caracol, where he also worked as a senior account executive in the advertising department. But his program hardly stood out on Colombia’s crowded airwaves.

“In Bogota,” he says, “we had probably five or six radio stations playing the same music. So the competition was very strong.” Still, it wasn’t competition as much as chaos that drove Abadia out of the country.

In November 1985, armed members of the M-19 guerrilla army stormed Colombia’s main courthouse, taking more than 300 hostages and touching off a two-day siege that eventually cost 100 lives and initiated a new and bloody era in that country’s civil unrest.

“That day,” Abadia says, “I decided to leave Colombia. I was afraid because I saw the country’s future was very dark. And I didn’t want to wait for the war.”

Three months later he landed in Los Angeles with no promise of work and no knowledge of English. Within days, however, he had landed an on-air position at KLVE and within weeks he had convinced legendary KLVE program director Adrian Lopez to let him experiment with tropical music on Saturday nights.

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“I love salsa,” he says. “I love dancing salsa. I grew up listening to salsa because in my small town . . . during the day we listened to all the Panamanian radio stations and they played mostly salsa. Very good salsa.”

The show was an immediate hit, more than tripling its share of the market’s radio audience in three months. As a result, it has inspired a number of imitators over the years. Regional Mexican station KLAX-FM (97.9) had a short-lived fling with salsa, for example, and public radio station KPFK-FM (90.7) still airs a two-hour tropical-music show on Saturday nights. But no one has matched KLVE’s success, which is why, 13 years and a couple of program directors later, Abadia and his dance-themed “Sabado Bailables” program are still there.

And though the artists and their music have changed over the years, the biggest change has taken place outside the studio.

“When I started this show, there were only two nightclubs playing that music,” Abadia says. “Now we have more than 50. And nobody used to dance good salsa. Now, everybody dances salsa. Clubs have people teaching how to dance salsa.”

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Is It Time to Expand the Show?

So now, Abadia says, it’s time to expand the show. He’s asked KLVE to consider adding a Friday night tropical show, but the station remains unconvinced. And since KLVE’s combination of Spanish-language ballads and adult contemporary music has been the first- or second-most-popular choice for Los Angeles radio listeners for nearly four years, current program director Pio Ferro is reluctant to tamper with a winning formula.

“I’d love to do it Friday or Sunday, but we have to make sure it works,” says Ferro. “And we want to keep the Saturday show as special as possible. There is a market for it. It makes me feel good that salsa music does this well.

“But if you have it on Friday and Saturday or Saturday and Sunday, it’s not as special.”

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Which is not to say Ferro, 26, isn’t supportive. In fact, since coming to KLVE four years ago from Miami’s WXDJ--the top tropical-music station in the nation’s top tropical market--Ferro has refined the playlist for Abadia’s program and added more merengue to the mix. And the audience has grown in response.

“It was the one show Pio was thoroughly competent to program,” says Bill Tanner, the vice president of programming for KLVE and Ferro’s boss in Miami.

At about the time Ferro arrived in Los Angeles, Abadia, 42, gave up his full-time deejay gig to devote more time to his fledgling advertising business. But he never gave up the tropical-music show, spending five hours behind the microphone each Saturday before turning the program over to Priscy Fernandez at 1 a.m.

It’s a Way to Stay in Touch With Home

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It makes for a long, exhausting work week, which is a price Abadia is only too happy to pay. Because while the show began as a programming experiment--or, perhaps, as a way for a homesick deejay to stay in touch with his homeland--it has become something much bigger. Call it Oscar Abadia’s contribution to community understanding.

Classical music, after all, has long united listeners from disparate backgrounds. So why not salsa?

“Now we have more people listening to salsa, more people dancing salsa, more nightclubs playing salsa,” he says. “I receive a lot of phone calls from Anglos asking me for names of songs, singers, things like that. It’s the only show on KLVE that has listeners from Europe, from Africa, from the United States.

“So I think we are a very good bridge.”

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