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A Change for the Better

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A couple of months ago, you could have taken the pulse of Spanish-language radio here by simply putting your eyes on a couple of station billboards.

The simple red, white and blue advertisements for adult-contemporary station KLVE-FM (107.5), for example, featured a tasteful photo of singers Enrique Iglesias or Juan Gabriel alongside the station’s call letters. The focus was on the music, and the audience responded, making it either the first or second most-listened-to station in the market for 2 1/2 years.

The racy placards for Mexican regional stations KBUE-FM (105.5) and KBUA-FM (94.3), meanwhile, featured a picture of a voluptuous woman wearing a cowboy hat and boots. At KBUA/KBUE, the focus was on . . . well, it wasn’t on the music, that’s for sure. In fact, music wasn’t even mentioned. And the simulcast stations’ performance languished as a result.

The woman is gone now; today KBUA/KBUE is building its image around a couple of short, balding men--but not on billboards. Instead, Eduardo Leon and Pepe Garza are concentrating on music, and in the seven months since they took over the programming at KBUA/KBUE, the stations’ audience has jumped more than 50%.

“What Eddie and his team did was put the focus back on the radio station and the music and focus on what we do best,” says KBUA/KBUE General Manager Andy Mars, who also manages Liberman Broadcasting’s ranchera station, KKHJ-AM (930), and its Orange County-based adult-contemporary outlet, KWIZ-FM (96.7).

The wisdom of that new focus was rewarded when last week’s quarterly Arbitron ratings came out. The survey showed KBUE with a 2.7% share of the audience, and if you combine that with the 0.4% of San Fernando-based KBUA, which carries the “Que Buena” programming north of the Cahuenga Pass, the simulcast stations had a 3.1 average quarter-hour share. That was good for ninth in the Los Angeles-Orange County market and third-best among Spanish broadcasters.

Not incidentally, KBUE also improved its antenna in January, almost doubling its power and extending its reach far into the San Gabriel Valley. But, Mars said, Leon deserves the credit for the station’s turnaround. After all, even a strong signal won’t draw listeners if it’s not broadcasting anything worth listening to.

“We didn’t change the name, but we changed a lot of things on the station,” says Leon, vice president of programming for the Liberman group. “It’s basically the same kind of music. We’re playing corridos and we’re playing the hard-core original Mexican, which nobody else in town is playing. We just fine-tuned formatics, [and] we have been very successful at telling people what we are all about.”

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Leon has followed a similar strategy with KKHJ, which floundered during its 14 months as the nation’s only Spanish-language news station. In January, Leon christened a ranchera format with a heavy rotation of hits from the likes of Jose Alfredo Jimenez, Javier Solis and Pedro Infante; the station doubled its ratings in just three months.

“To me it was very basic because all the AM stations were doing basically talk,” he says. “None of the stations were doing extremely well, and yet everybody was doing the same format. On top of that, there was a big opening in traditional Mexican music. Nobody was doing that.

“There are no hidden secrets in radio. I’m using everything I know. And so is everybody else.”

Leon, 35, came to the Liberman group from Chicago, where he served as a programming consultant to more than a dozen stations nationwide, including KLEY-FM in San Antonio and WLEY-FM in Chicago as well as outlets in Fresno, Bakersfield, Indio and Albuquerque. At one point, seven of his stations were ranked No. 1 in their respective markets.

A native of Michoacan, Mexico, Leon broke into radio at a small station in Santa Maria, did a brief turn as a deejay at “La Maquina,” KMQA-FM (98.7), in Los Angeles and worked in various capacities for the national Spanish Broadcasting System and EXCL chains.

Garza, meanwhile, the programming director for KBUA/KBUE, programmed the top-ranked station in Guadalajara before coming to Southern California 19 months ago as part of a high-profile shake-up at KLAX-FM (97.9). But that station’s experiment with an all-Mexican programming team quickly dissolved and Garza, 33, jumped across town last November to join the Liberman group.

Que Buena obviously has benefited from the general state of chaos that has recently enveloped KLAX-FM (97.9), long considered one of the country’s preeminent Mexican regional stations. KLAX has gone through a half-dozen program directors--including Garza--since January 1998, and that instability has been reflected in the station’s fluctuating audience numbers, which have bounced between a 2.1 and 4.1 share since the fall 1997 ratings survey.

Last month, the SBS station embarked on another ambitious face-lift, shipping program director Phil Jones to an affiliate station in Puerto Rico and replacing him with Guillermo Prince, the former national program director for the San Jose-based EXCL chain. Prince immediately softened the station’s traditional Mexican regional playlist by dropping corridos and adding more romantic music by the likes of Vicente and Alejando Fernandez, Juan Gabriel, Cristian and Los Tigres del Norte, a programming change designed to siphon listeners away from both romantic-music station KLVE and regional Mexican station KSCA-FM (101.9).

KLAX also fired afternoon drive-time deejays Juan Carlos Hidalgo and El Peladillo--the team that took the station to No. 1 in the market in 1992--and replaced them with Lupita Del Castillo, a former traffic reporter, and Victor Garcia, who the station imported from Sacramento.

“It’s never good to have that much change,” apologizes KLAX General Manager Eddie Cancela, who came to the station three years ago. “It’s basically me graduating now. I’ve found the right people; I’ve got a good team.”

Still, the momentum has definitely shifted toward KBUA/KBUE. Just how much momentum, however, depends on whom you ask. While the Arbitron survey--the industry standard for audience measurement--has shown the simulcast enjoying a steep and dramatic growth over the last nine months, those figures may actually have underestimated the stations’ strength versus its most important rivals.

The fledgling ratings service Mobiltrak, which counts only in-car listening, has ranked KBUA/KBUE a solid No. 1 among Spanish-language stations in L.A. since February. And while the Mobiltrak survey has its flaws--it does not factor in how much time is spent listening to a given station, for example, nor does it measure home or workplace listening--Mars finds solace in the numbers.

“We’re excited about it,” he says. “Anytime you’re No. 1 at anything, it’s something to be happy about. It’s a great sign for us in that people are coming to us consistently.”

By any measurement, it’s clear that a reinvigorated Liberman group and a stable KLAX will boost Spanish-language radio in Los Angeles, already the nation’s largest and most dynamic non-English broadcast market. But as those outlets improve their programming and find untapped audiences, their growth may draw people away from traditional powers KLVE and KSCA. So instead of concentrating themselves around two or three well-run stations, Spanish-language listeners could soon have six quality outlets to choose from, which would divide the audience and open the way for an English-language station to regain the top spot in L.A.

If that happens, the perception will be that Spanish-language radio has declined. In fact, just the opposite is happening.

“We think there’s a tremendous opportunity,” Mars says.

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