Switch to Spanish signals industry growth

Special to The Times

Last week, when KMXN-FM (94.3) in Orange County abandoned its alternative music format, a few listeners certainly lost their favorite station. But by changing to Spanish-language country and hip-hop, it has the potential to attract hundreds of thousands more.

More than a year ago, Walter Ulloa, chairman and chief executive of Entravision Communications Corp., which now owns seven Spanish-language stations in the Southland, said he thought the Latino listening community was underserved by the number of stations in the market. With more than a dozen in the area, and now with a competitor flipping KMXN to Spanish, he still says there aren't enough.

"I still feel there's room for growth. As far as population goes, it's the second-largest radio market" and the largest Latino market, he said.

Latinos accounted for 45% of the Los Angeles County population in the 2000 census, up from 38% in 1990. The increase of 936,000 people in that decade was the largest for any group, and the California Department of Finance predicts that Latinos will make up 51% of the county population by 2010.

Ron Rodrigues, editor in chief of the trade magazine Radio & Records, noted that Los Angeles has the world's second-largest Spanish-speaking radio audience, behind Mexico City.

Which prompted the Houston-based Liberman Broadcasting to buy KMXN in Garden Grove for $35 million from local owner Astor Broadcast Group, and change an idiosyncratic alternative format that wasn't even a year old. The move helps the company reinforce its presence in Orange County, the Inland Empire and San Gabriel Valley, said Andy Mars, Liberman corporate vice president, who oversees the company's Southland holdings.

Now KMXN is simulcasting the "Que Buena" format already heard on Liberman's KBUA-FM (94.3), broadcasting from San Fernando. Mars described it as contemporary regional Mexican music, "a combination of modern country and rap."

Another indicator of the industry's growth potential was the other big purchase in the past month. On Christmas Eve, Entravision announced its purchase of three stations owned by Big City Radio Inc. for $137 million in cash and stock. The stations -- KLYY-FM in Arcadia, KVYY-FM in Oxnard and KSYY-FM in Fallbrook, all at 107.1 on the dial -- were already broadcasting Spanish hits. Entravision already owned KSSE-FM (97.5) and KSSC/KSSD-FM (103.1), broadcasting its "Super Estrella" pop format, which features artists found on English-language stations, such as Shakira and Enrique Iglesias, but singing in their native tongue.

Ulloa said "Super Estrella" will move to 107.1, and the company plans to switch the other frequencies to two new formats, which it will announce soon.

Among the areas in which there is room for growth is the rock en Espanol genre, said Bill Tanner, executive vice president for programming at Spanish Broadcasting System, which owns KLAX-FM "La Raza" (97.9) and KXOL-FM (96.3).

With the number of Spanish-language stations increasing, he said, "it's become way more competitive than it was. It's no longer a mom-and-pop business. Still, there's way more room for growth."

Mars said the "Hispanic radio market has grown consistently over the last five or six years."

In that time, several English-language stations have flipped to Spanish. Gene Autry sold KSCA-FM (101.9) to Heftel Broadcasting Corp. in 1997, and almost overnight that station went from a low-rated adult album alternative station to one of the market's highest-rated stations in any language. Now owned by Hispanic Broadcasting Corp., KSCA is home to the market's No. 1 morning show, and tied for fourth place overall with KOST-FM (103.5) in the most recent Arbitron ratings.

In 1999, Big City switched the three stations it had broadcasting at 107.1 from the alternative outlet Y-107 to Viva 107. In 2000, Clear Channel Communications sold KACD and KBCD, simulcasting at 103.1 FM, to Entravision, which began playing the "Super Estrella" music it was already airing from KSSE-FM (97.5) in Riverside. And in 2001, Spanish Broadcasting switched KXOL-FM (96.3) from gospel to regional Mexican.

"There has never been, in the history of the market, a Spanish station revert to English," Rodrigues said. "There simply has been no need to."

But even though the listeners are there, he said, the advertisers aren't. And that lack of revenue could limit growth.

"Some advertisers have been very willing to make that commitment, others have not yet," Rodrigues said. He added that the majority of advertisers don't recognize the market and don't know how to speak to it.

"Experts are saying 25% of advertising dollars should go to Spanish advertising," because of demographic breakdowns, Mars said, but they're currently a negligible 3% to 5%. "Our challenge as broadcasters is to get our share of the business based on population and language. It's an ongoing process of education."

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