A leap of faith pays off for Latin dance station

Special to The Times

The challenge was stiff: Take a station that had broadcast evangelical Christian talk for nearly 80 years, flip it to Latin American dance music, and somehow let prospective listeners know they should stop at a frequency most had always bypassed before.

That was the task facing the staff at KZAB-FM (93.5) when it launched in March, and -- at least according to the latest Arbitron ratings -- they pulled it off. The first quarter of 2003 appeared to be a fertile time for other new stations in the Southland, as it also saw the birth of a rival Spanish-language station and an outlet for dance music.

Spanish Broadcasting System Inc. launched KZAB on March 1. Dubbed “La Sabrosa,” it features a mix of tropical music that includes cumbia, punta and soca, without being as salsa-centric as East Coast tropical-formatted stations, and is aimed at Central and South American emigres, said Bill Tanner, Spanish Broadcasting’s executive vice president for programming.

“There are a lot of people in Los Angeles that are from there originally and have not been programmed to directly,” Tanner said.


The company took over the station when its lease with the Foursquare Gospel Church expired. But before making such a dramatic format change, Tanner and other executives toured L.A. neighborhoods and businesses to find out what Colombians, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans and others weren’t hearing on the radio but wanted to.

In addition to hitting the pupuserias and clubs, Spanish Broadcasting officials used commercials on Spanish-language television and billboards to get the word out.

Even though the station had existed for only the last three weeks of the winter ratings period, KZAB, broadcasting from Torrance, and its simulcast partner, KZBA in Ontario, scored 0.5% of the Southland audience, according to the Arbitron survey of listeners 12 and older. That figure might seem minuscule when the area’s top-rated station, KPWR-FM (105.9), garnered 5%. But Tanner said it’s a victory, considering how short a time KZAB had been on the air, and that its precursor, the Foursquare Church’s KFSG, didn’t register at all.

He believes KZAB can triple that figure in the spring ratings, when it will be counted for the full three months.

“It takes a while for stations to ramp up. Our belief is the station is right about now getting up to speed,” Tanner said. “Word of mouth is always your best salesman.”

Executives at rival Spanish-language broadcaster Entravision Communications had an even tougher task to start the year, though. They not only launched their own tropical-format station, but also debuted a dance-music station, in English.

“When you’re launching two new formats in a market like Los Angeles, there’s a lot of work to be done. But I had a lot of confidence in our programming team,” said Walter Ulloa, chief executive officer of Santa Monica-based Entravision.

On Jan. 17, the company launched KDL, the English-language station featuring high-energy dance-club hits, at 103.1 on the FM dial. In so doing, it targeted young Latinos looking for something beyond the regional Mexican tunes enjoyed by their parents on most Spanish-language radio.


And the playlist, which includes the likes of Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Moby, seems to have hit the target. KDL -- simulcast from KDLD in Santa Monica and KDLE in Newport Beach -- doubled the previous rating, jumping from 0.4% of the audience to 0.8% from the fall to winter ratings. A month after launching KDL, Entravision debuted “Oye 97.5,” a station that features the contemporary rhythmic genre known as cumbia, popular in Mexico and Central America. After the introduction of the cumbia format, KLYY-FM (107.1) dropped slightly from 0.9% to 0.8% from the fall to the winter ratings. But the move help spur a big jump overall for Entravision.

When it moved its contemporary pop “Super Estrella” format from the lower-power signals at 103.1 and 97.5 to 107.1, its ratings jumped from 1.1% to 1.6%.