Bouncing off satellites, coursing through cable lines and crystallized by high-def, the medium that once offered just the simple pleasures of spin-the-dial radio -- now condescendingly dubbed "terrestrial" for its quaint habit of traveling over airwaves -- seems to consider its origins just as earthbound.
Tech is the talk of the industry, splintering a mass medium that doesn't have quite the mass it once did. But history loves a rerun, and just as old-time, drama-driven radio was assaulted by television, then rescued by emerging rock 'n' rollers married to their transistor radios, today's over-the-air gang is finding salvation in a new set of saviors.
"Hispanic radio is the fastest-growing segment of the industry, fueled by the growth in the population and the industry trying to keep pace with that," says Paul Heine, executive editor of trade publication Radio & Records. "The revenue forecast is for Hispanic radio to grow 6 percent this year to $1.2 billion. That outperforms the general radio market, as it has the last couple of years. It's certainly a bright spot."
Seven Las Vegas stations will figure into that estimate, reflecting an ethnic group for which radio is the prime medium of shared expression and communication. Surveys by Arbitron, the industry ratings service, reveal that Hispanics listen to radio more than they watch TV or read newspapers, and outpace non-Hispanics for overall radio use.
Hispanics who primarily speak Spanish at home listen to radio 211/2 hours per week, with those speaking mostly English at home at 21 hours. Anglo listeners tune in a little more than 18 hours a week.
But national statistics lack the oomph of local reality. For more than three years, the dominant morning show in Las Vegas -- Spanish and English language combined -- is a syndicated program hosted by "El Piolin" (Spanish for "Tweety Bird") on Univision's KISF-FM, 103.5, also known as "La Nueva" ("The New"). KMXB-FM, 94.1's Mark and Mercedes play runner-up in the dawn-patrol ratings. And two Hispanic stations mingle with their Anglo counterparts in the Las Vegas top 10, with KISF's "Mexican regional" programming ranking fourth, and KWID-FM, 101.9, spinning Spanish oldies, placing eighth during fall of 2007, the last quarterly period for which ratings are available.
"Thirteen years ago when I got to Las Vegas, there were only two (Hispanic) stations on AM, one was Univision and the other doesn't exist anymore," says Alejandro Lozano, who hosts KISF's Monday through Saturday evening show. "Now, we even have Clear Channel owning a Spanish station. If you go back five years, some major American companies, they weren't even thinking about the Hispanic market. Nowadays they do. They know what's going on in the Hispanic community, how much it's growing."
Once clustered in the hands of Univision Radio and Entravision Communications Corp., Las Vegas' Hispanic stations now are spread over four companies. Univision owns KISF, whose format encompasses musical styles called banda, ranchera, nortena and mariachi. Univision also runs KRGT-FM, 99.3 (Spanish oldies, billed as "Recuerdo," or "memories") specializing in the sounds of such long-ago acts as Javier Solis, Pedro Infante and Leo Dan, and KLSQ-AM, 870 (Spanish variety, dubbed "Radio Variedades").
Entravision operates KRRN-FM, 92.7's "Super Estrella" (Spanish contemporary hits), whose core playlist includes Shakira, Paulina Rubio and Mana, and KQRT-FM, 105.1's "La TriColor" (the colors of the Mexican flag), which, like KISF, programs Mexican regional music.
"Consistently as a group, we have accounted for larger shares of listening in the overall market year after year, in broad dayparts as well as specific ones," says Chris Roman, Entravision's vice president and general manager.
Clear Channel runs KWID, whose oldies are billed as "La Preciosa" ("precious"), and earlier this year, Lotus Broadcasting reassigned KENO-AM, 1460 to Spanish sports programming, importing ESPN Deportes.
"That audience wasn't served with sports, and soccer to that listener is like NFL football to the general market," says Tony Bonnici, vice president of Lotus Broadcasting.
"The reaction's been remarkable. When we launched our other (English-language) stations, it was like this soft opening where you don't hear much until much later, but this was just instant. We keep thinking this is going to be bigger than our other stations."
Whereas once new immigrants had to settle for pockets of ethnic programming in weekend or overnight slots, or at best a token station splitting its programming among several ethnic groups, today's newcomers face a friendlier media landscape.
"With emerging trends in electronic media, it's only a natural situation that new immigrant groups are keeping one foot in the traditional camp and not assimilating," says Paul Traudt, associate professor of media studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Unlike previous generations where there was homogenous, English-speaking media of newspapers and magazines, they have all kinds of opportunities and choices."
And they're central to an industry in flux, beset by its diminishing impact as a promotional platform for new music. "My students don't listen to radio, they're downloading and plugging music into the iPods in their cars," Traudt says.
"People who go to college tend to have money to afford to buy other forms of technology. People who traditionally listened to radio, moving to satellite and other services, have left a void. Radio, as it should be, is always the medium of choice for those people who are more economically disadvantaged because it's cheap. Hispanic radio is filling that void nicely -- construction workers, service workers have radio on during the day. The demography is going to skew more toward less educated, less income individuals."
But some observers say that as a group, Hispanic listeners can be divided in their loyalties, with age and Americanized influences the prime factors.
"Some of them, the younger kids, the ones that were born here, second and third generation, are getting into new technologies, iPods and such," says Jackie Madrigal, Latin formats editor of Radio & Records. "They're getting an Americanized way of life in high school from their peers. But in some measure, it always comes back to their roots. When they get older, they go back to listening to Spanish-language music."
Those generations of listeners will add up to potent buying power. Though industry analysts note advertisers spend the majority of their money where they're comfortable -- in English-language radio -- that's lessening as they discover the market of Hispanics who speak English.
As tracked by Arbitron, Hispanic listeners, on average, are also 11 years younger than Anglos, which is catnip to advertisers. Hispanics are a median age of just over 32, compared to just under 44 for Anglos.
"In the Latino marketplace, the reasons why listeners are considerably younger than the general marketplace is the birth rate," says Jeff Liberman, president of Entravision's radio division. "And their household sizes are bigger than the general marketplace."
Car dealers are major advertisers, Roman says, plus grocery stores and legal, medical and dental services.
Beyond its portability and inexpensive conduit to entertainment and information, radio is Hispanics' preferred medium because it's the only one that ties the heritage of their native countries to their lives in the United States.
"Spanish radio is really the only institution in the immigrants' lives that is entirely devoted to them," said Tom Castro, founder of BMP Radio and a major figure in Hispanic radio, in an interview with Radio Ink magazine. "Univision (TV) is something brought in from Mexico, and they recognize it's not from here. It's not about their reality. The local news is on (TV), but most of the programming is imported. By contrast, most of the radio is made in their local community. If programming is coming from another source, it's still coming from the United States."
Beyond the morning show and Lozano's evening broadcast, KISF features what station promotional material calls the "wackiness" of afternoon drive team "El Jarocho and El Wash 'n' Wear." KRGT kicks off the day with morning jokesters Jaime Alejandro and Francisco Galvez, whose shtick includes impersonations, and journalist/"sex expert"/evening host Alfredo Najera blends music with callers seeking relationship advice.
KQRT/KRRN's simulcast morning show is co-hosted by Ysaac Alvarez and a female DJ billed as "La Chokolata," who gossips and dispenses beauty advice, while guests include former Mexican President Vicente Fox and Latino celebrities.
Of the Hispanic formats, Mexican regional outmuscles them all. "Mexicans are the largest Hispanic group in the country," Madrigal says, "but Central Americans also listen to Mexican music because they didn't have access to a lot of channels, so all their programming came from Mexico."
Lozano notes the format is biggest in the Western United States, where many Mexicans migrate. "The majority of our stations on the Eastern coast, Miami and New York, their listeners come from Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic," Lozano says.
"But in California, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, that's where the highest number of Mexicans are concentrated in this country."
One format thriving in the general market but lagging among Hispanics is talk. In Las Vegas, there are flashes of it on KLSQ's "Radio Variedades," including psychologist Isabel Gomez-Bassols and stockbroker Julie Stav, as well as Rafa Hernandez's two-hour sports-talk block.
"The morning show on both our stations, there's a lot of listener interaction," Roman insists, referring to the KQRT/KRRN simulcast. "On any given day, they'll talk about a bunch of topics. Recently, they were going hot and heavy about the arrival of the holy father. And we run above the industry norm of public service announcements, things like voter education and registration, and health and education messages."
And KENO is all sports, including Las Vegas' Alvaro Puentes, who hosts a three-hour program. But current events-heavy talk, specifically about the immigration debate, is largely absent, at least as a format, and observers are split as to its prospects.
"There isn't a network or company doing the same kind of news/talk they do in the Anglo markets," Madrigal says. "But I think some are starting to believe in it. This may be the right time because of the political atmosphere. If I ran a company, I'd certainly think it was a good opportunity."
But Lozano claims Hispanic listeners would reject it. "We always target the working class," he says. "Yes, the immigration debate is hot, but they don't see much change in it -- the same old politics. And if you have a talk station that offers problem-solving, it's not going to work because people don't get so interested in other people's problems.
"Mexicans, we have a tendency of, like, 'Why would I want to listen to someone talk about their pregnant daughter?' They like something rhythmic, fast-paced, so a talk station would be slow."
Still, any format seems to have a viable shot in the Hispanic community, where radio is the ruling medium.
"Radio to the Hispanic community is just part of their lifestyle," Bonnici says.
"Everything they do, they have a radio with them -- in their car, working, at a family picnic, the relationship with their radios is almost inseparable. They're as excited about having a broadcast in their language as when rock radio hit the airwaves."
It's a mutually rewarding relationship, one that broadcasters -- pecked at by online stations, iPods, downloads and satellites -- may one day remember as a life-saving emergency call to Nueve-Uno-Uno.
Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0256.