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Radio Ritmo Has Rock--but Not Salsa

Radio: The station offers an alternative format that caters to listeners who are not fans of romantic or regional Mexican American music.

August 16, 1996|ENRIQUE LOPETEGUI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When you think of Latin music in the United States, the first words that probably come to mind are Gloria Estefan, salsa, Julio Iglesias and mariachis, right?

Well, that's changing, at least locally. With the advent of Radio Ritmo on KRTO-FM (98.3), many other Spanish-language sounds are getting their proper air space, just like in Latin America. The 4-month-old format puts an end to years of neglect of Latin pop and rock on the part of other Spanish-language outlets here.

The development is significant for several reasons. Radio Ritmo (which means rhythm in Spanish) is the first Spanish-language station in the United States with an alternative format targeted to the Spanish-speaking 18 to 34 age bracket that is not into salsa, romantic or regional Mexican American music, the predominant format of other existing stations.

Those potential listeners include rock and pop en espan~ol fans (mostly Mexican and South American, plus a rapidly growing legion of U.S.-born converts, mostly from Spanish ancestry), plus hip-hop, dance, house and tropical-pop fans. All these genres are played on Radio Ritmo.

Although there is no way to accurately estimate the size of that audience, recent ticket and record sales of rock en espan~ol shows and the local demographics indicate a potentially lucrative market.

"Big enough to launch this," says Adrian Lopez, Radio Ritmo's program director. "And this is not an experiment--we're here to stay."

Radio Ritmo's format is a frontal attack on an old myth that says that, due to its supposedly less-than-sophisticated background, the Southland's Latino market is not ready for better or, at least, different musical offerings.

"The general understanding is that we Mexicans only come from the country, but there are hundreds of thousands of people, not only Mexicans, that come from the city and have a solid education," says Humberto Hernandez, president of El Dorado Entertainment Marketing, a division of El Dorado Communications, which owns KRTO. "Alternative urban music in Spanish had never been played before, and now the market will realize that there are plenty of people between 15 and 60 who like the music that was created in the big cities."

With that in mind, program director Lopez decided on a format centered around 45 songs in heavy rotation, mixed with an eclectic selection of other lesser hits and two special treats on Saturday nights: "La cuna del rock" ("The cradle of rock," heavier underground music, from 7 to 9 p.m.) and a live broadcast from Wings, a West Covina discotheque, from 9 to 11 p.m.

"I don't like to say that we are a pop and rock en espan~ol station, because it is a meaningless definition," says Lopez, who was program director of KLVE-FM (107.5) between 1985 and 1994. "What we are is a Spanish alternative station that also plays house, merengue and dance. But 50% of what we play is rock en espan~ol, and it is not such a big risk because that's what's happening now."

KRTO general manager Daniel Crowe says the early ratings have been encouraging--up 205% among listeners ages 18 to 49. What's even clearer is that Radio Ritmo already has boosted the promotion of Spanish-language alternative music by record labels.

"Traditionally, we had no outlet for most of our rock en espan~ol or dance products," says Rogelio Macin, West Coast vice president for BMG U.S. Latin. "Now we're ecstatic because we know people are going to listen to the music and sales will gradually go up. The perfect example is [Dominican dance group] Ilegales, which suddenly sold 4,000 copies since the radio started. And our only promotion was the single on Radio Ritmo."

"Yeah, very nice, but record promoters will never change," jokes Lopez, who as program director at KLVE was often the target of criticism for his limited airplay of rock en espan~ol. "They used to beg me to play Maldita Vecindad and Caifanes. Now they beg me to play [veteran romantic balladeers] Raphael and Dyango."

The absence of classic romantic singers is the best thing about KRTO, according to the demanding rock en espan~ol die-hard fans, perhaps the group most excited about the new station.

"I don't mind some corny stuff here and there, as long as I hear enough of the real thing," says Emilio Morales, editor and publisher of Long Beach-based La Banda Elastica, the leading rock en espan~ol magazine in the United States. "We understand that, in order to stay in business, the radio must play some unlistenable commercial stuff. But, nevertheless, the radio people have a very peculiar vision of what people really like. I don't know what kind of market research they did, but they could--and should--play more real rocanrol stuff."

While working together at KLVE, Lopez and El Dorado executive vice president Kenneth D. Wolt proved effective in changing the ways of Spanish radio. Trying to match the dynamism of English radio, the two ended the usual long commercial blocks, increased the music and limited deejay chat.

Tomas Castro, president of El Dorado Communications, thinks their groundbreaking spirit is key for the success of Radio Ritmo, which aims to have an impact beyond the world of Spanish radio.

"We're not just competing with Spanish radio, but with English radio as well," Castro says. "I think a lot of the young people that listen to our radio come from KLVE, yes, but also from KROQ, the Beat and Power."

Owned mainly by Latinos, El Dorado Communications operates nine other stations: eight in Texas and another one in Los Angeles--El Ranchito, KRRA-AM (900).

"We want to give people something that didn't exist, and we want to grow so that we can serve the Hispanic market better and better," says Castro, who, along with Hernandez, gave the green light to Southern California's first rock en espan~ol radio show when they were working at a station in Riverside in 1987.

"We always believed in this music, and we hope to keep it on the air for a long time."

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