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A Format Change, With Laughter

KSCA's morning jokester is a big part of the station's successful switch.

May 01, 1997|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When KSCA-FM (101.9) switched from English- to Spanish-language programming recently, the station marked the move by broadcasting a laugh track for 12 hours. That was two months ago, and although the programming has changed to a more traditional mix of nortena and banda music since then, the laughing hasn't stopped in the station's temporary Hollywood studio.

One reason for the smiles is KSCA's remarkable success. Although the station made the format switch more than a month into the most recent Arbitron tracking period, KSCA still recorded the biggest ratings jump in the market, more than tripling its audience share in going from 29th to sixth place.

But perhaps the biggest source of joy is Renan Almendarez Coello's long-awaited return to the airwaves. Almendarez, whose hilarious, high-energy show was last heard locally on KKHJ-AM (930), took a 14-month break from daily radio before KSCA lured him back behind a microphone in February to host its morning drive-time show.

"He's one of the cornerstones of our radio station," says Bill Tanner, vice president of programming for KSCA. "This guy is a huge star in the marketplace."

Almendarez, who got his start in radio in his native Honduras, mixes scripted skits with improvisational humor in an eclectic format that is so fast-paced it's almost exhausting to listen to. But it's also so witty and unpredictable, it's hard to turn off.

Although Almendarez has won comparisons to Howard Stern, his material is much less ribald; his is the kind of humor you might hear at a party or other social event, not in a junior high school locker room. Nevertheless he is shocking by Spanish-language radio standards.

"He has pushed the envelope a little bit [but] we've had very few complaints," Tanner says. "We're not here to be shock radio, but we want to have a little fun."

Despite all the joking and deprecating humor, Almendarez can quickly go from payaso to philosopher, as he did one recent morning when he canned the laughter and delayed a commercial break to compassionately deal with a young caller who learned her husband was cheating on her.

Fittingly, however, he ended the conversation with a joke.

"Take away my bread. Take away my air. But don't take away my ability to laugh," Almendarez told another caller. "Human beings are the only creatures in creation with the ability to laugh. Take advantage of that."

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A Station of Their Own: Another English-to-Spanish format conversion came too late to be reflected in the most recent ratings, but Jim Kalmenson, vice president and general manager of KVCA-AM (670) in Simi Valley, says last month's change has been well-received.

"We've been getting reaction from people that's much more profound than anything I've experienced before," he says.

Probably because Kalmenson is doing something that's never been tried before. Renamed Radio Centro America, KVCA is the first station in the nation's largest Spanish-language market to target its programming exclusively at just a segment of what is already a minority of the general audience. With a playlist heavy on cumbia, salsa, merengue and punta music, and hourly reports devoted to news from listeners' homelands, KVCA is gambling on the loyalty of Southern California's 1 million Central Americans, who make up the fastest-growing portion of the area's Latino community.

Most of the area's Central American immigrants have been in the United States just a few years, so ties to their native countries remain strong, a fact KVCA hopes to exploit. The station is also likely to profit from a widening split within Southern California's Latino community, a schism fueled largely by jealousy that has pitted those of Mexican ancestry against the growing number of Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Nicaraguans who say their heritage has been largely ignored by the dominant cultural and media institutions.

"This constituency has essentially been left out for a long time," Kalmenson says. Then, pointing to figures that put L.A. County's Latino population at nearly 4 million, he adds: "There's nothing on the planet that could be that large and all with the same interest. There are very large segments within it.

"Maybe one day we'll do Radio South America."

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Pinch-Hitting for Rene Cardenas . . . : When the Dodgers made their first road trip of the season, they did so without veteran broadcaster Rene Cardenas of KWKW-AM (1330) for the first time in 15 years. A pioneer in Spanish-language radio and a frequent candidate for the broadcast wing in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Cardenas came down with bronchitis the day before the team left town and asked to stay behind.

"It was very hard for me to pass up that trip," Cardenas says.

In his absence, the Dodgers paired lead announcer Jaime Jarrin with Pepe Yniguez, host of KWKW's Saturday post-game show "Hablando con Los Dodgers." Although rumors have long suggested that Yniguez, 42, was being groomed to join the broadcast team should Cardenas, 67, or Jarrin, 63, retire, the Dodgers' five-game swing through Pittsburgh and New York marked his debut as a major league play-by-play man. And after some initial nervousness, he did a splendid job.

In fact, his inexperience may actually be a plus. With nearly 80 years of baseball broadcasting between them, Cardenas and Jarrin rarely seem surprised by anything that happens on the field, and their laid-back, conversational styles reflect that. In contrast, Yniguez was animated and excited, describing the most mundane plays in a way that pulled listeners into the action.

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