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The Rising Language of Latino Media: English

May 04, 1997|Gregory Rodriguez | Gregory Rodriguez, associate editor at Pacific News Service, is a fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy

Since 1993, the Latino population in the United States has grown more in absolute numbers than the non-Hispanic white population. Demographers project that within 50 years, one in four Americans will be of Latin American ancestry. Spanish-language broadcast media are booming in regions where Latinos are heavily concentrated. Earlier this year, NBC was even considering close-captioning programs like "Seinfeld" in the language of Cervantes. Does all this signify that the primacy of English is threatened? Not quite.

Preoccupation with Latino linguistic patterns used to be the special domain of frightened English-only activists. Today, determining which language U.S. Latinos are and will be speaking is big business. The 1995 murder and subsequent mass grieving for Tejano star Selena Quintanilla Perez catapulted corporate interest in the "Hispanic market" to new heights. Her death inspired several books, a major Hollywood movie on her life and induced People Magazine to publish a Latino-themed edition. Suddenly, the $228-billion-a-year, Latino consumer market has more than mere buying power. It has tastes and desires of its own. What's unclear is which language marketers should use to target it.

In the 1980s, the Latino consumer market was generally understood to be composed of Spanish-dominant immigrants recently arrived. Companies turned to Hispanic ad agencies, largely run by Latin American-born professionals, for help. The result was that mainstream agencies left what is now a 30-million-strong market to the Spanish-language experts. In the marketing world, Hispanic is synonymous with Spanish.

In such circumstances, neither Spanish-geared Hispanic ad agencies or Spanish-language television networks are strongly motivated to counter the idea that the Latino population is linguistically unidimensional. Univision, the leading Spanish-language television network, likes to tell potential clients that its audience "grows as the Hispanic population grows." One successful Hispanic-oriented agency in Los Angeles even goes so far as to inform its corporate clients that only 4% of U.S. Latinos prefer to use English, that 15% are bilingual and 47% are "Spanish-dependent."

Gonzalo Soruco, a professor of communications at the University of Miami, dismisses these numbers as "bogus." According to him, "the strictly Spanish-language market" makes up one-third of the U.S. Latino population. The Census Bureau reports that, in California, 23% of Latinos speak only English, while 10% don't speak any English at all. Census data also indicate that 55% of U.S. Latinos are bilingual.

In the past few years, television's Nielsen Media Research and radio's Arbitron Company have come under fire for their methodology in gauging the viewing and listening habits of the U.S. Latino population. In Los Angeles, where Spanish-language programming has topped the charts in the two media, both English and Spanish-language broadcasters have complained that the companies' surveys do not adequately account for language preference. Hundreds of millions of ad dollars are at stake.

Nielsen uses two measures to survey the Hispanic television audience. KMEX, Univision's local affiliate, cites the Nielsen Hispanic Television Index in declaring itself the station L.A.'s Latinos watch most. KNBC, on the other hand, refers to the Hispanic subset of the Nielsen Standard Index to prove its claim that it has the highest share of Latino viewers.

Arbitron's more intricate rating system may provide a more accurate picture of the Latino audience's bilingualism. KLVE, which plays Spanish pop music and is the most listened to station in Los Angeles, shares much of its Latino listening audience with several English-language stations. Last fall's Arbitron ratings indicated that 21% of KLVE's listeners, ages 12 and older, tuned in to Power 106, the English-language hip-hop station, and 12% to 14% also listened to standard English-language pop, oldies and easy-listening formats.

This spring's Arbitron ratings for adolescent Latinos (ages 12 to 17), who are more likely to be U.S.-born and English-proficient than the adult Latino population, may offer a stronger hint of the future of Latino linguistic preferences. Latino teens listen to Power 106 about four times more often than they do second-ranked KIIS-FM, whose format is English-language pop music. KLVE's Spanish-language pop ranks third. Tied for fourth are KLAX, which plays Mexican regional music, and KROQ, an English-language alternative-rock station.

Also suggestive of the linguistic direction of the Latino market is KMEX's ad campaign airing on Power 106, which targets the English-dominant, bilingual children of immigrants. It seems especially apt because 60% of the growth of the U.S.-Latino population stems from procreation, not immigration. The fastest-growing sector of the Latino market is native-born and, contrary to the widely held myth, virtually all native-born Latinos speak English.

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