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AROUND THE DIAL

The Talk of L.A. en Espan~ol

Humberto Luna is a key player at the Southland's only all-talk Spanish station.

June 05, 1997|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Humberto Luna took his first job in radio, he worked in Los Angeles but the office was in Tijuana. So five days a week Luna would record his program here and the tapes would be driven across the border and played the next day in a Mexican studio that broadcast the show back to Southern California.

It was a complicated format that gave new meaning to the term "drive-time radio show," but it turned out to be a lucky break for Luna. At the time, the L.A. market had just a handful of Spanish-language stations and none of them was hiring 20-year-olds with no experience in radio and even less understanding of English.

A lot more than the address on Luna's business cards has changed in the intervening 30 years, however. Los Angeles, with 17 stations, is now the largest and fastest-growing Spanish-language radio market in the country, and Luna, who came to L.A. in 1968, has gone from being a pioneer to the country's best-known Spanish-language radio personality.

Now he's hoping that fame will aid him in another groundbreaking endeavor--establishing a Spanish-language presence in talk radio at KTNQ-AM (1020), his home for the past 20 years. Although other Spanish-language stations, such as KWKW-AM (1330), have experimented with talk shows in the past, KTNQ is the only one outside Miami and New York currently using the format full time. And as host of the morning show, Luna's performance will go a long way in determining the station's success.

"Our goals in the morning are to inform and to help if we can," says Luna, whose frequently copied mix of staged routines, topical humor and improvisation changed little when the station dropped music last year. "I think the people in the morning want entertainment [so] . . . I talk about things in the news, jokes, gossip. I try to have a complete variety, but funny. To help people wake up with a smile."

So far, the station has weathered the switch well. In the most recent Arbitron survey period, KTNQ was the sixth-most-listened-to AM station overall and the top-rated AM station broadcasting in Spanish. Individually, Luna's program ranked fourth among drive-time AM shows and first in Spanish.

Nevertheless, Luna is not completely sold on the new format. Audience members are still not used to talk radio, he says, and have enough problems of their own without having to tune in and listen to other people complain.

But, he concedes, with much of the Latino community feeling besieged as a result of Proposition 187, attacks on immigration laws and bilingual education, and violent crime throughout the region, talk radio can become a vital resource.

"The people have to express their feelings, their needs," he says. "It's an escape valve, talk radio. It's a place to send out messages, to speak out about what's going on."

But asked later if he liked his job, Luna's enthusiasm waned again. "I have a contract with this station," he replied flatly if diplomatically.

And it's apparently a very good contract. Although Luna denies published reports that put his salary at $1 million a year, he hints that he's not too far from that mark.

Ideally, Luna says, he'd like an equal mix of music and conversation on his show. "Sometimes with the music you can find a song that has something more interesting to say then what you have to say," he explains. Still, he admits the advent of Spanish-language talk radio was a healthy and inevitable result of the L.A. market's explosive growth, a boom fueled by a Latino population that has increased nearly 500% since 1970.

"Let's compare it to restaurants," he says. "If there are 20 restaurants, they can't all be selling hamburgers, taquitos and enchiladas. For all of them to succeed . . . each one has to have a distinct dish. So each station has to choose a distinct format to succeed. And the benefit is for the listener, because now the listener has the option to change to whatever they want."

In a comfortable but simple office not far from the tiny studio from which he and two assistants broadcast each weekday morning, Luna, 48, weaves in and out of character, giving crisp, pointed answers in a variety of voices--but just one language. "I'm more comfortable in Spanish," he says.

The walls, however, bear testament to a celebrity that is not limited to one tongue or even one country. Among the mementos on display are certificates, in Spanish, from the government of Zacatecas, his home state in Mexico, and the government of Baja California, while in English there are proclamations from Los Angeles County, the California State Assembly and no fewer than six from the city of Los Angeles.

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