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Radio | AROUND THE DIAL

Air Lock

Entrenched in L.A.'s No. 1 spot, Spanish-language KLVE-FM sees no reason to go bilingual.

June 26, 1997|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a grassy hill just outside Quito, Ecuador, a lonely radio antenna once stood guard over the city. David Gleason knows this because he keeps a 33-year-old picture of the antenna on the wall behind his desk.

"That station went on the air playing two-thirds Spanish Top 40 songs and one-third English Top 40," says Gleason, who owned the station at the time. "Simply because they were hits. And it became the No. 1 station in a 30-station market."

Gleason works for another top-ranked broadcaster now--Spanish-language KLVE-FM (107.5), Los Angeles' No. 1 station since October 1995. And though the station keeps English-language songs such as Whitney Houston's "I'll Always Love You" and the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" in its rotation, Gleason and programming director Pio Ferro promise KLVE is not about to go bilingual.

"We're not going to get each and every Anglo hit and play it, because we're not that type of station," says Ferro, who also plays host to a popular afternoon show. "It's only special cases like these two songs. . . . For some reason, which I can't be sure of, these two songs seem to work."

One reason might be tradition. Crossover hits are common in Latin America, where artists such as Tracy Chapman, Michael Jackson, the Wallflowers and U2 have huge followings. As a result, radio stations frequently pepper their playlists with English-language music. In Argentina, one of Buenos Aires' top-ranked stations even adopted an English name, calling itself Rock and Pop in deference to its format of English-only rock.

"So a certain amount of listeners who have recollections of their home countries are perfectly willing to accept a mixture because they're accustomed to it," Gleason says.

But Ferro, the 24-year-old programming wunderkind whose transfer from sister station WAMR in Miami coincided with KLVE's ratings rise, cautions that local tastes also play a major role in influencing a station's playlist. For example, while both KLVE and WAMR share the same format of adult-contemporary music, in Los Angeles, where the majority of Spanish speakers are of Mexican descent, about 80% of the music KLVE plays is by Mexican artists; in Miami, where Cubans and Nicaraguans are predominant, WAMR leans more toward soft salsa and music with a Caribbean influence.

But for all their differences, KLVE and WAMR draw the same kind of audience, with a large percentage of upscale, bilingual professionals. In fact, KLVE shares more listeners with English-language stations such as KOST-FM (103.5), KBIG-FM (104.3) and KPWR-FM (105.9) than it does with many Spanish-language outlets. That knowledge won't lead to an increase of English-language music at KLVE, though.

"I don't see us doing that," says station President and General Manager Richard Heftel. "What I do see at some point is somebody coming in with a radio station that is bilingual. They've done it in Texas.

"I didn't say it would work, but somebody will try it at some point. Because that's what radio is about. People get out there and they try to find what hasn't been done before."

Diversity Update: While Southern California's burgeoning Spanish-language radio market has drawn national attention in recent years, little notice has been paid to the growing number of stations broadcasting in Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese.

The Los Angeles market is home to nearly 2 million Asians. And that population--growing rapidly in both size and influence--is now served by no fewer than six full-time Asian-language stations, making L.A. the biggest Asian radio market in the United States.

Although none of these stations rate more than a blip in the Arbitron ratings, they provide vital links to communities vastly underserved by the general-market media.

"We are the lifeline of all the Korean listeners," says Janghee Lee, the owner-operator of KBLA-AM (1580), the most popular of three Korean-language stations. "This is an immigrant station so we have a specific role [to play]. We provide information for their everyday life. That's the major goal."

Lee says the station broadcasts a varied format of news and entertainment, but the most important service KBLA provides is simply taking phone calls from listeners.

"They have a question, they call us," he says. "They want some information, they call us. They want to know the weather, they call us. This is a little bit different than the mainstream stations because we are in a different situation."

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