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Conversation, Not Corridos

AROUND THE DIAL

KWKW-AM abandons music format to become the second Spanish talk station in the West.

August 21, 1997|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Latino voters turned out in record numbers in last spring's municipal elections here, outnumbering all other minority groups at the polls for the first time in history. But when those same voters got up and drove to work the next morning, they had to turn to English-language radio if they wanted to find out who won and why.

That's because, until last week, none of the 19 Spanish-language radio stations in Southern California offered morning drive-time news and analysis. In fact, only one--KTNQ-AM (1020)--offered much more than music, news briefs and an occasional traffic report. And for new arrivals in a city where the ground moves more often than the traffic does, no news was often bad news.

"Latinos are the ones that most need a radio station that transmits information," says Jim Kalmenson, general manager of KWKW-AM (1330), Los Angeles' oldest Spanish-language outlet. "Those who can speak English already know how to live here; they don't have problems adapting."

So it was with those who are adapting in mind that KWKW abandoned its format of regional Mexican music 10 days ago to become just the second full-time Spanish-language talk station in the Western United States.

KTNQ, Southern California's top-ranked Spanish AM outlet, has watched its ratings rise steadily since making the same format switch last year. But while KTNQ still offers the zany and topical humor of popular deejay Humberto Luna each weekday morning, Kalmenson hopes to provide an alternative by sending a five-person news/talk team led by Antonio Gonzalez into KWKW's drive-time slot.

"This is the first time there has been a news, issues-oriented Spanish-language show in drive time," says Kalmenson. "I think this is something that really distinguishes the station."

It seems clear that KWKW will succeed or fail, at least in the short term, on the performance of Gonzalez, a veteran of 35 years in broadcasting and the first potential star the station has had since Jaime Jarrin, a two-time Golden Mike winner as a news reporter, became a full-time sports broadcaster more than 20 years ago. Ironically, Gonzalez comes to KWKW from KTNQ, where he played host to an afternoon issues-oriented show called "Contacto 10-20" and a Sunday morning point-counterpoint program entitled "Realidades."

"We would not have made the format change if we didn't have the vehicle to do that," Kalmenson says. "Before, we did not have the morning-drive concept for our talk product. That kind of made it hard to make the commitment all the way."

KWKW experimented with talk radio two years ago, but contractual obligations to the on-air hosts of several music-driven shows prevented the station from adopting the format full-time. As a result, KWKW lost its focus--as well as many listeners, who became confused by the erratic programming.

Under the new format, Gonzalez will be joined each weekday morning by co-host Javier Elizando, sports reporter Ricardo Ortiz and traffic reporter Diana Alvarado. Longtime sportscaster Pepe Yniguez, who has done play-by-play for the Dodgers and the Los Angeles Raiders among other assignments, will cover breaking news outside the studio.

Kalmenson admits there will be more changes coming, such as the possible addition of a sports-talk show. But the foundation is set.

"The strength of this station," he says, "is going to be in helping people in this society get by."

*

The Fame Game: One thing that won't change in the wake of KWKW's programming switch is the station's coverage of Dodger baseball. Three weeks before adopting the new format, the station signed a two-year contract with Jacor-owned XTRA Sports AM 1150 to continue as the flagship of the Dodgers' Spanish-language radio network.

The station, which has carried Dodger baseball for 25 of the 40 seasons the team has been in Los Angeles, beat out a number of other stations, including KTNQ, for the broadcast rights, which are rumored to have cost in the neighborhood of $750,000 a season. That price could prove a bargain, however, if pioneering play-by-play announcers Jarrin and Rene Cardenas are inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame, as has long been expected.

When the Dodgers moved west from Brooklyn in 1958, Cardenas became the first man to broadcast regular-season major league baseball in Spanish. Jarrin entered the booth a year later, beginning a run of 39 consecutive seasons with the team.

"Both developed what is now a blossoming market for Spanish broadcasts and major league baseball," says veteran Philadelphia Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas. "I think both Jaime and Rene certainly deserve to be in [the Hall of Fame]. I think their time will come."

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