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RADIO | AROUND THE DIAL

New Frontiers

After helping foster Spanish-language market, Liberman adds Chinese, Vietnamese programs.

September 11, 1997|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"We're a pretty close-lipped company," apologizes Andy Mars, Liberman Broadcasting's corporate vice president. "We generally don't say very much."

Maybe so. But then again, it's rarely been what the company has had to say as much as how it said it that's been most interesting. Twenty years ago, for example, when Spanish-language radio was just a niche market in Los Angeles, the company managed two of the six area stations broadcasting in that language. Today, with nearly a quarter of Southern California's 80-plus stations broadcasting in Spanish, the Southland has become the largest- and fastest-growing Spanish-language radio market in the country.

Now, under slightly different management, Liberman is helping push the area's fledgling Asian-language radio market into the mainstream. In January, the company moved its Orange County-based Spanish-language station to the FM dial and converted KWIZ-AM (1480) from Spanish to an Asian format, making room for 12 hours of Vietnamese and 12 hours of Chinese programming each weekday.

"We saw it as a real opportunity," says Mars. "We understood the ethnic elements. In other words, the commonality of culture, the commonality of religion. That commonality that builds a community is no different in Vietnamese than it would be in Spanish."

And Liberman has certainly proven that it understands Spanish. In addition to KWIZ-FM (96.7), the company also owns Spanish-language stations KKHJ-AM (930), KBUE-FM (105.5) and San Fernando-based KBUA-FM (94.3), making it the most prolific purveyor of ethnic broadcasting in Southern California.

The listening audience of Liberman's five stations combined, however, falls well short of longtime market leader KLVE-FM (107.5). But, Mars says, making a profit is only part of the company's goal.

"We feel that we can serve a community, do a lot of good things, and yet make it profitable at the same time," he says. "You try to do a little of both."

Little Saigon Radio, one of Southern California's two Vietnamese stations, controls the daytime programming on KWIZ-AM, airing a mix of news and entertainment from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day but Sunday.

"For a station like this, we cannot do everything that we wish to do," says Joe Dinh, a technical manager at the Santa Ana-based station. "But we try to keep a balance. We touch on social issues, entertainment issues, political issues. [And] we teach the community how to understand things, like learning how to get a driver's license.

"The information that they get from radio is straightforward and direct and fast. The people, especially those who cannot speak English, rely on us a lot."

In fact, Dinh says, some listeners have come to trust the broadcasters so much that they go to the radio station rather than the police station to turn in items such as lost wallets. Once a visitor even dropped a lost woman off at the studio; when staffers determined she was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, the station broadcast a description of her and, 15 minutes later, worried family members showed up to pick up the woman.

At 6 p.m., KWIZ-AM switches to an eclectic mix of Chinese-language news, entertainment, religious and talk-radio programming. But, admits Daniel Liang of Alhambra's Unicoast Communications, which manages the air time, "we are doing community service most of the time."

Liang says Unicoast's audience has grown since the station moved to AM in January. Its broadcast day has also grown, beginning three hours earlier in the middle of the evening commute.

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From Sea to Shining Sea: Heftel Broadcasting has stepped up plans to take Renan Almendarez Coello's widely popular morning show on KSCA-FM (101.9) national, possibly by the end of the year.

"There is a mutual interest and desire to do this," says Richard Heftel, the station's president and general manager. "We're in the stage now of trying to figure out how to best proceed."

Almendarez joined KSCA in February after a 14-month break from radio, during which he tried unsuccessfully to cobble together a national show on his own. In fact, Heftel's promise to pursue a syndication deal was one of the things that lured him back on the air.

"When we hired him it was with the thought that, 'Yeah, we think you're great. And we'd like to take this thing national,' " Heftel says. "Let's put it on the air in L.A. and show everybody what you've got and we'll go from there."

Although Almendarez's witty, fast-paced show has caused some controversy in the Spanish-speaking community because of its penchant for sexual innuendo, the humor is tame compared to similar shows in English. In any case, it's hard to argue with success. With Almendarez leading the way, KSCA has jumped from 29th to second place in the local Arbitron ratings since Heftel brought the signal and switched it to Spanish-language broadcasting seven months ago.

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Radio Killed the Video Star: According to a survey compiled by Media Audit and reported by the Inside Radio newsletter, Latinos spend more time listening to the radio than they do with any other form of media.

On average, Latinos spend three hours, 46 minutes per day listening to the radio, 16 minutes more than they do watching television.

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Station Identification: KMIA-AM (1220) became the latest Southern California station to switch from English to Spanish when it changed formats Sept. 1.

According to the station's Mauricio Ocampo, KMIA will play an eclectic mix of music, from oldies to adult contemporary. The Pomona-based station previously aired motivational programming in English.

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