MIAMI — Trying to define the nation's burgeoning Latino population is a little like trying to describe an elephant: Your opinion will depend largely on what part of it you're looking at.
In Miami, for example, the Latino community is predominantly Cuban, middle-aged and politically conservative. In Los Angeles, it's young, Mexican and politically progressive.
And let's not even bring up New York.
"We're a people divided by a common language," says Tony Hernandez, president of Radio Caracol, which provides Spanish-language programming to more than 100 stations across the country. "If you try to mix too much, it's like a feathered fish--it can't swim and it can't fly."
Trying to find unity in that diversity was a problem that promised to sink Radio Unica when the Miami-based broadcaster launched the nation's only full-time Spanish-language radio network. But in the intervening 16 months, the network has actually grown, increasing by a third the number of stations carrying its talk and news programming, making it available in more than 83% of Latino households nationwide. Programming has grown more diverse in recent months with the addition of well-known personalities such as television talk-show hostess Cristina Saralegui and veteran journalist Maria Elena Salinas.
So now Heftel Broadcasting Corp.--which owns 40 Spanish-language radio stations, including KSCA-FM (101.9) and KLVE-FM (107.5), the Los Angeles-Orange County market's two top-rankedstations--has launched a network of its own. The Heftel circuit, an internal network offering up to 12 hours of programming a day, began in January and has grown to include 12 stations in nine of the country's top 15 Latino markets. Advertisers, however, can place spots on all 40 of the company's stations with one order, giving their message a national reach comparable to ads on Radio Unica.
But despite some basic similarities, the two networks are as different as fish and fowl. Radio Unica distributes 24 hours of mostly Miami-produced content to nearly 60 affiliates every day, while Heftel offers its members limited, mostly regionally targeted fare designed to supplement each station's local programming.
"This is mainly an advertising vehicle," says Richard Heftel, president of three HBC stations in Los Angeles.
"We're not trying to tell somebody in one of our markets that they can just walk away from the station and we'll send them programming 24 hours a day," adds David Gleason, vice president of AM programming for the Heftel network. "We think that's a disservice."
That's pretty much what Radio Unica is telling the owned-and-operated stations in its network, however. Although most of them carry locally produced news and weather briefs, the vast majority of the network's programming is sent directly to local transmitters from a state-of-the-future facility in suburban Miami.
The broadcasts originate from a simple, unmarked two-story building that passers-by often mistake for an apartment complex, but that humble exterior hides a 21st-century digital studio with the technology to produce and distribute 14 national programs simultaneously. Even Radio Unica's flagship station, which is housed in the same building, is basically an unmanned computer terminal that quietly monitors the network's programming, automatically inserting local ads and station IDs in the appropriate spots. (In Los Angeles, Radio Unica can be heard on KVCA-AM  and KBLA-AM .)
"The network cannot be that efficient if we have 100 people working at every one of our radio stations," says Roy Pressman, Radio Unica's vice president of engineering. "It just doesn't work that way. And that is the trend that broadcasters have. Let's try to consolidate, let's maximize profits. Let's look at the personnel we need and the personnel we don't need."
Radio Unica's programming philosophy borrows liberally from the network television model, believing that good, centrally produced programming will succeed regardless of market differences.
"There is a formula, and for the most part I think that we have it," says network President Jose C. Cancela, a former executive with the Telemundo and Univision television networks. "What does 'local' mean? It means you're able to touch a fiber in someone's life. It's as important to somebody in Miami as it is to somebody in Egypt."
Not everyone is sold, of course. Despite a recent buying spree that netted Radio Unica stations in New York, Chicago, Dallas and Phoenix, the network has lost some outlets in recent months. Denver affiliate KBNO-AM (1220) said it will join the exodus when its contract expires later this month.