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Pop Beat : 'Latin Sound' Faces a Defining Problem : L.A.'s leading English-language pop radio station is wrestling with influx of hits by Latino artists.

September 11, 1999|ALISA VALDES-RODRIGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a year when artists of Latino heritage have held the No. 1 spot on the nation's singles chart for 15 weeks, the leading English-language pop radio outlet in Los Angeles has opted not to place two new hit songs by Latino artists on its heavy rotation playlist, with the station's music 0director saying they do not want to feature too many "Latin-sounding" singers at once.

The position magnifies a widespread music industry confusion surrounding the terms "Latino"--which refers to a person's ethnic background--and "Latin music," a broad genre that can be performed by people of any ethnicity.

It also raises questions about whether mainstream pop artists of Latino backgrounds are assumed to sound Latin, even when their music does not fall under that category.

KIIS-FM (102.7) is not regularly playing new English-language singles by singer Marc Anthony and the group MDO (formerly Menudo), even though the Anthony record, "I Need to Know," is being played extensively on the leading mainstream stations around the country, including those in New York, Miami and San Diego. The MDO song has been picked up by stations in 12 major markets.

The Los Angeles situation is surprising to radio industry observers, considering that KIIS-FM's more than 1.5 million weekly listeners are, by the station's own estimate, 42% Latino.

"I haven't heard of this happening anywhere else," says Billboard magazine's Latin music columnist John Lannert. "In Miami or New York it would be suicide not to play these songs."

KIIS-FM music director Michael Steele defends his decision not to play the Anthony and MDO records by saying, "You don't want to play too many of the same type of music. We try to keep everything balanced, whether it's ballads or boy bands. . . . I think the Marc Anthony's a smash, but it has a similar sound to the Ricky Martin records, I guess. And the Enrique Iglesias. They've all got the same pacing, kind of a salsa beat."

Steele said the Anthony song is being played four times a week on KIIS-FM, "on an experimental basis," and said he plans to play other singles from Anthony's upcoming English-language album. The current single, he said, doesn't fit into the station's format now because "we're not a Latin format station."

Among those who Steele says have a "Latin sound" are Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera and Enrique Iglesias, artists who are ethnic Latinos but who do not, according to Lannert and other observers, have particularly Latin-sounding songs.

Roy Laughlin, KIIS-FM's president/general manager, was surprised this week to hear about Steele's assessment of Anthony's single and the MDO song "Groove With Me Tonight."

While he said he trusts Steele's judgment, Laughlin added, "I can tell you that by saying we have too many Latino-sounding records [he] is not [representing] the direction of KIIS-FM."

In fact, Laughlin said that his station, which is third in the overall market listenership behind two Spanish-language stations, has "worked diligently to appeal to the Hispanic audience and the Anglo audience simultaneously."

Steele's "salsa" label for the Anthony and MDO songs frustrates artists and industry executives who say the artists are being illogically categorized based on their perceived ethnicity rather than their actual sound.

"I don't sing salsa in English," says Anthony, who is the world's top-selling salsa artist, but is consciously steering away from that genre in his new album.

Born and raised in New York, Anthony, who began his career singing house music in English, says, "They say we're 'crossing over,' but I'm just as American as the next guy. Crossing over from what?"

Paul "Cubby" Bryant, music director and on-air personality at WHTZ-FM in New York, the nation's largest mainstream pop station with more than 2.5 million listeners, 15% of them Latino, said he understands Steele's concerns about programming too many songs that sound alike.

Bryant also said he shares Steele's opinion that the Anthony single has a Latin sound similar to that of Martin and Iglesias.

However, Bryant has programmed the Anthony song heavily, as well as four Martin singles and Iglesias' "Bailamos," which recently topped the nation's singles chart.

"The trick is not to play them all back to back," Bryant says.

According to Gregory Rodriguez, a research fellow at the New America Foundation and Pepperdine University, Steele's attitude reflects an outdated perception in the U.S. entertainment industry that Latinos are foreigners, no matter where they are born.

Rodriguez says the KIIS-FM situation may have arisen in part because of the marketing by their own record labels of ethnic Latino pop artists as somehow "different"--a ploy that caught on in a big way this year in the U.S. media.

Furthermore, he says, some of the blame lies with the artists, who have often gone along with the new, more "Latin" images of themselves.

"It points to the extent to which you can leverage ethnicity," Rodriguez says. "Ethnicity didn't work in favor of Latino artists until they re-created themselves in the way they thought people stereotyped them. They're playing brown-face to a certain extent. They're playing Latino for the general market. . . . What you're seeing now is the backlash."

Backlash or no, both Bryant and Laughlin said they suspect KIIS-FM will be forced to add the Anthony and MDO singles, both because the station's listenership is close to half Latino, and because, as Bryant said, "you can't ignore a hit. As the records go up the charts, they'll have no choice."

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