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Radio | Around the Dial

It's All About the Audience

KWKW feeds Spanish speakers a steady diet of information, starting with the Dodgers.

March 02, 2000|DANA CALVO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Spanish-speaking fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers, there's only one game in town, and it's been that way since 1966.

KWKW-AM (1330) broadcasts the baseball games in Spanish, a cherished right that has helped it hook nearly three generations ofSpanish-speaking families.

And in an era of media mergers, when radio stations live and die by razor-thin differences in ratings, KWKW's management casually mentions that the station consistently places a mediocre 30th in the L.A. market.

"It doesn't matter. It's about who we reach," said general manager Jim Kalmenson, 41, whose father purchased the station in 1962.

According to Arbitron, which tracks listeners, KWKW draws the oldest and wealthiest Spanish-speakers in the L.A. area. Audience profiles show that compared with other AM and FM Spanish-language stations, KWKW boasts a greater percentage of listeners with a yearly salary above $50,000, a fact that endears the station to advertisers.

Big-ticket items sell well on the station, known simply as "La Mexicana"; real-estate company Century 21 and car manufacturer Toyota are among its biggest advertisers.

"Talk stations, news stations get results, and Spanish-language stations have always gotten terrific results for advertisers," said Allen Klein, head of Media Research Graphics, a radio research analysis firm in Encino. "KWKW has gone through a lot of format changes over the years, but it has always remained an information station for the listeners.

"And with their sports aspect--well, advertisers love to be hooked up with that. You can have small ratings and do a tremendous job for the retailer."

The envious demographics of KWKW's listener base have been profitable for Kalmenson, although he declined to discuss employee salaries or benefits. Perhaps the biggest indication of KWKW's success can be found in its staff roster. In about 10 years, Kalmenson has only lost one sales employee. She had a baby girl and decided to be a full-time mom, he said.

Compared with other radio stations, where program formats and staffs seem to turn around each season, most of the KWKW employees have worked there for more than 10 years.

Mario Armenta has been on the KWKW payroll since 1966 overseeing the station's commercial translation services, and in 1986 he launched a Sunday-night talk show with Ernest Gustafson, who served as the L.A. district director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1983 to 1989.

The 7-to-10 p.m. program, Inmigracion 1330" (Immigration 1330), draws about 900 callers anhour, making it impossible for Armenta and Gustafson to answer even a fraction of the questions.

Defying the typical ratings of KWKW programming, "Inmigracion 1330" is usually L.A.'s most popular Sunday-night talk show, solidifying Gustafson's opinion that radio has always been a good way to communicate with the Latino community.

"It's [the radio station's] longevity," Gustafson said. "They've been there forever, and the name 'La Mexicana' grabs the majority here."

Like Armenta, many employees say they grew up listening to ballgames on KWKW, and it cultivated a trust for the Kalmensons--a Jewish American family that learned Spanish and consistently shows loyalty to employees.

"With publicly traded companies there's a lot of pressure on the employees. This is not a high- pressure workplace," said Kalmenson. "We're a private, debt-free station."

In 1941, the Federal Communications Commission gave KWKW its license to "broadcast and inform the Latino community in Los Angeles regarding the war."

In 1962, Howard Kalmenson and his wife were raising two sons and a daughter while starting to build a small radio empire. Billy Kalmenson is now a film writer-director. Jim runs the day-to-day operations of KWKW, and Cindy is a singer-songwriter in Nashville.

Kalmenson's radio investments blossomed into Lotus Communications, which is composed of 16 English-language stations, seven Spanish-language stations and one Persian-language station in L.A.

By 1989, the Latino community had outgrown Kalmenson's broadcast signal, and KWKW switched from 1300 to 1330 on the AM dial. The band adjustment doubled the station's coverage area and listening audience.

Three years later, the station won the National Assn. of Broadcasters Marconi Award as the country's Spanish-language radio station of the year.

Listeners were fed a steady diet of traditional ranchera music and sports, but as more FM and AM music stations were purchased by large corporations, Kalmenson decided that the station's sports niche wasn't enough.

He needed to weave in more talk, without the gimmicks or frenzied pace of other Spanish-language radio stations. At the top of every hour, the station broadcasts international and national headlines. Throughout the day, news programs and a talk show aimed at couples and families airs. On weekends, a doctor fields questions from listeners during a two-hour show about health.

*

Every day at noon, KWKW airs three minutes of news from Mexico City and two minutes of news from Central America. Listener ties to those countries are iron-strong, and many want a bit of local news from home, even if it's the weather in San Salvador.

And when Pope John Paul II visited Communist-run Cuba in 1998, KWKW was the only U.S. Spanish-language radio station to send a live crew to the event. It was a priority, Kalmenson said.

But one thing never changed--sports. KWKW still broadcasts Dodgers game in Spanish. Three years ago, it acquired the rights to do the same for the Lakers, and it also airs soccer games played by the Mexican team Las Chivas.

And this year, Dodgers management, including Dodgers President Bob Graziano, taped KWKW game promotions in Spanish.

"It's important for us to reach out to our Latino fans and make sure we're communicating with them on a more frequent basis, in a way that's more comfortable for them," Graziano said.

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