Gary Soto finally found a radio station that speaks his language -- both of them.
In the classrooms of Los Angeles Community College and at his part-time job slinging fruit drinks at Jamba Juice, the 19-year-old American-born son of Mexican immigrants talks primarily in English. But when hanging out with friends, his English comes and goes in favor of Spanish, which is what he speaks almost exclusively with his parents.
It can all sound fairly complicated -- what language to speak, how much of it, where and when. But KXOL-FM, better known as the newly launched "Latino" 96.3, has apparently figured it out by becoming the first major radio station in Los Angeles to build its programming around the city's two dominant tongues.
The station's explosively popular music -- reggaeton, a mix of Spanish and American hip-hop with roots in Puerto Rico, Panama and Jamaica -- and its advertisements run with equal-frequency flips from one language to another. Sometimes the station's back-and-forth by its disc jockeys comes much faster, even sentence-to-sentence or phrase-by-phrase. It's not unusual to hear callers intermix their languages as they tell a joke, ask a question or relate a personal story.
"It's like being at home," said Soto, who listens to the station usually in his car. "You get English and Spanish and you don't notice the difference. It all blends together."
It's a blend that's produced astonishing results in the L.A. market ever since the station -- owned by the Miami-based Spanish Broadcasting System Inc. -- changed in late May from a Spanish-only to a bilingual format.
By targeting listeners like Soto, the station doubled its previous ratings, rocketing from 18th to second overall, and ranking first among 12- to 24-year-olds, according to the Arbitron rating service -- a remarkable achievement in one of the nation's most competitive radio markets.
The ratings, which drew 4.2% of the audience, compared with just 2% under the previous format, also suggested that the station pulled listeners from English-language youth stations such as KPWR-FM (105.9) and Spanish-language ones such as KLVE-FM (107.5).
In the years ahead, as successive generations of American-born children of Spanish-speaking immigrants come of age, other radio stations and other major communication mediums like the Internet and even television are likely to undergo some of the same cultural transformations, say media observers.
"Radio has discovered something Latino consumers ages 12 to 20 know already -- it's not a matter of Spanish or English, it's Spanish and English," said Alex Lopez Negrete, chairman of the Assn. of Hispanic Advertising Agencies, a trade organization based in McLean, Va. "They flip back and forth. It's what they're living."
KXOL's recent success might never have come if it were not for what the Spanish Broadcasting System Inc. perceived as its failure. L.A.'s crowded Spanish-language radio market, which includes KXOL's sister station KLAX-FM (97.9), meant ratings for the station's previous Spanish contemporary format were being eroded.
The old station's slow rating decline supplied the management with the motivation, and the nerve, to pull off its recent radical makeover.
Last winter, the station's general manager, David L. Haymore, and its programming director, Pio Ferro, began poring over research about youth trends and demographics for inspiration -- and they found it.
The pair understood the ratings potential given the city's 4.4 million Latinos ages 12 and older -- a figure that represents 40% of the overall population. But what caught their eye in terms of starting a bilingual station were data showing that a quarter of young Latinos report speaking equally in English and Spanish, and that some 80% are classified as "English capable."
Further, even those who have only a quarter Latino blood still generally identify themselves as fully Latino.
"We've watched Hispanic young people become a dominant market force," said Haymore. "Call it gut instinct or whatever, but we thought that a bilingual radio station in Los Angeles would not only be the first, but one that would also hit with force."
They found the music they were looking for in reggaeton, which was breaking onto the edges of the mainstream culture after lumbering for about a decade with only club and underground exposure; station executives believed the hipster musical genre was the smartest way to reach young Latinos.
Though usually performed in Spanish, reggaeton hits are increasingly incorporating all-English or at least part-English lyrics -- a key reason for its growing crossover appeal.
For instance, one of the genre's biggest stars, Daddy Yankee, didn't start to get widespread airplay for his hit "Gasolina" until he remixed it with Atlanta rapper Lil Jon. The song is part of Yankee's album "Barrio Fino," which was just awarded the best urban music album at this week's sixth annual Latin Grammy Awards.