Have Spanish-language radio stations finally reached a saturation point in Los Angeles?

That's what some radio-industry insiders are concluding after the surprising success of KIIS-FM 102.7 in the fall 1999 Arbitron ratings. The pop-music station rose to the No. 2 position in the market marking the first time an English-language station has cracked the top two since summer 1997.

It was a major jump for KIIS, which was No. 8 in the market just a year earlier. The station's average rating was 5.0 in fall 1999, up from 3.6 in fall 1998, according to Arbitron, which measures radio listener trends. KIIS displaced KLVE-FM 107.5, a Spanish station that has ranked among the two top-rated for several years.

"This may be the year when we're able to return to full number one," said Roy Laughlin, general manager of KIIS-FM. "You've got that unique timing of things being good for us, and then there's the (Spanish-language market's) fragmentation on top of this."

More choices for listeners

The L.A. market has 11 Spanish-language stations rated in the Arbitron report, but several other stations have recently changed to the Spanish format, meaning there are now about 15 ratable stations in the L.A.-Orange county region.

"The number had hovered around 10 in the past couple of years. It suddenly burst out of that level and into a new level with the year 2000," said Allen Klein, president of the Encino-based Media Research Graphics Inc., a radio ratings analysis firm.

KLYY-FM 107.1 converted its low-rated alternative-rock format to Spanish-language in January, and R & B; stations KACE-FM 103.9 and KRTO-FM 98.3 were purchased and converted earlier this year by the Hispanic Broadcasting Corp., which owns KLVE and the No. 1 overall station in L.A., KSCA-FM 101.9.

Previous to KIIS rising in the ratings, KSCA and KLVE had alternated between number one and two since fall 1997.

The plethora of Spanish stations means Spanish-speaking listeners now have more choices, and the new stations are stealing listeners from the older ones.

"Before, you had three or four high-quality Spanish-language stations. Now there's easily half a dozen," said Mary Beth Garber, president of the Southern California Broadcasters Association. "As that's happened, it has eroded the base of the two leading Spanish stations. At the same time, KIIS is a very smart competitor, and a great deal of the pop music these days is Latin-based."

KIIS has made efforts to attract Latino listeners, further cutting into ratings for stations like KLVE. KIIS has sponsored promotional concerts headlined by top Latino artists including Ricky Martin and "Best New Artist" Grammy-winner Christina Aguilera, and updated its playlist to include these stars.

The station's newfound success also reflects the fact that pop music is once again attracting a mass audience. In fact, Laughlin said, pop hasn't been this popular since Michael Jackson's "Thriller" became a cross-cultural hit and dominated the airwaves in 1984.

Of course, KIIS is bending the definition of "pop;" in addition to teen idols like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, it's playing artists from other rock genres, including alternative band Blink 182, crossover hip-hop star Will Smith, and soft rock's Celine Dion.

"What's happened is, they got the benefit of music that crosses all kinds of demographics," said Jody Humfreyville, a radio buyer at ad agency Dailey & Associates. "They're not as much of a niche format as they used to be. Now it's the parents listening with the children."

The variety of KIIS's listeners, plus a strong showing in younger demographic groups, means the station attracts an enormous amount of advertising revenues.

KIIS took in $48.5 million in 1999, making it the top-billing station in Los Angeles and No. 3 in the nation. The station's 1999 revenues were up 38 percent from 1998, when KIIS pulled in about $35.2 million.

The station handily outpaced the growth overall in the Los Angeles radio market, which in 1999 generated more than $711 million, up 17.5 percent from 1998, according to a survey by accounting firm Miller Kaplan Arase & Co.

KIIS, which already charged high rates because of its wide demographic range, has raised its price for ad time even further since the Arbitron numbers came out, according to media buyers.

"It's been an incredible boon already, and we're only a little more than a month into it," Laughlin said. "In January, we were $1 million over the revenue target, which was the number one revenue target in the market, and that was just a month after (the fall Arbitron numbers were released)."

Of course, the station also tends to give a lot of money away. KIIS handed out $3 million to listeners in various promotions last year. "We started it. Before Regis was doing it, we were doing it," Laughlin said.

KIIS is also widely known as the home of morning deejay Rick Dees, a nationally known celebrity who attracts a very wide listener demographic. He plays music that attracts younger listeners, and keeps his program clean for family listening, Laughlin said.

Indeed, Dees is so well known that he was the answer to a question on a recent episode of the hit ABC game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" A contestant was asked which disk jockey had recorded the song, "Disco Duck," a No. 1 hit on the Billboard chart.

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