They're affluent. They're well educated. They're populous. And they listen to the radio a lot.
Those are the findings of the first-ever study of the Chinese-speaking radio market in Los Angeles as well as the formula for success for two local radio stations owned by MultiCultural Radio Broadcasting Inc. that are virtually unknown among general listeners but dominate the Chinese market.
KAZN-AM (1300) and KMRB-AM (1600) blanket L.A. broadcasting in Mandarin and Cantonese, respectively, the two major Chinese dialects.
Together they reach a larger proportion of Chinese speakers than any other local medium, including a number of Chinese-language broadcast, cable and satellite television stations, as well as newspapers and Web sites produced in the United States and China.
Los Angeles is the only U.S. city with two stations broadcasting in Chinese around the clock, with more than 200,000 listeners tuning in each week (the New York market is slightly larger).
"It is still really an untapped marketplace," said Hsing-Ling Chuang, marketing director for the New York-based Asian-American advertising agency Admerasia Inc.
Arbitron Inc. found that almost 90 percent of Chinese-speaking people in Los Angeles tune into the radio at least once a week, a higher rate than among the general population. They are also more affluent and better educated than the population at large: 18 percent earn more than $75,000 and 33 percent have at least a college degree.
The findings come as both good news and affirmation of the business strategy at Multicultural Broadcasting, which has been in the market for a decade and is now seeking to gain more national advertising.
"As successful as it has been, it's nowhere near where it's going to be," said David Sweeney, a radio industry veteran who oversees KAZN and KMRB as the MultiCultural Broadcasting executive vice president in charge of the West Coast.
KAZN and KMRB feature a similar mix of programming: call-in talk radio, news, infomercials and a little bit of music. Most of the programming originates from the MultiCultural Broadcasting studios just south of Old Town Pasadena. The West Coast editorial and sales offices of M-Weekly, a Chinese-language weekly magazine, and Networks Asia, an advertising agency are in the same building, and both are also owned by MultiCultural.
The talk shows include liberal amounts of audience participation in debates over U.S. and Chinese topics in particular the perennial issue of whether Taiwan and mainland China should be united. On that hot-button topic, station officials say they are studiously neutral for fear of offending any segments of their audiences.
The offices include signs in Chinese and in English warning people against talking too loud or rushing through hallways. But the thrum of activity is palpable; several broadcasting studios are in use at once and the hallways and elevators are crowded with executives in suits, and on-air personalities in jeans and khakis.
This is the West Coast hub of MultiCultural, which grew from a handful of low-power stations in the 1970s to the nation's 18th largest radio broadcaster today, transmitting in Spanish, Chinese, Korean and 19 other languages.
Radio entrepreneur Arthur Liu founded the predecessor of MultiCultural in 1976 and cobbled together a multilingual network of 47 AM and FM stations nationwide. Locally, Liu bought KMRB in 1994 and broadcast in both Mandarin and Cantonese. Then in the late '90s, he bought the second station and split up the programming, betting that the market would support the two stations operating around the clock.
That's not a strategy he pursued in New York, which Arbitron estimates has 380,000 Chinese-speakers. (Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco have the largest Chinese-speaking markets in the country. Arbitron has not recently studied the size of the San Francisco market.)
In New York, MultiCultural operates the nation's top-ranked Chinese-language radio station, WZRC-AM, which alternates between Cantonese and Mandarin programming. About 175,400 people listen to the New York station each week, according to Arbitron. However, L.A.'s two Chinese-language stations and one simulcast total 238,500 listeners. There's a good reason for that: Angelenos spend lots of time tuning in during their long car commutes.
The market has begun to attract the attention of large national advertisers such as the Charles Schwab Corp., McDonald's Corp. and Sears, Roebuck & Co. But deep-pocketed advertisers still represent fewer than 20 percent of those on Chinese-language radio, which is still dominated by mom-and-pop businesses such as local banks, grocery stores and restaurants.
Chuang said major advertisers are only beginning to discover the Chinese-language marketplace, in part because efforts to reach the audience were hampered by a lack of market data and the fact Cantonese and Mandarin dialects are only two of several languages spoken by Asian Americans. "The market is still mostly local advertising," Chuang said.
Robert Liu, senior vice president of business development for Long Beach-based InterTrend Communications Inc., an Asian-American advertising agency, said local Chinese-language advertising has nearly reached its saturation point.
"How many more restaurants can there be?" Liu asked. "However, for national advertisers there is enormous room to grow."
Liu said advertisers would like to see more Chinese-language outlets in Los Angeles and predicted that growth in population and disposable income among Chinese-Americans likely would spur others to enter the marketplace. "From a consumer perspective and an advertisers' perspective, it definitely would be good to have another strong (Chinese-language) radio station," he said.
Liu said some former MultiCultural employees recently talked about buying another station in Los Angeles and converting it to a Chinese format, but could not find a property in their price range.
For now, that leaves MultiCultural with a lock on the market in Los Angeles. Multicultural executives declined to discuss the local stations' profitability or revenues. Sweeney said MultiCultural is doing "extremely well," acknowledging that the growth of the market likely would encourage competitors.
He likened the Chinese-language radio market to the Spanish-language market a generation ago. At the time, Spanish-language stations catered to a general audience but became more specialized as their numbers grew.
L.A. has more than a dozen Spanish-language stations broadcasting in formats from religious programming to Hispanic rap.
"This market is really in its infancy," Sweeney said.
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