Tiny Spanish-language sports station KWKW-AM (1330) barely registers in the Arbitron ratings, averaging a meager 0.4 share of the potential Los Angeles audience.

But president Jim Kalmenson, whose father Howard bought the station in 1962 when Mexican regional music was its staple, gets giddy as he describes the potential for advertisers: KWKW has a virtual lock on young, male Spanish-speaking sports fans.

Since the Kalmenson family's Los Angeles-based Lotus Communications Corp. partnered last year with ESPN's Spanish-language sports network, ESPN Desportes Radio, KWKW and six other Lotus stations that flipped to the all-sports format are experiencing intense advertiser interest.

"Forever we had to share the Spanish news-talk listener with at least two other stations but now we're in a universe of our own," said Kalmenson, whose KWKW studios also serve as ESPN Desportes' national broadcast center. "Our listeners aren't inclined to switch stations when a spot comes on."

KWKW isn't the only local station in the Spanish talk segment to undergo a facelift in recent months. When a tougher interpretation of Federal Communications Commission ownership rules forced Clear Channel Communications Inc. to sell its share in American standards format XTRA-AM (690) last year, the station was snapped up by Madrid-based Grupo Prisa. It recently relaunched the station with a news/talk/sports format.

Another similarly formatted station, KMXE-AM (830) changed hands earlier this month. Arte Moreno, majority owner of Major League Baseball's Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, intends to make the station more bilingual to appeal to younger listeners.

Entrevision Radio President Jeff Lieberman, whose family, like the Kalmensons, has been in the local Spanish radio market since the 1960s when there were only a handful of stations, said the vibrancy of the region's Latino radio community is driven by demographics. He notes that the market's Hispanic population grew 25 percent between 1997 and 2004.

Estimated revenues at Los Angeles Spanish-format stations grew more than 200 percent between 1994 and 2004 to $181 million as the number of stations more than doubled, according to figures that stations provided to media industry consultant BIA Financial Network, based in Chantilly, Va.

"Because it's such a large market, L.A. is really the place where you can experiment with specialized formats," said Lieberman, whose division of Santa Monica-based Entrevision Communications Corp., broke ground in the U.S. radio market in 1997 when it debuted the trend-setting "Super Estrella" pop-and-rock format on KSSE-FM (107.1).

Unexpected hit
Spanish-language radio became a force in the mid-1990s, when Spanish contemporary KLVE-FM (107.7) rode the popularity of sultry Latino balladeers like Luis Miguel to become the most listened-to station in Los Angeles, Spanish- or English-language.

KLVE, a former Hispanic Broadcasting Corp. property now owned by Los Angeles-based Univision Communications Inc., still consistently ranks among the top three of 55 L.A. stations monitored by Arbitron. But it now competes with at least 15 other Spanish stations with formats ranging from Mexican regional to Latin hip-hop. Currently, four Spanish stations are on Arbitron's top 10 list.

"It's harder today to hit No. 1 because there are so many Spanish stations," said Mary Beth Garber, president of the Southern California Broadcasters Association. "But it's a huge market, with 23 to 25 percent of L.A. radio listeners listening to Spanish-language radio at any one time."

The most recent example of how rapidly a format flip can improve the fortunes of a Spanish station came last May when KXOL-FM (96.3) dropped a stale adult contemporary format for a distinctive bilingual Reggaeton and hip-hop sound aimed at young second- and third-generation Latinos.

"Latino 96.3" rocketed from No. 19 in Arbitron's spring book to a near-tie for No. 2 with KLVE in the summer. Its 2.0 listener share rose to 4.2. In the fall survey, the station settled into seventh place with a 3.6 share that station general manager David Haymore isn't complaining about.

Even at No. 7 overall, Haymore points out that his station is No. 1 in a key target audience: Hispanic women ages 18-24.

Executives at KLVE's parent, Coconut Grove, Fla.-based Spanish Broadcasting System Inc., gave local station personnel a relatively free hand in designing the format. "To reach the youth in L.A. you have to speak to them in a lifestyle way," said Haymore, noting that the station's advertising spots feature more English or "Spanglish" than competing Spanish stations.

Though Garber's broadcast association does not yet have segment breakouts, she said Spanish-format radio was a leading revenue growth driver last year in the Los Angeles Metro radio market, which includes Orange County. The market is considered the world's largest by revenue, exceeding $1 billion for the third straight year in 2005.

George Nadel Riven, partner at Los Angeles-based media industry accounting firm Miller, Kaplan, Arase & Co., said that Spanish radio revenue, which has shown double-digit growth in recent years, slowed slightly in 2005 to 8 percent.

It is slightly more difficult for Spanish stations to translate ratings into higher advertising rates, Riven said, noting that the typical multiplier for a Mexican regional station is 1.15, compared to 1.44 for an English-language adult contemporary station. That means a Mexican regional station with a 3.8 share of listeners in a market might only get a 4.37 share of market revenues.

Loyal listeners
Arbitron surveys indicate Hispanics spend more time listening to the radio at least half the time on Spanish format stations than they do reading newspapers or watching TV. They listen on average 22 hours a week, compared with less than 20 hours per week among non-Hispanics.

Even among acculturated Hispanics who speak English, listening to Spanish-language stations remains high. That makes that segment an attractive one in an otherwise flat growth market, notes Lehman Brothers analyst Anthony DiClemente, who last month initiated coverage of 12 broadcast companies, including Univision, Entravision and SBS.

"We believe the increasing popularity of Spanish-language broadcasting is largely attributed to exclusive programming rights and culturally-relevant content," DiClemente told investors.

Despite the interest in reaching a younger, more affluent Hispanic audience, Los Angeles-based radio consultant Bill Tanner points out that two stations on Arbitron's Top 10, KSCA-FM (101.9) and KLAX-FM (97.9), play old-style tuba- and accordion-heavy Mexican regional music, which is still considered the most popular Spanish format nationwide.

"KLVE, KSCA, KXOL, KLAX any of these four stations at any given time could be the top Spanish station," said Tanner, who as an executive at Hispanic Broadcasting in the mid-1990s and later at SBS was closely involved with the successful format flips at both KLVE and KXOL.

"The distinctive thing about KXOL with its Reggaeton and hip-hop is that they're drawing listeners from all over the radio space, from Spanish stations and (English) stations. They've managed to create a brand in record time."

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