National Association of Broadcasters
1983 Convention
Spanish Language Programming - Speaker

In 1983, I delivered this address to the NAB Hispanic Radio Forum at the Las Vegas Annual Convention

In advertising and broadcasting circles, it is common to hear references to rock formats, adult contemporary formats, beautiful music formats and a variety of other program forms. Thus it is somewhat natural to find that stations broadcasting in the Spanish Language are referred to as "Spanish Format."

Herein lies a fundamental conceptual problem. Spanish is a language, not a format.

But as long as we are accustomed in our way of thinking to consider the language to be in itself a format, we deceive ourselves and limit the potential, variety, and adaptability of programming in Spanish. There are equally as many possible formats and hybrids available to the station programming in Spanish as there are in English. They are limited only by our inventiveness and ingenuity.

The mental constraints generated by thinking of Spanish as a format tend to create programming which is based on the theory that you can do anything on the air as long as it’s in Spanish. The specific demographic targeting of programming so common among our English-language competitors is an idea not particularly well developed in the United States among Spanish language stations. And it should be. All that demographic targeting means, once the buzz-words and the technical jargon of the research community is filtered, is that it is possible to define a target audience and develop programming which has strong appeal to the defined group.

Naturally, it is desirable to serve the broadest possible audience. However, there is a point beyond which that which is done to appeal to one segment of a targeted audience becomes negative, or to use the radio term, a tune-out, to other segments of the same targeted audience. The key is analysis of all program elements to determine the degree of acceptably within the community and within the audience target.

At some point, it will be discovered that there are program elements which can not be employed for a variety of reasons.

Let us look at and analyze several hypothetical cases which demonstrate the point. For simplicity, we will not indulge in a lengthy evaluation of competition, signal coverage, and other important factors. Instead, only one critical aspect of on-air programming will be looked at in each case.

Our first station operates in an Eastern market with an Hispanic population of predominantly Caribbean origins. While the staple of the musical programming consists of Salsa, a percentage of traditional boleros in the trio style is mixed in because it has been noted that this music sells well at retail, and is often heard in restaurants and clubs. This situation is analogous to an Album rock station playing occasional Andy Williams and Wayne Newton songs. The core audience is violently offended by the non-compatible records, and the audience to which the boleros appeal is never attracted because the Salsa is unpalatable.

Additionally, the older listeners are irritated by the more aggressive announcing style demanded by the salsa content. In a market devoid of other Spanish-language stations, the result is greater sharing with the competition as the irritation factor builds as a listener hears more and more music unpleasant to his or her taste. The cume may remain, but quarter hours are reduced. And even where there is no direct competition, the younger Salsa listeners may defect to the local Urban or Top 40 station rather than accepting the next song by Los Panchos.

This station has two alternatives. It can eliminate the non compatible music, and become a consistent Salsa operation. On the other hand, perhaps one of the reasons for mixing the music has been the fear of audience erosion to general market stations in the younger demographics. In this case, the station should study the possibility of eliminating the salsa and becoming an adult-oriented station, catering to a public which is less subject to peer pressure and a loss of its linguistic heritage.

Our second case is an FM in a Medium size Southwestern market which includes a large percentage of Hispanic surnamed persons who are second and third generation residents in the community. The station programs the latest ballad and modern material, and is closely guided by playlists received from Mexico City. The news director was previously a journalist on the staff of a major Mexican daily, and is very attuned to the latest happenings in Mexico and Latin America.

Without commenting on the music, and the basis for its selection, as well we could, there is a fundamental dichotomy between and betwixt the news orientation and the market as a whole. Add the young adult appeal of the music, and you have a station that can not relate to its audience because it does not understand it. The multi-generation residence status of much of the population and the influence that this group undoubtedly exerts on the whole Hispanic population makes the ‘news of Mexico superfluous and irrelevant. By its content, the news may create an image of "the Mexican station" in the minds of many who consider themselves Mexican-Americans. And they will not listen to a station with which they can not identify.

Radio stations can not usually transcend national boarders. Living conditions, life-styles and social conditions differ. The moment that the potential listener crosses any border and establishes residence in another country, his interests change in accordance with his changed self-perception and new living conditions. All along the Mexican-American border, the remarkable lack of audience penetration on the United States side of the many Mexican radio stations is due in no small part to this factor.

Just as there are musical tastes, there are preferences in news content. They vary geographically, demographically, and by length of residence.

Another example lies in a market with a variety of national origins. In this environment, a station attempts to assemble a program format which will appeal to an audience made ‘up of persons of Mexican, Caribbean, as well as Central and South American origins in which no one group is dominant. Due to the variety of heritages, there is only a limited sense of community among Hispanics, with national rivalries surfacing at many levels.

Our imaginary station has recognized the multiplicity of tastes and interests of the audience and caters to this diversity. A typical hour may include several ranchera or Norteña songs, a dose of salsa, some boleros, a Colombian Cumbia, a ballad or two, and perhaps a folkloric song from one of the South American nations.

News is similarly diverse. Stories range from the meeting of the Peruvian and Chilean defense ministers on the problem of Bolivian access to the sea, to items about Fidel Castro and the latest announcement by a candidate for governor of Puerto Rico.

On first review, this appears to be a delightful amalgamation of cultures and nationalities. In truth, it appeals to no one. The average listener is likely to be offended or repulsed by at least one song out of every three, and bored to end by the news, in which more than 75% is irrelevant.

The station has decided to appeal to everyone by appealing to the diversity of interests in the community. And in doing so, it accentuates those, differences in a market lacking in unity. The alternative in music is to seek those musical elements, and they do exist, in which a commonality prevails. In news, a stronger local orientation would be of universal appeal and of positive benefit. True, the emotional impact felt by a Colombian upon hearing a cumbia would be lost. But the strong sense of rejection by the same listener towards the Norteña melody that follows would be avoided.

One of the most shocking facts about the U.S. Hispanic market is its extreme diversity.

Almost every market able to support a Spanish-language radio station presents a new and different situation, and requires different and unique solutions. Unlike general market radio stations, a format concept can not be transported in interstate commerce. Spanish-language formats are not portable. Adaptable, perhaps. But not portable.

This fact is not in itself a Catch-22 situation. Nor does it require in all instances the expenditure of tens of thousands of dollars in marketing research. Like the example of the imported Mexican news professional, it often seems that a little outside help may be more dangerous than helpful. The solutions are, like the problems, local in nature.

What can be offered is an outline for the evaluation of your market’s characteristics and some comments on the application of the facts to the intangibles of radio programming and format design.

Starting from the simple numerical size of the so called Hispanic population, further statistical evaluation must be applied.

Some simple graphs or pie charts may help you here. Is the population equally distributed by demographic cells? Or do you find a large group of older residents and, separated by a seeming void, another large youth and young adult group?

Is a certain demographic spread made up of longer time residents, while another group principally consists of recent immigrants? Is there a national, or in the case of Mexico, regional, difference in the geographical origins of different segments of the population?

Perhaps the most important point to quantify is language usage. Often we are wont to ignore this subject, because it would seem to negate one of a Spanish-language station’s main selling points. But we are aware of the loss, of language of preference usage of Spanish at differing rates in different markets. If you find a significant number of Hispanic-surnamed persons in your market who do not use the language, the demographic areas impacted by this phenomenon of assimilation must be contemplated.

It is far better to accept lack of language usage in a particular audience segment, and through this knowledge, appeal to those listeners who will listen.

The occasional sampler of Spanish-language radio will often not reflect this listening in a diary, and in any case represents short listening spans. The next step in program evaluation is one of looking at the available audience characteristics and determining where the broadest segment with demonstrable commonality of tastes and interests exists. In this process, all the available music forms are matched to the audience segments to which they individually appeal in the local market. Similarly, interests as to news content and quantity are examined. The attitudes of different listening groups to announcing styles is also reviewed. Finally, the needs of potential listeners as to community services and special features is studied.

To illustrate this process, let us invent a radio market. Our hypothetical city is located in the Southwestern United States, within a few hundred miles of the Mexican border. The total metro population is 500,000. The census shows 150,000 "Hispanic-surname" persons living in the area, for a total of 30%

As the city was, from Spanish colonial times under the influence of Mexico, there is a substantial number of persons within the 30% which does not use the Spanish language. We find that this segment is well distributed demographically, representing both older adults and their offspring. Estimated at 50,000 persons, this group is removed from further evaluation, leaving 100,000 in our potential audience. The Spanish-speaking element of the city is found to have been the product of a two stage migratory process, covering the last 4 decades. Upon leaving Mexico, most moved first to agricultural centers outside of urban areas, and later came to our city from other parts of the state. Almost all trace their heritage to the Mexican states of Sonora, Chihuahua and Coahuila where droughts forced the original emigration.

Further, we find that a most of the young adults in the 18-34 range were born or raised in the United States. However, because they achieved adulthood in a rural agricultural environment, their knowledge and usage of English is more limited than usually found among the same demographic of urban dwelling Hispanic youth. The desire to assimilate is strongest at the bottom end of this demographic, as many in this group see the success and integration into the community’s mainstream of the non-Spanish-speaking as being keyed to linguistic adaptation.

The conclusion is that there is a cohesive group of Spanish-speaking persons in the 30-plus age category that should respond to a radio station in Spanish. We find that the average mean age of the total Spanish-speaking community is in the vicinity of 23. Thus, a rough estimate of the 30-plus core audience is

40,000 persons. This seems satisfactory as a program base as the cuming of this group plus occasional younger listeners will yield a cume share of about 8%, sufficient to rank in the top 10 in our market-The advantage of a well programmed Spanish-language station is the customary long listening span of its listeners. The smaller cume coupled with long listening should yield an average quarter hour share of about 5, placing the station at about 7th in the market, and yielding a strong 4th in 25 plus listening.

At this point, we see that we have found a viable audience base with the ability to produce a good sales argument if its full potential is realized.

Starting with music, we must establish the points of commonality in taste. Traditionally, the music of the Mexican states of origin is an ingrained preference among these listeners. We are thus talking about ranchera and, to a lesser degree, norteña music.

The migratory process has exposed the desired audience to the border musical hybrids, although not to the extent of that found in the lower Rio Grande Valley. Nonetheless, exponents of this trend play at local shows and night spots, and a strong influence is felt.

Through the influence of local Spanish television, the contemporary ballad style is familiar and growing to acceptance.

Tropical music is seldom exposed, and is not part of the residents heritage. Afro-Antillean forms, under the blanket term of salsa, are not found to show any interest except among 18-24 year olds, who consider it a form of progressive- Latin music. The traditional romantic forms, such as trios, are found to be of secondary acceptance only among the 45 plus residents.

The musical programming would seem to contain elements of three types of music, Ranchera and Norteña, Border hybrids, and the ballad form. By looking at the lover range of the target demographic, we see that the Mexican regional music is tolerable, but only if well selected in both style and interpretation. Similarly, the ballad decreases in interest as the age of the listener increases. Border forms, as they appear to have sprung from the migratory process, are uniformly acceptable.

Programming thus must be a blend of the three forms, avoiding the extremes. By extremes, we mean regional music that lyrically refers to non-relevant and exclusively Mexican experiences or that which is old in style. That which is used must have some bearing on the urban life-style of our listeners. The ballad also must be selectively chosen. Artists often seen on television are naturals, ‘ as is the so-called "Onda Chicana" ("grupo") style of ballad which is, in fact, an amalgamation of regional music and the more contemporary forms.

Without attempting to establish precise blends or show you proposed programming hot clocks, it can be seen that the balance and selection of music must be subject to very stringent guidelines and in all cases dictated by local taste. The news interest of the listener base is going to be a product of the collective experience. Local news will be fundamental. The agricultural background of many will mean that listeners have friends and family elsewhere in the region. State news that allows the listener to relate to these relatives as well as their own memories of the past is of value. News of Mexico should be limited only to things relating to families and experiences left behind in the states of origin.

An evaluation of the needs for service and information will dictate the type of Public Service Announcements to be emphasized. This is perhaps the most important area of station Operation for it develops a relationship as both a friend and a guide between the station and the listener. It has the potential to build a strong and positive sense of community. Yet only the local operator, tuned into

the wavelength of the listener, can make these determinations.

The methods of selecting music news and other program elements in order to produce a program format acceptable by a target audience are truly only the first step. This process creates a palatable base on which a station can become a part of the lives of its listeners. Without this base, all the positive and beneficial things that a station can do for its listeners will become futile endeavors.

For listeners to respond and benefit, they must be listening. Of course, on a less altruistic level, for advertisers to achieve results, the same listeners are needed. Finally, the mechanics of the program format should be compatible with the elements it contains. This covers everything from announcing style to the placement of commercials and the frequency of newscasts.

I would like to conclude with a real-world example of the importance of even minor details in the localization of radio program formats. Although the market is considerably different from domestic Spanish markets, it nonetheless shows some valuable points to consider.

In early 1979, I was responsible for an FM facility in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The station was one of five in the area programming Beautiful Music. Although it was a the market leader in its type, the economics of the marketplace made a change desirable.

When you think of Puerto Rico in the musical sense, it is an almost immediate reaction to think of salsa music. By far the most popular music form on the

island, it was at that time the prime ingredient in the programming of nearly half of the 30 stations in the market. Yet a study of the music, the demographics of its devotees and the competitive programming showed that salsa programming had developed in a haphazard manner, without due study.

Generally, the salsa oriented programming was part of a mixture of rock, disco and ballads. The announcing style was strident and uncontrolled. Yet we found that the adult listener, from age 18 on, did not appreciate the other musical forms that had become linked with salsa programming, and they were less than content with the teen oriented announcing style.

Thus an all-salsa, nothing but the salsa, format was designed. Announcing was bright but mature and highly structured. With nothing as a base except what was perceived to be a combination of minor irritants in other stations’ programming, the new format rose to a 33.5 share and a cume of over 40% of the 12 plus population in a period of less than 90 days.

Little details are critical. In this case, the identification of small defects enabled the competitive environment to be dominated. But the example is given to show that such seemingly minor factors can make the difference in successful program design. And they can be a well programmed station’s armor against less professional competition in the future.

If there is a message in this exercise, it is that Spanish language radio requires a format tailored and adapted to each individual market. This hybridization of exiting program theory and practice in light of the local situation is a delicate process and can only be achieved with full knowledge of the local environment in mind.

As a local medium, broadcasting in Spanish can achieve a unique level of service, loyalty and responsiveness to advertising messages. The key is introspection and localism.

Las Vegas, 1983.