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Latin Radio Programmer Isn't Fluent In Spanish, But Takes Stations To Top


February 27, 2001
Copyright 2001 © THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. All Rights Reserved.

LOS ANGELES -- Poring over the latest ratings figures to come across his desk, the hottest programmer in Spanish-language radio taps his fingers to the strains of a mariachi band wafting from a radio behind him.

But as a singer wails about unrequited love, Bill Tanner doesn't quite get the lyrics. Indeed, he is far from fluent in Spanish. The most prized album in his own collection doesn't include rancheras or nortenas. It is the Eastman Wind Ensemble recording of "British & American Band Classics." He acquired the taste when he played clarinet in his high-school band back home in Vicksburg, Miss.

"I do like a lot of the music we play," he says of the tunes he's in charge of picking as executive vice president for programming of Spanish Broadcasting System Inc., the nation's No. 2 Latino radio group. But his appreciation of the genre is limited. After all, he says, a Southern drawl creeping into his speech, "I'm a 56-year-old Anglo."

Yet his roots haven't stopped Mr. Tanner from making Latino radio history. During the past decade, he has been the creative force behind the most successful Hispanic radio stations in the country. Here in Los Angeles, Mr. Tanner took KLVE to No. 1 among all radio stations in 1995, from No. 16 less than six months earlier, doubling its audience to 5.3% of radio listeners. In the process, he leapfrogged a string of English-language stations airing a range of fare from LL Cool J to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and knocked out the incumbent market leader, Spanish-language KLAX. Three years later, he did it again with KSCA, which moved from 19th to No. 1, replacing KLVE at the top.

Landing in Latino Radio

Mr. Tanner arrived in Spanish-language radio after a successful career as an English-language programmer and disc jockey. His on-air career ended in the early '90s after he got caught up in a high-profile criminal investigation in South Florida. He came through that storm after charges against him were dropped, and today he is credited with helping transform Spanish-language radio from a sleepy niche industry into a big business. As the Spanish-speaking radio audience in the U.S. has grown over the past decade to nearly 15 million people, the number of Spanish-language stations has jumped by more than a third, to nearly 600. In Los Angeles, which has the nation's largest Latino population, the Hispanic radio audience numbers more than 4 million, according to Arbitron.

When it comes to picking a playlist, "Tanner's record is unmatched," Merrill Lynch analysts Keith Fawcett and Jessica Reif Cohen wrote enthusiastically in a November report on Spanish Broadcasting. Says Russ Oasis, who brought Mr. Tanner into Spanish-language radio eight years ago: "If Tanner is allowed to do what he needs to do, he can be devastating to the competition."

That's what Spanish Broadcasting's chief executive, Raul Alarcon Jr., is banking on. Last September, Mr. Alarcon wooed Mr. Tanner away from the market leader, Hispanic Broadcasting Corp., by offering him a compensation package that includes a salary of $475,000, plus stock options and bonuses. Mr. Tanner takes control of programming for the group's 28 stations across the country, including its Los Angeles flagship, KLAX, which has sagged to No. 21.

Mr. Alarcon also promised that Mr. Tanner would have more control than he had in his previous job over hiring and firing DJs and programming personnel. "I wanted to run my own ship," says Mr. Tanner. "Now I have carte blanche." Indeed, last week he replaced all the on-air talent at KLAX and changed the music mix.

On the Air at 13

Mr. Tanner found his way to radio when he was just 13 years old, playing his classical records on a station in Vicksburg. From there, he meandered from one small-town Mississippi market to the next as a programmer and disc jockey, eventually landing at Miami's WHYI in 1974. There, he had his own popular drive-time show -- "Tanner in the Morning" -- on which he'd banter with other radio personalities and with listeners about everything from the weather to Watergate. He also directed the station's music rotation, spinning KC and the Sunshine Band, the Bee Gees and other Top 40 acts. Soon, WHYI rose to No. 1 in Miami.

In the 1980s -- his own morning show still going strong -- Mr. Tanner used a similar mega-hit recipe to lift yet another Miami station, WPOW, to the top of the ratings. Then in November 1991, Plantation, Fla., police raided Mr. Tanner's house. He was arrested and charged with possessing narcotics and child pornography. The case created a local sensation, in part because Mr. Tanner had used his microphone to crusade against drugs.

Mr. Tanner pleaded not guilty, and in October 1992, the charges were dropped after a Broward County Circuit Court judge ruled that police had used improper means to obtain their search warrant. Mr. Tanner maintains his innocence and feels vindicated by the court results but says the episode taught him some things. "It made me realize ... that I should have fewer casual relationships and not let people into my house that I don'tknow," he says.

Mr. Tanner left WPOW in the midst of the scandal, though he now does some consulting for the station. Soon after his departure he stumbled into Spanish-language radio, getting hired as head of programming at Miami's WXDJ.

Some were skeptical. Cecil Heftel, who had been Mr. Tanner's boss at WHYI, questioned whether he really knew anything about Latino culture. "They don't need my help for the Spanish part," Mr. Tanner told him. "I'm here to help with the radio part."

DJ Watchwords

Latino DJs swear by a few basics. One is that it always pays to play the theme song from Univision Communications Inc.'s latest hit soap opera, or telenovela. Another is that salsa-loving Latinos on the East Coast will react to Mexican ranchera as Metallica fans might to John Denver: They don't like it. But beyond these few rules of thumb, Latino radio can be bewildering. To the uninitiated, it can be hard to distinguish between a cha-cha-cha and a rumba.

Yet Mr. Tanner swiftly cracked the code. Focusing the station on salsas and merengues, like Frankie Ruiz's "Deseandote" (Desiring You) and Jerry Rivera's "Amores como el Nuestro" (Loves Like Ours), he took Mr. Oasis's WXDJ to the top of the ratings. His system was simple. He brought to Spanish-language radio the same technique he had used before: loads of research into listener tastes. "We called people in the phone book and asked them what they liked and didn't like," he says. "We let the public do the deciding rather than the program director."

The use of polling data and focus groups to determine listeners' tastes was a radical shift for the Latino market, which was accustomed to DJs playing whatever they wanted. "You've got to speak of Hispanic radio before and after Bill Tanner," says independent music promoter Luis Medina. "Only with Bill Tanner did Latin radio start using research in a systematic way. Before, it worked on instinct."

In 1994, Mr. Tanner left Miami for the most important Latino market, Los Angeles, when his old boss, Mr. Heftel, hired him at KLVE. Cementing his reputation as a Latino radio wizard, Mr. Tanner changed its disparate mix of programming to focus on everlasting favorites by romantic greats such as Jose Jose, known as The Prince of Song. He used the same methods several years later at KSCA, switching it to Spanish and playing Mexican regional hits.

Dash of Surprise

Today, sitting in Spanish Broadcasting's offices here, Mr. Tanner exhibits a cautious manner and soft-spoken style that seems to befit a bean counter more than the jesting DJ he once was. His goal, he says, is to create "predictable unpredictability" -- giving an audience the hits that it loves (including lots of older songs) with just a dash of surprise. "You want an intriguing mix, but don't want to shock the monkey," he explains.

Whether he can replicate his successes remains to be seen. For one thing, he must go up against the very two Los Angeles stations he built into powerhouses. Rival KLVE, now owned by Hispanic Broadcasting, is currently No. 1, and its KSCA is at No. 4. Spanish Broadcasting's one-time market leader KLAX is now stuck in the middle of the market, capturing less than 2% of the city's radio audience. The market is a lot more competitive than it was when Mr. Tanner first swept into L.A., and there were only two Spanish-language stations in town; now there are 14.

Besides boosting KLAX, Mr. Tanner and his team must also decide what to put on KFSG, a station that Spanish Broadcasting has agreed to buy from the Church of Four Square Gospel for $250 million. It should be switched to a Spanish-language format by summer.

Mr. Tanner is confident that he can meet the challenge; people who have seen his act think it wouldn't be smart to bet against him. "It has nothing to do with Spanish," says Mr. Oasis, his former boss in Miami. "He would be just as good in Russian radio."

Write to Eduardo Porter at

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