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THE NEW YORK TIMES
For Some Latino Music Stations, More Listeners, And More Critics
By MIREYA NAVARRO
October 20, 2003
In the latest Arbitron ratings released this month, the Spanish-language radio station known as La Mega, WSKQ-FM (97.9), rose to No. 2 from No. 10 among New York's 40 top stations, reinforcing its reputation as a Latin music and morning talk powerhouse.
So it figures, some of its listeners are picketing.
"Where else do the listeners have such passion for the music that they are willing to protest?" Carey Davis, La Mega's vice president and general manager, asked, almost with delight.
Latinos in the city are indeed not just any audience. At any given time they have only six or seven commercial Spanish-language radio stations to choose from, significantly fewer than English speakers or Latinos in cities like Los Angeles and Miami. Large numbers of them also come from different countries, or were raised bilingually in the United States, and are pining for different music styles that are not always compatible.
And as the most recent protest against La Mega indicates, they are not shy about showing their displeasure. In pickets and news conferences over the last several weeks, a group of Dominican community leaders, concert producers and musicians have accused the radio station of neglecting merengue, the native rhythm of the Dominican Republic.
"It's not that the music is no good; it's that they don't want to support it," said David Vilma, a salsa and merengue singer who now leads a tropical music fusion group called Pentagrama. "People listen to what the programmer plays."
Officials at La Mega, which is owned by the Miami-based radio chain Spanish Broadcasting System, will concede this much as they begin to talk to the protesters: it is a juggling act to satisfy listeners with tastes that include not only merengue and salsa but rancheras and reggaeton, a relatively new concoction from Puerto Rico that mixes Spanish rap and reggae and that appeals to the growing bilingual youth market.
"Our job is to find the music mix that gives us the highest ratings," Mr. Davis said.
The Arbitron ratings for the summer confirm that La Mega is finding a winning formula in the ever-expanding Latino market. The station's share of the overall market jumped one percentage point to 4.5 percent from 3.5 last spring, positioning the station behind only WLTW-FM, 106.3 (Lite FM) and alongside WQHT-FM, 97.1 (Hot 97), which tied with La Mega for second place.
La Mega's main competitor, WCAA-FM, 105.9 (Latino Mix) ranked 20th, and La Mega's sister station, WPAT-FM, 93.1 (Amor), which plays Latin pop and ballads, ranked 15th.
But while La Mega has been consistently successful it was No. 1 overall for a time in 1998 and usually makes the top-five list it is also dealing with the vicissitudes of demographic change as the city's Latino population grows more diverse. The term Hispanic, once synonymous with Puerto Ricans, now encompasses larger numbers of Dominicans, Mexicans and American-born, bilingual generations.
La Mega focused on salsa and merengue in the early 1990's to cater to Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, who like both genres. Salsa music, much of it old hits, is still king at La Mega, taking up about 60 percent of the airtime, Mr. Davis said. But less merengue is played now than a few years ago, he said, to accommodate the rising popularity of other music like reggaeton and bachata, a softer Dominican rhythm.
The station's programming changes often because the popularity of genres ebbs and flows based on the music that is being released, Mr. Davis said. Three years ago, the most recent time when merengue was hot, he said, it accounted for 50 percent of the rotation; today it is as low as 30 percent.
"It's our audience that's speaking," he said. "There was no reggaeton three years ago. Now there are clubs all over the place. Bachata didn't have so much of a presence. Now we can do an entire festival."
Regional Mexican music may be next. While WPAT-FM, La Mega's sister station in New York, plays mostly pop and ballads from Mexico, it has been gingerly incorporating into its programming some regional Mexican music, a catchall name for ranchera, norteño, banda and other country styles with roots on both sides of the border for which there is huge demand in Mexican-American areas of the country. Mr. Davis said the growing Mexican population in New York, now the third-largest Latino group after Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, has been noticed.
"Our research and our gut feeling are both saying this pot is boiling," he said. "This Mexican soup is big in New York."
Radio, in particular, faces high expectations because research has shown that Latinos listen to the radio more than their English-language counterparts.
Less than three years ago, another group of dissatisfied musicians, this time in the salsa genre, picketed La Mega's brownstone on West 56th Street, charging that its playlist left out local music, and that the station was denying current and future generations their musical legacy.
Media watchdogs and many listeners also decry the raunchy content of the morning show "El Vacilón de la Mañana" ("The Morning Goof-Off"), which some critics call radio pornography, but which is New York's second most popular morning drive show, after Howard Stern on WXRK-FM, 92.3 (K-Rock).
The latest controversy was triggered by the cancellation of a major merengue concert at Madison Square Garden last month because of poor ticket sales. One of the producers, Félix Jeréz, president of Globo Entertainment, accused La Mega of barely promoting the concert on the air even though it was one of its sponsors, a charge Mr. Davis rejects.
But Mr. Jeréz found allies among community leaders like Nelson Peña, president of the Dominican Parade of New York, and musicians frustrated by the reduced merengue airplay. During a protest this month, some of them said the lack of support in commercial radio has contributed to the closings of nightclubs, the disbanding of music groups and the need for bandleaders who were once full-time to find other work.
Jimmy Bosch, a Puerto Rican trombonist and salsa bandleader from the Bronx who was among the artists who organized against La Mega a few years ago, said that while the station's format "opened up a little" after those protests, it remained closed to most New York-based groups. "What they failed to do was play the music of New York-based international artists," he said. "I have to believe that it's more than quality that they use as a barometer."
Mr. Davis said the station constantly tested new music and selected its playlist by what he called "a balance of art and science" the instinct of the programming director and the research that gauges listeners' reaction to a new song. Some merengue performers noted that the local product had suffered lately from vulgar lyrics that may have turned off fans.
"Instead of blaming one station we should analyze what the public wants," said Sandro Martínez, who said his group, Sandro y su Punto Fijo, had been heard on and off on both La Mega and Latino Mix.
Last week, however, there were signs of a willingness to negotiate rather than fight. A protest scheduled for last Tuesday was canceled as some of the protesters met with representatives from La Mega to talk things out.
"They're trying to look for a solution on two points to play more local musicians and to support community events," Mr. Jeréz said, while not ruling out more pickets.
Mr. Davis, basking in the glow of the latest ratings, made light of the dispute. "It's the family having a little tiff," he said.