Hispanic Radio: Still a Key Medium

When Hispanic radio launched six decades ago, broadcasters were on the air for a few hours a week in leased time blocs. Today, Spanish-language formats rank among the top five in major markets coast-to-coast, and corporations own dozens of Hispanic stations all over the country.

“There just has been an explosion in Spanish language,” said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of corporate communications for the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, D.C. “The growth in Hispanic has been remarkable.”

The juggernaut expansion of Spanish-language radio reflects in large part the mushrooming U.S. Hispanic population, currently estimated around 54 million, but it’s also fuelled by an audience of avid radio fans and a music-loving culture.

According to 2014 figures from Nielsen Audio, 93.1 percent of Hispanics listen to the radio every week, as compared to 91 percent of Americans overall (including Hispanics). Latinos also tune in more than most other demographic groups, listening an average of 12 and 43 minutes weekly; only African-Americans top Latinos in listening time, by 16 minutes, and that tends to be an older audience as compared to Hispanic radio listeners, who skew younger.

The peak time for Hispanics to tune in is 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. as opposed to the morning and afternoon drive general-market peak times. “With a lot of Latinos in service industries, they’re listening at work,” said Federico Subervi, a journalism professor at Kent State University in Ohio who has studied Spanish-language radio.

Latinos’ love for music is also evident. They spend more on music — $135 per month, as compared to the average of $105, according to Nielsen.

That combination of factors has helped to almost double the number of Spanish-language stations just since the turn of the century. In 2001, the first year of Nielsen Audio’s statistics, there were 600 Hispanic AM/FM outlets; in 2014 there were 1,001. The trend in digital radio has followed suit: in 2010, Nielsen Audio reported 661 Hispanic HD and online streaming channels; in 2014, 820.

The growth trend shows no sign of slowing. As Latino immigrants move into new areas across the country following jobs, radio stations are being launched or reformatted to serve them. Mexican regional (the most popular Hispanic format), for instance, can now be heard in southwest Florida, traditionally a bastion of tropical music, on 105.3 FM, (WZSP) La Zeta, while Latin pop tunes debuted on Cleveland’s airwaves last year on 87.7 FM (WLFM) La Mega.

“A lot of entrepreneurs see market opportunity,” said Tomás Martínez, chief executive officer of Miami’s Solmart Media, which owns WZSP-FM and WZSS-FM, a Mexican regional dance music station, also in southwest Florida.

A bigger audience base is resulting in better quality AM and FM frequencies switching to Spanish-language than in the past, when it was typically small AM stations who broadcast Hispanic formats, said Frank Saxe, managing editor of InsideRadio, an industry trade journal. “As the economy improves, more broadcasters are willing to take the risk,” Saxe said.

Spanish-language broadcasters are also on the forefront of the digital radio trend. With Latinos’ higher than average usage of smartphones, Hispanic radio has embraced digital from simply requiring on-air talent to be active on popular social media platforms to making major investments in online strategies.

Entravision Communications, one of the largest Hispanic radio owners with 49 stations, last year acquired Pulpo Media, an online advertising service for Hispanic consumers, to ramp up its mobile and digital advertising efforts, in a deal worth $18 million.

New York-based Sun Broadcast Group, which operates Sun Latino, the largest independent U.S. Hispanic network with 283 affiliates, earlier this year signed with Shazam, an app that allows listeners to key in to their smartphones for more information about a song playing on the radio, to offer as part of its programming service to stations.

Digital efforts are particularly a must for Spanish-language radio to remain relevant to the growing population of English-dominant Hispanics, industry observers say. Entravision, which is based in Santa Monica, Calif., will be launching coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign in English on some of its broadcast websites later this year.

Others broadcasters, are flipping formats to bilingual or all English to appeal to the 18 to 34 demographic with varying degrees of success. Univision Radio, the largest Hispanic radio company with 69 stations, flipped Dallas station 107.9 KESS-FM from a regional Mexican format to mostly English rhythmic hits in 2012, but in 2013 returned to regional Mexican.

“Since the Hispanic population is a younger population, there’s more urgency among Spanish-language operators to adapt programming to the younger listener,” Saxe noted. “But bilingual formats haven’t really caught on.”

English-preferring listeners simply tune in to general market stations when they want that programming and to Spanish stations for Hispanic-oriented programming that general market stations don’t provide, he said.

That’s the key reason why broadcasters predict that robust demand for Spanish-language radio will continue. “We offer music that we grew up with, information that affects our lives in the Hispanic community,” Martínez said. “Take immigration. You won’t find one general-market station that will spend five minutes on how to get your papers.”

An ongoing challenge for Spanish-language stations is accurate ratings. Ratings services have long found it difficult to sign up enough Hispanics to wear Portable People Meters that record their radio and TV consumption throughout the day. Immigrant families, in particular, are suspicious of the device and reluctant to participate. When Nielsen can’t enroll a representative sample of a demographic group, it weights the sample using statistical calculations. Radio executives complain that practice can lead to one family’s listening habits being counted disproportionately and skewing listenership measurement.

“The PPM rating changed things significantly,” noted Sean Ross, editor of Ross on Radio newsletter. “It coincided with diminishing Spanish-language and urban ratings.”

Many broadcasters, including Martínez, advocate that the industry move to a “return on investment” model to sell advertising, which requires attributing an action taken by the consumer to the advertising campaign, which can be done via social media or websites.

For Spanish-language radio, the issue is particularly important. Besides the danger of skewed ratings, ad rates have traditionally been lower than general market stations. Wharton of the NAB said he is hopeful that will change as advertisers see the importance of reaching Hispanic consumers. “Over time, that will work itself through because the economic pie that Latinos represent. They deserve fair market value for the listeners they deliver,” he said.

Looking ahead, Spanish-language radio is predicted to keep growing with a wider variety of formats, and more mobile and online delivery and advertising. The bottom line: “Hispanic stations offer a product the general market doesn’t offer,” Martínez said.

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