A Latin voice reaches Baltimore

Radio: From Silver Spring, WBZS-AM broadcasts all Hispanic, all the time.

May 03, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

In a studio nine floors above downtown Silver Spring, Mega Radio traffic reporter Claudia Alfaro is trying out a new greeting. "Que tal?" she says in her announcer voice. "Wassup, Baltimore? Bal-tee-mo-ray!"

Starting today, Baltimore will be able to answer her. Over the weekend, Mega Radio, a favorite of Latino audiences in Washington at 1050 on the AM dial, turned up the wattage on former business news station WBZS 730 AM and began playing tropical music loud enough to be heard plainly as far north as Aberdeen. The move has given Baltimore its first 24-hour Spanish-language station in memory.

For Silver Spring-based Mega Communications, the foray into Baltimore is part of an aggressive expansion of in-Spanish-only program- ming into East Coast cities. But for the Baltimore metropolitan area's small but growing population of Hispanics, Mega's launch is positively historic -- and a blessing for anyone who has ever fiddled with an antenna in a vain effort to pick up Washington-based Spanish stations.

"This is such a milestone for the community in Baltimore that everyone is talking about it," says Angelo Solera, a well-known Hispanic community liaison for Baltimore HealthCare Access, over lunch at Fells Point's Caribbean Carryout. "It should be good," says Jaime Lugo, a Dominican who works in the kitchen at the nearby Cafe Madrid.

"When you have a radio station, it helps connect you with other people, and with the music and culture," adds Sonia Fierri-Luperini, the mayor's liaison to the Hispanic community. "This is a big step."

Mega's format eschews Americanized Latin pop in favor of harder-core tropical tunes, with an emphasis on salsa, merengue and bachata -- the Dominican dance craze that has turned Las Tapas, a small basement club in Greektown, into a haven for under-30 Latinos.

The station's hosts will skew young as well, from Luis "El Maestro" Briceno, the smooth and unobtrusive afternoon drive-time host, to hefty midday vocalist Denis Tobar, and the morning team of Wilson Sandy and Ione Molinares. They spar often with El Chambroso, an irrepressible fictional character who pokes fun at the host and sings badly.

The format reflects a broad trend in Spanish-language radio, once dominated by crossover artists like Julio Iglesias. But on Aug. 1, 1992, a Los Angeles ratings loser named KLAX changed to a program of banda, a style of brassy straight-out-of-Mexico folk. Banda clubs quickly sprouted through East Los Angeles and Orange County, and KLAX went to No. 1 in the Arbitron ratings there -- making it the most listened-to radio station in America.

Following suit, Spanish stations in cities across the country have soared to the top of the ratings by emphasizing music that is authentically Latin American. In New York, a broadcasting executive named Alfredo Alonso took a station there to No. 1 with a salsa and merengue format so quickly that English-language stations questioned the accuracy of the Arbitron ratings.

Intrigued by the formula, Alonso formed his own company, Mega, in 1996, and began buying AM stations on the East Coast. Mega now owns the top Spanish-language performers in Hartford, Conn., Philadelphia, Boston and Tampa. He moved the company from New Jersey to Silver Spring, where a staff of about 40 occupies the top two floors of the World Building on Georgia Avenue.

Alonso first eyed Baltimore last year. He hired Erick Oribio, a Venezuelan native who lives in Cockeysville, as an account executive there. Oribio, 39, was already well-known as producer and host of "Impacto Latino," one of two Spanish-language programs that briefly occupied local airwaves. In recent months, Oribio has met with local officials, Latino businessmen and young people at clubs and carryouts to spread the word about Mega.

"The choice of going into Baltimore was easy," says Alonso. "We have wanted to go into cities on the East Coast, and there is a growing community of Hispanics there that we think will get bigger."

At the same time, Alonso notes that the bulk of Mega's audience will be in Washington and Montgomery County, which has 122,000 Hispanic residents, compared to about 34,000 in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

"I don't mind that -- I think the community here in Baltimore should have more links to Washington anyway," says Jose Luaces, who owns a seafood restaurant in Upper Fells Point. "If we have more contact and more togetherness, eventually we will have more awareness and more power."

In the next few weeks, Mega plans to boost its profile in Baltimore, holding community events and opening a satellite office.

Its official kickoff today is well-timed to boost awareness: It takes place from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Harborplace this afternoon, as Latinos from across the region descend on Baltimore for the Orioles' game with Cuba. Performing will be the Dominican merengue and salsa band La Linea, and New York singer Steven Falcon. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke may attend.

"We didn't know about the Cuba game when we scheduled the Harborplace," says Oribio. "Already, Baltimore has been lucky for us."

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