Latino voice is booming

Radio: The number of Spanish-language stations in the area has tripled in 10 years.

February 17, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

At exactly noon in the WYRE studios in Annapolis, Cesar A. Najarro brushes his long hair away from his mouth and clears his throat, bracing himself for the task at hand. "Good day!" he booms in Spanish while organizing an inch-thick stack of paper. "It's time for the soccer scores."

One hour and four minutes later, after recounting soccer scores from Argentina, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Spain and El Salvador - seemingly without inhaling once - Najarro slumps back in his chair and wipes his palms on his pants.

"People need their scores, and this is one of the only places to get them," he rasps.

As shown by Najarro's speedy soccer soliloquy, it's about much more than music at tiny WYRE, 810 on the AM dial, one of the two Spanish-language radio stations in the Baltimore region.

Statewide, the Latino population has grown to almost 260,000 - an increase of nearly 12 percent since 1990, according to the most recent census.

But because no local Spanish-language daily newspapers or television programs exist in the region, many Latinos depend on the radio for not only music but also advice about their health or immigration status and news about their hometown team's playoff prospects.

Radio stations across the nation are rushing to fill similar voids. Six Spanish-language radio stations exist in the Baltimore-Washington area, including one in Laurel and several clustered around Washington - up from one or two just 10 years ago. More than 400 stations exist nationwide, almost double the number of a decade earlier, experts say.

"It's absolutely amazing what we're seeing happen. Annapolis - who would have thought?" says Jeffrey Yorke, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington.

Many Washington-area radio stations transmit to Baltimore, but, for years, WILC in Laurel, 900 AM, was the only Spanish-language station in the area. "We were the only game in town," said Wendy Thompson, the station's general manager.

Even though more stations means more competition, Thompson doesn't mind. "It's a sign the community is growing," she said.

Several companies tried to open stations in the Baltimore area, but none was successful until the Radio Broadcasting Co., based in Rockville, began leasing the 250-watt WYRE last spring and switched it from rock 'n' roll programming to Spanish.

"There was such an obvious void for Spanish programming, this was a no-brainer," said Bill Parris, president of Radio Broadcasting.

Hidden away

Despite its importance to the area's Latino community, WYRE is hard to find - both on the dial and off.

Hidden away on the second floor above Uncle Bob's Fudge Kitchen in the 100 block of Main St., the doors to the station are almost always locked, and strangers have to knock hard to get attention.

There's still little evidence of any Spanish influence in the offices. Walls are plastered with posters of Steve Earle, Shelby Lynne and other contemporary rock and country acts. But inside the WYRE studio, the vibe changes from an alternative rock twang to a salsa beat.

"HA-lo! La SU-perstacion!" booms Vinicio Guerra, his mouth close to his microphone and the needles on the control panel jumping into the red zone. Guerra, the 24-year-old station manager who doubles as morning disc jockey, is as slender as a high school student but has the radio voice of a barrel-chested announcer. "It's a gift," he says with a shrug.

Guerra is one of three DJs, all of whom have other duties at the station. The group banters easily on and off the air, the product of working from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. almost every day. (At night, the station has no live DJs, just programmed music.)

When Najarro can't find a business card to give a visitor, pawing through his jacket in vain, Guerra says, "They're over there. No, in your black wallet."

Mexican music a hit

Even though most of Maryland's immigrant population is from Central America, the most popular style of music is Mexican, probably because it is the most accessible, Guerra says.

But he also plays salsa and ranchero, with the occasional rap. "Anything with a positive message," says Guerra, who often tells listeners between songs to "dando la guerra a la tristeza," fight the war against sadness.

The translated lyrics to one of Guerra's favorite Spanish-language rap records, by Jae-P: "To Americans, I'm just a wetback. ... But these days, Latinos don't just wash dishes."

WYRE says its signal stretches about 35 miles, even crossing the Chesapeake Bay. That means it can reach about 13,000 Latinos, according to the most recent census data (although most experts agree the actual number is higher). Callers range from Towson to Washington.

It is unclear how successful WYRE has been. The station is too small to be rated by Arbitron, a national company that releases radio ratings, and Parris declines to discuss listenership figures. "That's something we look at in the second year," he says.

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