That sweet `Zol' music

Radio: Hispanics in the Baltimore region sing the praises of the new Spanish-language station on the FM dial.

February 17, 2005|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

Hector Pastrama feels like he spends more time in his car than he does at home - which can be torture without the right tunes.

But last month, his trips across Maryland and Delaware taking supply orders from Hispanic-owned groceries became considerably more tolerable when 99.1 WHFS-FM ditched its alternative rock format to become "El Zol," the region's newest, most powerful Spanish-language radio station.

"It gets me to the last toll," said Pastrama, referring to the toll plaza on Interstate 95 just north of the Susquehanna River. He moved from Puerto Rico to Middletown, Del., last year. "The music is great. I really like it. Besides, in Delaware, we have nothing."

For Latinos in Baltimore and tiny hamlets beyond, Lanham-based El Zol, whose motto is "siempre de fiesta" or "always partying," has filled a niche on the FM dial and speaks to the influence of a growing, much-coveted demographic.

"It proves we're here to stay," said Herbert Portillo, a Baltimore resident of 12 years, who owns a Salvadoran restaurant and Latino grocery on South Broadway in Fells Point. "Some of us have been here for so many years, but we don't have a way to connect to each other."

While the Washington area has several Spanish-language stations, Baltimore listeners must struggle through static to hear them. Tiny stations such as WYRE-AM 810 in Annapolis and WILC-AM 900 in Laurel have helped meet a need, but the arrival of El Zol - a twist on the Spanish word sol, which means sun - brings with it clear reception, variety and competition. The new WHFS, which is changing its call letters to WZLL, will target listeners 25 to 54 years old with bass-heavy reggaeton, upbeat merengue, salsa and bachata.

With no Spanish daily newspaper, Baltimore's Latino community often turns to radio for information. The expectations for Infinity Broadcasting Corp.'s El Zol are great. Community advocates hope the station will include local political programming; small-business owners are hungry for an advertising outlet, and music fans want genres ranging from Mexican regional to South American cumbia.

"This is the first [Spanish-language] station that comes to Baltimore, so everybody is buzzing about it," said Pedro Candelario, who owns Don Pedro's Musica Latina on South Broadway. "This is a really big deal."

Some industry experts caution Baltimore Latino listeners not to expect programming tailored to them alone.

Because advertising revenue is vital to a station, the station might cater to the Montgomery County area, which has a thriving Latino community, said Adam Jacobson, radio editor for Radio & Records, an industry publication in Los Angeles.

"People in Baltimore will be able to hear the station, but [the station's] main focus will be the Washington Hispanic community; it's extremely affluent and has been growing for years," he said. "Any radio company puts on a radio station for one reason - to make money. It doesn't matter where their listeners are, it's how much ad money you can make."

Baltimore's Hispanic community - about 55,000 strong, according to the U.S. Census - consists of many new immigrants, mainly from Central and South America.

Some worry that one station can't meet the needs of a diverse and growing community.

"Honestly, I think the music is boring," said Virgilio Gonzalez, who was born in the Dominican Republic and owns Latin American Food in Fells Point. "It's the same thing all the time. We are very diverse."

Radio stations flip formats all the time, but with competition intensifying for fresh markets among big broadcast companies, listeners of Spanish radio are being recognized as a hot demographic, said Jacobson. By teaming with Miami-based Spanish Broadcasting Systems, the nation's largest Hispanic-controlled radio company, Infinity is tapping into one of the fastest-growing radio genres.

Clear Channel Communications announced last year that it wanted to expand its Spanish programming and switch formats at its poorer-performing stations, he said.

"What is significant is this is the two biggest radio companies in America seeing that the real growth is in the Spanish-speaking community," Jacobson said of Infinity and Clear Channel.

A study in December by Arbitron estimated that Hispanic Americans represent $686 billion in spending power, and their spending power is growing at twice the annual rate of non-Hispanics.

Statewide, the Hispanic population grew about 15 percent between 2000 and 2003 to more than 262,000, with the biggest concentrations in the Washington suburbs.

Infinity executives insist they want to be a voice for all the Hispanic communities in the area, promising a variety of programming from sports and news to weather and traffic updates.

The station has hired evening and afternoon hosts, and is in the process of hiring a staff. "We plan to serve the needs of the whole community, not only in the music we play but the topics we address, the issues we discuss, the charities we support," said Michael Hughes, senior vice president at Infinity.

Hughes said he met with the ambassador to El Salvador on Monday to discuss issues important to the Washington area's large Salvadoran community.

For now, the music is enough to suit Javier Alameda, who moved to Baltimore two years ago from Mexico City.

"I used to listen to the station when it played rock, because there was nothing else that I liked," said Alameda, whose musical tastes range from the hard rock of Creed to hip-hop-infused reggaeton. "Me, I'm just happy about the music."

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