'Mega' Mania

New York's new number 1 radio station leads frenzied market drive

It's drive time on an impossibly muggy afternoon in Midtown, but far removed from the gridlock, in a townhouse on West 56th Street, La Mega (WSKQ-FM), New York's Latin radio giant, is cruising like a fine-tuned salsa-merengue machine. His voice booming out a commercial for TOPS, an appliance outlet, Paco--a/k/a Manuel Navarro, the ageless DJ who invented the disco radio format that sent WKTU to the top 20 years ago--is about to segue into Marc Anthony's latest salsa smash, "Contra La Corriente." But first, he has to flirt with the traffic reporter, Carolina Skywalker.

"Wow, que tienes puesto hoy, muchacha?" he bellows, asking her to describe what she's wearing. She gleefully offers a Spanglish description of her tight red lycra bodysuit, then launches into a warning to stay away from the Lincoln Tunnel. "Let me ask you something," Paco says in Spanish. "What does it mean to you to be bilingual?" "Well," she chuckles, "it means I speak English, y tambien hablo español." "Claro!" shouts Paco. "But what does it mean when your boyfriend says you're bilingual?" Carolina squeals with laughter, the listening audience makes the connection between tongues and sex, and Paco pushes a button that plays a Spanish-language commercial hawking home delivery of The New York Times.

A little bit of English, a lot of Spanish, an unapologetically macho sense of sexual politics, and a relentless barrage of hyperkinetic salsa and merengue have catapulted La Mega into a tie with LITE-FM (WLTW-FM) at a 5.9 share for the No. 1 radio station in the New York area, according to the spring Arbitron report. An El Diario editorial proclaimed that La Mega's victory "symbolizes not only the growth of the Latino media market, but the coming of age of the entire Latino community in the Big Apple." With about 18 percent of the metro area's population--a 77 percent increase since 1980--the Latino community has been a marketing boom waiting to happen. "This has been coming for years," said Arbitron researcher Robert Patchen. "There's nothing surprising about it."

One of the reasons American media outlets have been slow to galvanize this massive listenership is the community's own demographic diversity. "The Hispanic community is not a single entity," said Patchen. "There are lots of nationalities and lots of degrees of assimilation." That is why in the last few years Arbitron has been putting out a Hispanic Language Preference Report, which shows that the community is becoming increasingly bilingual. While it has long been assumed that the way to reach Latinos is in Spanish, last winter's Arbitron report shows that only 56 percent of New York Latinos prefer Spanish over English.

La Mega is owned by Miami-based, Cuban-born media mogul Raul Alarcon Jr., whose 11 U.S. outlets constitute one of the few privately held station groups left in America. Since it went to a salsa-merengue format about five years ago, La Mega has been refining its approach to its target audience. Recognizing the dominance of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans over Mexicans and South Americans in New York, it has completely eliminated ballad-oriented Spanish soft-pop from its mix, exiling it to its recent acquisition WPAT-FM, also known as Amor. Reaffirming the primacy of the salsa-merengue format, a second station, Caliente (WCAA 105.9), owned by Heftel Communications, joined the fray in June.

Although broadcasts are predominantly in Spanish, about 15 percent of La Mega's commercials are in English, and when Paco engages in "code-switching," freely moving between two languages with station foils like Carolina and Boca Chula, he is in touch with New York's Latino mainstream. Paco, who is the first DJ to be on the No. 1 station in the New York market in two different languages, is the ultimate symbol of reverse assimilation, a term now adopted by marketing wonks. "In the last five years our younger listeners have discovered that the music is hip to them, not only to their folks," said Paco.

La Mega's younger listeners have also made "El Vacilón de la Mañana"--with off-color comedians Luis Jimenez and Epi Colón--second only to Howard Stern's morning show, and the fans who pack 30-year veteran Mega DJ Polito Vega's live shows at the Latin Quarter, Copacabana, and Orchard Beach are predominantly in their twenties. Gregory Rodriguez, a fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy who coined the term "reverse assimilation," insists that "despite the popularity of Spanish-language music and media, our power and articulation is going to come in English. The fastest-growing sector of the Latino market is native-born, and virtually all native-born Latinos speak English."

Last August, La Mega became La Nueva Mega, a gimmicky move that brought in an even tighter playlist and increased contest giveaways. But the main reason for La Mega's success is a major shift in Latin music trends that had divided New York Latinos in the last decade. After an initial rivalry, salsa (a Puerto Rican thing) and merengue (a Dominican thing) listenership have merged into one massive salsa-rengue fan base. Even more important, the salsa genre has become transformed by the emergence of three Nuyorican acts, Marc Anthony, La India, and Tito Nieves. Since the late '80s, the bland, sugary salsa romantica had held sway. But Anthony and La India, who had been recording house and techno songs, used their soulful r&b influences to reenergize salsa music with a new jack attitude. The New York­based Dominican salsa singer Raulin Rosendo's recent No. 1 hit, "Llego la Ley," a song that makes palpable the undocumented immigrant paranoia of the INS, echoes the urban politics of '70s salsa classic Siembra, by Willie Colón and Ruben Blades.

But although La Mega's ratings have grown steadily, parent company Spanish Broadcasting System's vice president Carey Davis is still facing an uphill battle with advertisers. "We're first in ratings, but we're just cracking the top 10 in revenue, and that's too big a gap," said Davis. "If we were a white radio station, we would be billing $10 million more a year than we are now." Last May, Amcast, a division of the broadcast ad reps Katz Radio Group, warned companies in an internal memo against buying too many ads on black and Latino radio stations because "advertisers should want prospects, not suspects." Davis also claims that many businesses have what he calls a "no-Hispanic dictate."

"We go to companies and say, You're looking for ways to increase your marketing share, you've never talked to the 4 million Hispanics who live here," said Davis. "It's a marketer's dream come true, because it's an emerging middle class that needs everything: cars, washers, dryers, real estate, homes, all that American-dream stuff. We had only one bank advertising with us a year and a half ago, Banco Popular, and now we have seven, and last week we signed a first-time deal with Macy's."

La Mega may have hit a nerve among contemporary urban Latinos, but it uses some of the cheesy '50s style of American media that can grate on the '90s listener. The horny hetero Latino imperative equates vive la différence with sexual inequality. Women are usually cheerfully vacant sex objects, and men whose girlfriends are either fat or cheating on them are constant targets. As the official Spanish-language spokesman for Potamkin Motors, even groovy Paco is transformed into a used-car huckster. And seemingly every group who gets its music played on the station incorporates a La Mega jingle into the intro of its songs.

But La Mega has become a significant source of pride and comfort to the Latino community, giving it what it desperately wants: that old-time "family" feeling. Witness the crowds that turn out for Polito Vega's eight-hour oldies show, broadcast every Sunday from Orchard Beach. State-of-the-art marketing concepts aside, La Mega is one long-winded, in-your-face, end-of-the-millennium call to a community to dance dance dance. "We spend more money on dancing than going to the movies," said Paco. "We love to dance, because it's our culture, because it's sensual, sexual, and because it makes us feel like we are enjoying a moment of connection to our ancestors."

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