By Jacob Katel
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How many times has it happened? You set the radio to scan the FM dial and -- BAM -- you catch a snatch of some really wild music. Something so raw and so out there that for one split second you take back everything you ever thought about Latin radio in Miami being stodgy and predictable. Then the announcer breaks in to sum up all the fun in the name of -- you name it -- Budweiser, Coors, Heineken.
Damn, the pitchmen got you again.
For the past several years, the most innovative Latin music on Miami radio has been played during beer commercials. So it's understandable if, listening to the Spanish-language tropical station Salsa 98 (WRTO-FM 98.3) on a Sunday night, you hear the messed-up norteño beat of Mexican rap-rock band Molotov's latest single, "Frijolero" ("Beaner"), and find yourself waiting for someone to say "This Bud's for you" or "I like twins." And it makes sense if, zipping by Anglo-rock station Zeta (WZTA-FM 94.9) a few minutes later, you hear the tripped-out surf guitar of "Baracunátana" by Colombian altrockers Aterciopelados and try to decide whether the song tastes great or is less filling.
But wait a minute: These are songs, not commercials.
And wait another minute: What's Mexican rap-rock doing on Salsa 98? What's Colombian altrock doing on Zeta?
Suddenly, since late last January, South Florida's airwaves are abuzz on Sunday nights with not one but two Latin rock shows on commercial FM radio: Salsa 98's Fuego Rock, hosted in Spanish from 8:00 p.m. to midnight by long-time rock en español crusader Kike Posada, and Zeta's En Fuego, hosted in English from 9:00-11:00 p.m. by relative alterlatina newcomer Nicole Alvarez. If either program is successful, the fuego could spread far beyond the local South Florida scene and fuel a genre long suffering from lack of commercial airplay in the United States.
When it rocks, it pours. That's been the philosophy that has inspired advertising agencies to latch on to the growing U.S. Latino youth market by linking their clients' brands with Latin alternative sounds: rock, hip-hop, reggae, and electronic dance music in Spanish. Shakira shills for Pepsi. Coors Lite sponsored last year's tour by Mexican pop-rock outfit Maná. And in one infamous example, the Levi Strauss company put Mexican hip-hoppers Control Machete's freaky track "Si Señor" on the soundtrack for Spike Jonze's poppin' and lockin' "Crazy Legs" commercial, premiering the clip during Super Bowl XXXIV.
Once upon a time advertisers appealed to a supposedly conservative and brand-loyal Hispanic consumer with traditional tropical or Mexican regional music. Now Madison Avenue is dancing to an alternative beat, hoping to attract a younger, sexier urban Latino.
The hip factor makes Latin alternative especially attractive to advertisers, according to Alan Sanchez, vice president and general manager of the Miami office of Vidal Partnership Marketing, whose clients include Heineken. "It's a form of music that's breaking ground. That's why you see brands associated with it," he explains. "Everyone wants to be on the cutting edge, to get out there with the hipper consumers."
Everyone, it seems, except for radio. The Spanish-language broadcasting behemoths HBC (Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation, 63 stations and counting), Entravision (57 stations), and SBS (Spanish Broadcasting System, 27 stations) have for the most part catered to that conservative Hispanic with traditional tunes, shutting out more innovative programming directed at younger listeners. Meanwhile English-language commercial radio has ignored Latin alternative music altogether, despite the language of the lyrics being the only distinction between the Latin alternative and the Anglo sounds. That is why it is something like a small miracle that in Miami, long-maligned by music fans as a factory for plastic pop, two of the biggest of the biggest radio giants -- HBC, owner of Salsa 98, and Clear Channel, owner of Zeta (as well as 1124 other stations across the country) -- are programming locally produced Latin alternative shows.
HBC took a chance once before, back in 1998, on Kike Posada, the Colombian-born DJ and promoter who has been playing Latin alternative music for more than a decade. By 1998, it looked like his Fuego Rock had found a home at his current signal WRTO, then called Caliente 98. (Get it? Fire rock, hot station). Soon after the station name and format changed to Tropical 98, however, its new management extinguished Fuego Rock.
For the next several months Posada's show, which he retitled Boom (a title inspired by a monthly Latin rock and pop fanzine he self-publishes), drifted across the AM dial with little success. In the summer of 2001, Boom landed at Spanish-language Radio Uno (WKAT-AM 1360) where, for a time, it flourished under Anglo-American owner Andrew Korge. Then South Florida's only classical music station, WTMI-FM 93.1, switched to a dance-music format and Korge saw a potentially more lucrative business opportunity. In the summer of 2002, just two months after Posada's first anniversary at Radio Uno, WKAT got hooked on Bach and Boom had to move again.
Luckily many of Posada's faithful advertisers have moved along with him. "I've been working with Kike for four or five years in different incarnations at different stations," says the Vidal Partnership's Sanchez. "Kike Posada is Mr. Rock eñ Espanol here. He has a wide following and a lot of credibility." That following has helped him keep accounts not only with Heineken but with other brands, including Budweiser, Coca-Cola, and Jack Daniel's.