Ready, Aim, Fuego

Thanks to thirsty beer advertisers and hungry radio giants, Sunday night was made for Latin rock

"The issue has never been sales or ratings; those have always been in our favor," Posada claims. So what was the problem? "I think it's been the mentality of those who make the decisions to give space to this music or not. It was something they just thought was worthless."

Latin alternative radio promoter Fernando M. Fazzari, who has pushed platters for nearly every major label, is more blunt. "Every [Spanish-language] radio station [in Miami] is programmed by these old geezers," he complains. "It's like musical chairs: A guy gets fired at one station and he pops up at another."

Luis Tamblay of Volumen Cero (left) makes an appearance on Nicole Alvarez's En Fuego
Steve Satterwhite
Luis Tamblay of Volumen Cero (left) makes an appearance on Nicole Alvarez's En Fuego
Fuego Rock's Kike Posada (second from right) embraces Grammy-nominated Bacilos
Fuego Rock's Kike Posada (second from right) embraces Grammy-nominated Bacilos

With more than a decade of experience servicing radio across the United States, Fazzari knows as much about the problem as anyone. But Spanish-language radio's resistance to Latin alternative is not unique to Miami. Entravision sprinkles a smattering of Latin alternative among Paulina Rubio and Ricky Martin's pop hits on super station Super Estrella, currently broadcasting through three signals in Southern California: KSSE-FM 97.5, KSSC-FM 103.1, and KLYY-FM 107.1. HBC's nationally syndicated and misleadingly advertised "Latin alternative" show, programmed out of Houston by KRTX-FM 100.7, shares Super Estrella's poppy orientation. Rock En Unica, a two-hour show broadcast nationwide on Saturday nights by the Miami-based radio network Radio Unica, takes a more adventurous approach, but is heard only on AM. Otherwise most Spanish-language stations across the country stick to tried and tired formulas of tropical music on the East Coast and Mexican regional music out west.

According to Fazzari, nearly every one of the 185 Latin alternative programs across the United States listed in his database are on either college, community, or public radio. Many of the English-language programs -- like Trevor Stottlemeyer's Global Café, which airs weekday mornings on Shippensburg University's WSYC-FM 88.7 in Pennsylvania -- trade on Latino chic for the world-beat crowd (Stottlemeyer describes his audience as "primarily Anglo-Saxon commuters, people who would listen to an NPR show or shop at Borders"). Meanwhile the Spanish-language programs -- like Luis Ayala's Oxígeno on Viva WIOC-AM 900 in Washington, D.C. -- tend to traffic in nostalgia for recent immigrants from Mexico or South and Central America, playing older rock en español classics and eschewing new music.

In contrast Miami's Salsa 98, under programming director Leo Vela, has distinguished itself from traditional Spanish-language radio by fulfilling the promise of the station's slogan: "Musica para todos los Latinos" ("Music for all Latinos").

"Trying to represent all the Latin genres, new and traditional, is [Vela's] formula for success," observes Kike Posada. His Fuego Rock is one in a slate of specialty shows on Salsa 98 that also includes bachata, reggaeton, and even disco, old school, and dance.

Although returning to FM radio allows Posada to reach more listeners, Salsa 98's Fuego Rock is less an innovation than a continuation of the format he already established with Boom and the Caliente 98 version of Fuego Rock. "If it were up to me, I would stop playing pop in order to play [strictly] alternative music," he confesses. But he feels pressure to include oldies and pop favorites -- not so much from his station bosses but from his listeners. "There are so many requests," he explains. Many of his callers are homesick for hits of the Seventies and Eighties, so Posada has devised a formula he hopes will please everyone. "I put on something classic that everyone knows," he recites. "Then I put on something not so classic, maybe two or three years old. Then I play something new." That means you could hear a not-yet-released single by wild Venezuelan funksters Amigos Invisibles one minute, then a mothballed hit by the original Argentine rock star Charly Garcia the next.

No matter how safe Posada plays it with Fuego Rock, the inclusion of a Latin alternative show on Salsa 98 is a radical departure from HBC formats and from the current state of Spanish-language radio. That's a surprise for Zeta programming director Troy Hansen. "I don't really view [playing Latin rock] as being anything special for [Salsa 98]: a Spanish radio station playing Latin music. Isn't that what you're supposed to do?" he asks. But he does see En Fuego as a bold new move for Anglo rock radio. "For us [at Zeta], that's revolutionary."

The revolución started for Hansen soon after he moved to South Florida from WRIF-FM 101.1 in Detroit last June. One month later he attended the Rock en Miami Festival, the first Latin rock festival Zeta had ever sponsored. Even though, by festival organizer Enrique Kogan's own admission, Rock en Miami could only afford to feature passé Latin rock acts, Hansen was blown away by the 7000 rockeros who showed up anyway. "That opened my eyes," he recalls; he remembers thinking, "Wow, there's a whole audience out here.

"The population in South Florida and Miami-Fort Lauderdale has a 60 percent Hispanic base," Hansen continues. "That's a segment of the audience that I want to have listening to the radio station. Not just acknowledging a Latin rock movement but actually playing that Latin rock would help us reach that market."

Hansen ran the idea by his Clear Channel bosses and was given a "go." To put together Zeta's Latin rock show, he turned to Nicole Alvarez, the on-air personality for the station's weeknight countdown show since April 2002. Born and raised in Miami, the Cuban-American Alvarez might have been brought up with boleros, trova, and tropical music, but she also was exposed to Latin rock by her South American neighbors growing up in nearby Key Biscayne.

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