Luis Tamblay of Volumen Cero (left) makes an appearance on Nicole Alvarez's En Fuego
Luis Tamblay of Volumen Cero (left) makes an appearance on Nicole Alvarez's En Fuego
Steve Satterwhite

Ready, Aim, Fuego

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.

"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."

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.

Demographics, Alvarez believes, is Zeta's destiny. "We're a rock station in Miami and we need to play this for the people in Miami." That doesn't necessarily mean non-Latinos will be alienated by En Fuego. While Alvarez admits there has been a complaint or two from less enlightened listeners, she speculates, "Our regular listeners will like the music they hear on Sunday night as well. It's rock and roll: drums, guitar. Vocals. It could be in Swahili."

Radio promoter Fazzari says he has high hopes for Zeta's En Fuego. "Kike doesn't push the envelope that much when it comes to programming, which is totally fine," says Fazzari of Fuego Rock. "He has his core audience and Zeta is just going to bring another dimension, another way of looking at radio not only in Miami but in the United States."

Maybe. But the two shows not only air at the same time with practically the same name, but the programming is so similar that, as Posada observed, one night Fuego Rock and En Fuego each played the same artist (first local Peruvian folk-rocker Pepe Alva, then Chilean pioneers Los Prisioneros) at the same time (albeit different songs). Miami-based Volumen Cero visited Fuego Rock on the show's first night and stopped in at En Fuego last Sunday. After all, this is the capital of Latin music: Every Latin act in the world comes here to record and promote. Sooner or later the same reps and artists will show up at both Fuego Rock and En Fuego's door.

Neither Posada nor Alvarez care much about competition, though. With so little space for Latin alternative music on the radio, both camps feel it's more important to combine and conquer.

"I want [En Fuego] to succeed," insists Posada. "This is a market that has to grow."

"Now there are two of us," points out Alvarez. "They [the music industry and the fans] have to hear us."

If Fuego Rock catches fire, will HBC export the idea to other stations? Well, there's already Houston's syndicated A Tu Ritmo. If En Fuego explodes, will Clear Channel repeat the experiment at more outlets across the United States? "We intend to evaluate the opportunity to increase our Hispanic-format portfolio on a market-by-market basis," says Tom Owens, senior vice president of programming for Clear Channel Radio. "Servicing this increasing segment of the listening audience is one of the greatest opportunities for rating growth that exists today."

So, that means ... yes? Maybe? If that's what the kids want?

With more at stake than just about anybody else in the business, radio promoter Fazzari doesn't need more concrete answers. He is already delirious with possibility. "It just takes one station to really push the envelope so far to the edge that it's going to get other stations to do the same thing," he fantasizes. "If they get good response, you might get [Latin rock] in regular programming. They're gonna start filtrando the airwaves. Zeta's going to change the way that people look at radio and maybe help take the market to another level."

Zeta's Hansen is more cautious in his predictions. "Are we going to be suddenly playing Latin rock during the week?" he asks himself aloud. "I'm not prepared to say that today. At the core, Zeta is a rock station mainly formatted in English." However, Hansen's not ready to rule out the possibility. Pausing a moment, he adds, "The sky's the limit."


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