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Hispanic Radio Hits Rough Wave

By Alejandro Lazo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 14, 2008

The International Media Academy, a storefront language school located below the studios of Radio Fiesta 1480 AM, shuttered its doors earlier this year. With that, the Spanish-language station lost an advertiser.

When the Vilchez & Associates realty company closed its Woodbridge office a few doors down from Radio Fiesta, with an African market opening in its place, the station lost another.

The nearby Asesoria SalvadoreƱa, which helps immigrants get power of attorney and make land transactions in their home countries, saw its customers begin to dwindle last year. It cut out most of its advertising budget, including its account with Radio Fiesta.

For years immigrant entrepreneurs have taken over small stations with relatively weak signals, providing what for many Caribbean and Latin American immigrants is a key source of information about their local communities, U.S. life and politics, and news from the homeland. When Carlos Aragon, a native of El Salvador, founded Radio Fiesta six years ago on the second story of a strip mall in Woodbridge, he intended it to play just that role for Hispanics in Prince William County.

"The intention was to create a bridge between the Hispanic and the Anglo community, interviewing politicians and informing the community and creating a radio station that serves the community," Aragon said.

But these days the subprime mortgage meltdown has hit many Spanish-language radio stations hard. Real estate companies that targeted the Hispanic community have closed their doors or cut back on advertising and sponsorships. Aragon has lost most of the real estate agents who once advertised with him. In Prince William, where authorities are cracking down on illegal immigrants, many Hispanic-owned businesses have also slashed their ad budgets as fewer customers walk through their doors. Radio Fiesta's ad revenue from Hispanic businesses has declined by about 40 percent over the past year; it's down 10 percent from non-Hispanic businesses, Aragon said.

Mercedes Hernandez, who used to advertise with Aragon, stood outside her Asesoria SalvadoreƱa last week as workers began bringing in piles of clothes to a new shop she is opening.

"People are abandoning homes, businesses are closing and unemployment is high because people are afraid to walk around," she said. "We are opening a used-clothes store because people can't afford anything else."

The Washington area has 11 Spanish-language radio stations, though only El Zol at 99.1 FM, which took over the alternative rock station WHFS three years ago, has a market-wide signal. That station has gained in audience share over the past three years and now captures 3.7 percent of the market. Hispanics make up 11.7 percent of the entire market, according to figures from the research firm Arbitron. Numbers are not available for the other stations.

"The rest of the stations are locally focused and depend highly on the business of the communities they serve," said Steve Passwaiter, a vice president with research firm BIA Financial Network.

As the housing market took off, Spanish-language radio and real estate companies -- two businesses that are highly locally focused -- became increasingly intertwined. Jose Luis Semidey, a real estate agent who catered to the Hispanic community, ran Radio Latina at 950 AM in Potomac and 810 AM in Annapolis. He's no longer an agent, and he ceased operating the stations in 2006. The realty firm Vilchez & Associates was a principal sponsor of Radio Universal in Manassas at 1460 AM, which no longer exists. It was shut down last year to be reopened this year as La Kaliente, with a new format and a new owner.

Peruvian native Ronald Gordon, whose Arlington-based ZGS Communications operates 11 Telemundo television station affiliates and three radio stations, including VIVA 900 AM in Laurel, said the housing bust has hit Spanish-language radio in the area, much like it has hit the whole Hispanic community.

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