On a hot afternoon in May, Ron Gordon strides into the offices of WZDC Channel 64 in Arlington. He wears a blazer and khaki pants. He's not the three-piece-suit type. Gordon makes a point of poking his head in every office and saying hello to each of his employees. Knowing their names is a point of pride for him, given that his company has grown from three people to 160 employees, spread out over several states.
After making the rounds in the one-room advertising department and WZDC's two production suites, Gordon's last stop is the studio of WZDC's 6 p.m. news broadcast, a space the size of a large Persian rug. Inside are several desks, a green screen on one end and a counter on the other. Gordon points to the screen. "That's where we do the weather. And that," he says, pointing to the counter, "is our anchor desk."
In the center of the room are two cameras that spin around, creating the illusion -- at least on-screen -- of two rooms, which lends the show the polished look of bigger-budget, English-language competitors. "We do a lot with a little here," Gordon says.
Being resourceful has helped Gordon, 49, and his partner, Eduardo Zavala, 44, build a Spanish-language media operation that includes three radio stations -- one in Laurel and two in Tampa -- seven television stations along the East Coast and an advertising and marketing agency in Arlington.
Gordon's company, ZGS Broadcasting Holdings Inc., is the largest affiliate in the country of the Spanish-language Telemundo Network Group. In the wake of the merger of Univision Communications Inc. and Hispanic Broadcasting Corp. in 2002 and NBC's purchase of Telemundo in 2001, ZGS Broadcasting is one of a dozen small, Spanish-language broadcasters fighting for a future.
As a teenager, Gordon started a newspaper that listed soccer scores. Having emigrated from his native Lima, Peru, to Washington as a child, he wanted some way to keep up with the sport. But Gordon didn't aspire to become a media mogul. For one thing, he didn't have the hard-driving personality of a Michael Eisner or a Rupert Murdoch. Gordon was more of a mensch.
"You want to talk to him. He has a very contagious personality, very genuine," said Gordon's friend Armando Chapelli, longtime publisher of El Tiempo Latino, a weekly Spanish-language newspaper in Washington that Chapelli recently sold to The Washington Post Co.
After finishing college in 1977, Gordon worked on Capitol Hill and, briefly, for the Republican National Committee. In the early 1980s he landed a gig as an occasional host on "Revista," a bilingual weekend show on Washington ABC affiliate WJLA-TV.
At WJLA, Gordon met Zavala, an assistant director, and Jose Sanz, a producer. Zavala became the technical brains, Sanz was the writer and Gordon, with his affable demeanor, was "the PR/business man," Zavala said. (Gordon and Zavala bought out Sanz in the early 1990s.) In 1984, the threesome launched ZGS Communications. (The name combines the first initials of their last names.)
While Zavala and Sanz worked day jobs in television production and Gordon toiled as a communications director for the Greater Washington Ibero American Chamber of Commerce, they began to shoot, edit and produce stories for "Latin Tempo," an English-language program focusing on Latino stories that aired on NBC stations across the country. "We wanted to tell the story of our community, not just to our community, but outside as well," Gordon said.
At first, Gordon and his partners didn't own any equipment. "We always rented the camera on Friday. They were closed on Saturday. So we didn't have to bring it back until Monday," Gordon said.
To buy their first camera and editing hardware, they put in $200 each and borrowed the rest. "We applied at a local bank with three personal guarantees for a $25,000 loan," Zavala said in an e-mail. "This was barely enough to purchase the minimum of equipment, so I then bought wood from Hechinger's to build the console for the video equipment."
ZGS Communications grew quickly, grossing $400,000 within three years, Gordon said. ZGS's community-focused programming, such as "Linea Directa," won four Emmys and was nominated for more.
By the early 1990s, Gordon and Zavala were producing fewer programs and picking up work helping other businesses reach Hispanic consumers. Eventually, they spun off ZGS Communications as a marketing and advertising agency, which they still own, and turned their energies to broadcasting.
"I saw much more opportunity in broadcasting than on the production side. All you had was Univision and Telemundo. And Univision gets most of its programming from Mexico," Gordon said.
Gordon and Zavala started by leasing a Univision affiliate in Tampa, the 20th-largest Hispanic market in the United States. Washington is 18th. Many larger stations hire an ad agency to produce commercials, but Gordon and Zavala produced local spots themselves. They went on to buy their first Class A broadcast license in Lubbock, Tex.
Class A stations also are known as "low power" television stations. Low power is a bit of a misnomer; the name refers not to the strength of a signal but to the platforms on which the station's programming appears. Low power stations are typically carried exclusively over the airwaves, compared with "full power" stations, which are carried over airwaves and through cable and satellite.
In Lubbock, Gordon and Zavala bought the rights to unused airspace. There was no physical station. "All we had was a piece of paper," Zavala said. As in the early days, they bought equipment and built a small studio.
They signed on to become a Univision affiliate. Then, as now, Spanish-language television broadcasting was dominated by Univision, which was founded by the Mexican broadcaster Televisa in 1961 and by 1990 was the fifth-largest U.S. network, reaching 5 million viewers through its affiliates and through satellite and cable operators. Its only real rival was Telemundo, founded in 1986 by financiers Henry Silverman and Saul Steinberg.
The growth of the Hispanic population in the United States meant there was still space for such smaller players as Gordon and Zavala. In 1990, Hispanics numbered 22.3 million, according to census data. A decade later, that had jumped 74 percent, to 38.8 million. Hispanics were becoming increasingly affluent, with $580 billion in disposable income.
In a typical affiliate arrangement, ZGS shared ad time with Univision. ZGS was able to keep the revenue from its local ad sales, and Univision kept the revenue from its network ads, Gordon said. Gordon and Zavala produced ZGS's required community programming themselves. When commuting from Washington to Lubbock grew tiring, they sold the station and chose to focus on mid-size markets on the East Coast.
ZGS Broadcasting's holdings grew at a steady pace as it added television stations in the District, Orlando, Springfield, Mass., and Hartford, Conn., all Telemundo affiliates. Gordon said they decided to switch networks because Telemundo had fewer established affiliates and thus offered more opportunity for expansion.
Around the time Gordon and Zavala bought the station in Lubbock, they acquired radio stations in Washington and Tampa. As with television, they purposely avoided such larger markets as Dallas and Miami, which already had Spanish-language radio, television and newspapers. "It's a big fish in small pond mentality," Gordon said.
The strategy had an added competitive advantage. Most of the Hispanic viewers in the areas they targeted were first-generation immigrants whose primary language was Spanish. Thus, ZGS advertisers could be more certain of reaching their target demographic. The larger Hispanic markets have more of a mix, or as Gordon put it, "Jose Rodriguez in San Antonio consumes in English, drinks Bud and loves his Cowboys."
By 2000, ZGS Broadcasting and ZGS Communications boasted combined revenue of more than $16 million. Then the news that Gordon and Zavala had been banking on for 16 years came: The 2000 Census showed that Hispanics were the largest minority group in the United States. Advertisers could no longer ignore the Spanish market. "The census in 2000 really validated what we've been saying all along," Gordon said.
What Gordon and Zavala didn't count on, however, was that the growth of the Hispanic market would coincide with media industry consolidation. Since the '90s, media conglomerates had been locked in a kind of arms race to gobble up content providers. And in the wake of the 2000 Census, Spanish-language broadcasters became an attractive acquisition target. NBC took the plunge, announcing in 2001 its purchase of Telemundo. Within two years, Univision announced its merger with Hispanic Broadcasting, the nation's largest Spanish radio network.
Zavala said he and Gordon feared the new giants would suck up all the television stations and ad dollars in the Spanish-language market and force them to sell. "We thought the big operations would just eat us up," Zavala said. "We considered possibly selling but instead decided to stay focused on the market and continue."
Their commitment to the Spanish market rests on one statistic that Gordon repeats like a mantra: Hispanics make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but Hispanic media outlets that cater to them garner only 3 percent of advertising dollars.
Capturing a bigger share of ad dollars will not be easy, and not just because the competition has deep pockets. As television viewers get more of their programming through cable and satellite, fewer are watching low power stations. Gordon has managed to work out temporary carriage deals for his stations with such cable operators as Comcast. But he said he fears the future of community television is about to go the way of rabbit ears.
Gordon is not one to go quietly. Last winter, he and several other owners of Spanish-language radio and television stations formed the Independent Spanish Broadcasters Association. One of its top priorities is to lobby Congress and the Federal Communications Commission for "must-carry rights" and to require cable and satellite operators to carry low power stations.
"The chairman of the FCC talks about diversity and minority ownership in broadcasting. Granting must-carry [rights] to low power stations is the perfect vehicle for that," Gordon said. "We're doing local programming and serving special communities. We have programming for Peruvians, Dominicans, Bolivians, Puerto Ricans. . . . We should get those rights."
Gordon, who noted that less than 1.5 percent of broadcast owners and less than 4 percent of radio station owners are minorities, said, "Minorities have been marginalized in the broadcasting industry."
To further the goal of minority ownership, the Independent Spanish Broadcasters Association is lobbying for a tax credit for minority buyers of broadcast companies. Gordon argues that the tax credit would allow small-business people like himself to stay in the broadcasting game.
For now, ZGS Broadcasting will continue to expand its reach. Gordon said ZGS is close to buying two more television stations, but he wouldn't disclose where.
"There are still a lot of opportunities," Gordon said. "And we have a passion for what we do. We love it."