¿Qué Pasó, Denver?

The rising popularity of Latin music isn't just hype. It's fact -- but you wouldn't know that by looking at the ratings of Denver's Spanish-language radio stations.

On the most recent Billboard Hot 100 chart, five of the thirteen biggest-selling tunes in the United States -- 'N Sync and Gloria Estefan's "Music of My Heart," Santana's "Smooth" (featuring Rob Thomas), Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of...)," Ricky Martin's "She's All I Ever Had" and Marc Anthony's "I Need to Know" -- all sport a Latin link, if not an enormously Latin sound. Tracks by Enrique Iglesias and Jennifer Lopez continue to move plenty of units as well. Of course, these artists are singing these hits in English. Nonetheless, the appeal of their music, combined with the growth of the Latino population, has fueled a jump in the popularity of Latin radio. In Los Angeles, for example, a pair of Spanish-language stations have ranked first and second in the market's Arbitron ratings for three consecutive quarters -- one of them has maintained its numbers for nearly three years.

In Denver, however, it's a much different story. Even though some estimates put the metro-area's Hispanic population at around 20 percent, Spanish-language stations languish near the bottom of the Arbitron roster. Only one outlet, KJMN, at 92.1 on your FM dial, even registers on the most recent survey of listeners twelve or older, and its relatively anemic 1.1 share puts it in twentieth place. That means signals such as KMXA, KJME, KCUV and KBNO didn't surface on the main Arbitron report at all -- and the last operation, known as K-Bueno, won't get a shot to redeem itself next time. In late September, Zee Ferrufino and Frank Ponce, who had purchased the station out of bankruptcy in 1990, sold it to Pennsylvania's Crawford Broadcasting, which promptly dumped the Spanish format in favor of the same contemporary Christian music it had been peddling at KLZ, another of its Denver properties. (KLZ, at 560 AM, is now going the big band/nostalgia route.) Ferrufino has said he wants to purchase another, more powerful station in the near future, but few people in the broadcasting community think he has anywhere close to the resources he'd need to do so.

Of the four remaining Spanish-language stations in Denver, only one, KJME, at 1390 AM, is locally owned, operated or programmed. KJMN, along with KMXA at 1090 AM, are properties of EXCL, a San Jose, California, company with fifteen stations nationwide, while KCUV, at 1190 AM, was packaged for sale in June by Denverites Manuel and Magaly Fernandez to Radio Unica, a Miami-based chain of talk stations. Thus far, the corporate entities haven't put big promotional budgets behind their Denver properties in an effort to get them on the mainstream map. They seem content to focus on niche audiences in the most cost-effective way possible -- by using material that's delivered via satellite, not generated in Colorado. The main Denver flavor comes from local commercials, not the stuff that surrounds them.

Neither Radio Unica reps in Florida nor Denver-based general manager Richard Rocha would offer quotes about the future of KCUV because the station is in an FCC-mandated "quiet period" until the transaction receives final approval. But William Neidig, KJME's program director, and Rob Quinn, the general manager of both KJMN and KMXA, were not only eager to talk but surprised at being asked to do so by a representative of what they think of as the Anglo media. "We hold no resentment toward the lack of press," says Quinn, a gringo who got into Latin radio only after EXCL bought 92X, an alternative-rock station he'd helped to start up in the early Nineties. "We are just doing a very good job of smiling, working hard and making progress everyday. And we figure those guys will catch up sooner or later."

EXCL's stations are music-based: KMXA focuses on a ranchero/norteño format that Quinn describes as "Mexican country music," while KJMN offers up "Radio Romantica," a mildly spicy Latin variation on adult contemporary that spotlights Martin, Estefan, not one but two Iglesiases (Enrique and his father, Julio) and other similar artists who haven't yet managed a pop crossover singing in Spanish. Given the commercial punch packed by the artists on KJMN's playlist, its ratings seem shockingly modest -- but Quinn, whose stations are the only ones of their type in the Denver market to subscribe to the Arbitron service, insists that numbers don't tell the whole story about his stations -- or Spanish-language radio overall. "Hispanics are generally very bad candidates for filling out and returning ratings diaries, for cultural reasons," he says as cautiously as he can. "There's often paperwork issues in a given house; a lot of people in Denver contributing to this society don't have their papers together, so any kind of written survey is usually met with some skepticism. The 18-to-34-year-old Hispanic male, especially, is one of the toughest demographics to pin down, so it's almost impossible to get a valid sample. It's an inexact science at best."