- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Some listeners were angry about Infinity Broadcasting Corp.’s decision two weeks ago to scrap radio station WHFS-99.1 FM’s alternative-rock lineup for a Spanish-language format, but the change is a welcome one to the ears of newcomers like Karen Terrero.

Miss Terrero, 20, a resident of the District’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, learned about the station’s format change, which took place Jan. 13 with little notice to its rock listeners, from a friend and has become a regular listener.

The station now calls itself “El Zol,” or “The Sun” in Spanish, and is targeting Hispanics — one of the Washington-area’s fastest-growing demographics — between 18 and 40.

Hispanics make up 10 percent of the District’s population, which is one reason the station is jumping into the Spanish-language market, said Michael Hughes, senior vice president of Infinity Broadcasting in the District, which still owns the station. U.S. census data show that in 2000, 7.9 percent of the District’s population was Hispanic.

El Zol surpasses other Spanish-language stations in the area because of its variety, Miss Terrero said.

“It’s way better than the other one,” she said, referring to Spanish station WBZS-92.7 FM. “It’s not just hip-hop or merengue, and it’s new music.”

Many listeners have reacted positively to WHFS’ transformation, Mr. Hughes said.

“We’ve been surprised with how quickly the word has spread in the Hispanic community,” he said.

Infinity is relying on data from MobilTrak, a company that uses devices placed at various city intersections to record what radio stations people listen to in their vehicles, Mr. Hughes said.

“The early reports have just been amazing,” he said. “We’ve essentially tripled and quadrupled, in some cases, the previous WHFS ratings.”

In recent years, WHFS ratings consistently had trailed those of its rock competitors, including DC101.

Ana Vigil, 20, a front-desk representative at Unity Health Care, downtown, has also heard El Zol, but isn’t sold on the station’s musical selections.

“Most of the time they played my dad’s kind of music — not mine,” said Miss Vigil, who likes more modern popular music and not the “old school” music she said she has heard on El Zol.

WHFS’ format switch brings the number of Spanish-language radio stations in the D.C. area to six.

Miss Vigil, however, says there are not enough Spanish-language stations that play quality music.

“They’re not up-to-date,” she said. “And the ones that are up-to-date talk so much [trash] that you’re not listening to music.”

Mr. Hughes said the station’s two main programming goals for the near future include developing a “compelling” morning-drive show and developing strong community-oriented programming. The station has received an onslaught of calls since integrating its live personalities and advertising its request line — a sign that its music selection is striking a chord, he said.

“We’ve been very excited that the tropical music that we’re playing is very broad in appeal,” he said.

The station plans to hire eight to 10 staff members, including on-air personalities for the morning drive, night and overnight shows, promotions staff and office support, Mr. Hughes said.

Mr. Hughes said response thus far from advertisers has been “terrific.” Advertisers include Consumer Credit Counseling Service, H2O nightclub, Rosenthal Automotive Group, Alexandria Toyota, College Park Hyundai, D.C. United, Sheehy Ford, Lustine Toyota and Miller Brewing Co.

El Zol will start its own marketing plan, including print and broadcast advertisements, in the next 30 to 45 days to attract more listeners, he said. He said the station has not run any print or broadcast advertisements yet because the format switch happened so quickly.

Marco Mejia, 32, a Spanish teacher at Berlitz Language Center, in Northwest, wasn’t aware of the new Spanish-language station. Mr. Mejia listens to radio news in the morning before going to work, but he usually listens to English-speaking stations.

“Here I listen to the English stations, because I want to practice,” he said. “I dance to Latin music, but I don’t listen to Latin music.”

Mr. Mejia said he would be more likely to listen to Spanish-language stations if they aired programs that taught listeners how to speak English.

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