- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 5, 2005

The abrupt switch from rock music to fast-paced dance songs with Spanish lyrics represented a big shift in format for the radio station WHFS-FM (99.1), one that shocked longtime listeners.

But Spanish-language broadcasters and industry watchers weren’t surprised that radio giant Infinity Broadcasting decided to tune in El Zol, loosely translated as “The Sun.” Many said the shift made last month represents a recognition of the rapidly growing role a booming Hispanic community plays in the Washington-area media market.

“It is where the future of our business is with the population the way it is,” said Jeff Stein, vice president of national sales for Mega Communications, which owns several Spanish-language stations in the region.

Infinity, a division of media giant Viacom International Inc., has scrambled to build the station’s brand name since it went on the air Jan. 12. The company is hiring personalities for a morning show and afternoon drive-time shifts and trying to woo advertisers.

El Zol’s playlist is classified as tropical, which means combination of fast-paced, trumpet-heavy merengue, somewhat slower salsa beats and “reggaeton,” a mixture of reggae and rap.

The station is working on its marketing plan, but hopes to make a big push for listeners in the next few weeks when new disc jockeys are in place, said Michael Hughes, an Infinity senior vice president and general manager of El Zol.

“We’re going to be big and loud here pretty soon,” he said. “We’re going to let people know we’re here.”

Spanish-language radio is strong in areas with large Latino communities, such as New York, Southern California and Florida. Many of those stations are geared toward Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Mexicans, among the largest blocs of Hispanics in the country.

The Washington-area Hispanic population is different, made up mostly of people from Central American countries such as Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala spread across communities including Silver Spring, Wheaton and Northern Virginia.

The group is growing fast and gaining affluence. Infinity estimated the area’s Hispanic population grew 25 percent in the past four years to reach 400,000 persons.

Infinity is a relatively late arrival to the Hispanic radio market, with only a few other Spanish-language stations among the 183 it owns nationwide. The company partnered with Spanish Broadcasting System in October, and SBS consultants are helping Infinity build El Zol.

“They are late to the game but they realize it is a game they need to be in,” said Roland Rust, a marketing professor in the business school at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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