Word on la calle

Is mainstream radio's "Hurban" format shafting Mexican-American listeners?

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Times are tough in the music biz. Not only are CD sales slumping, but radio stations are losing ad revenue to online ventures. One of the only genres or formats holding it down commercially is Latin music — a fact that falls well below the radar of your average gringo.

This shouldn't be so surprising, considering that Latinos are the largest minority group in the United States and represent the fastest-growing segment of the population. Another factor fueling Latin music's stateside success is the rise of reggaetón, the energetic blend of hip-hop, Jamaican dancehall, and Puerto Rican sounds that tops the Latin charts and even garners airplay on mainstream hip-hop and R&B stations. The so-called Latin boom that reggaetón triggered — far surpassing that of the late '90s — inspired media behemoth Clear Channel to convert dozens of stations from English to Spanish in 2005 and roll out a new reggaetón-heavy format known as Hurban.

Although Hurban doesn't exactly roll off the tongue — it's an awkward combination of Hispanic and urban — radio execs are hoping it will be easy on the ears of US Latinos ages 35 and younger, who represent somewhere around $350 billion in purchasing power.

In the Bay Area, the Hurban phenomenon is represented by San Rafael radio station KWZ, 100.7 FM ("La Kalle"), owned by Hispanic media titan Univisión. Although the name suggests urban edginess, the station's director of programming, Bismark Espinoza, explains, "It's basically a top 40 station.... It's a Spanish CHR [contemporary hit radio station], if you will." Earlier this summer, the station dumped its tagline "Reggaetón y más" as the gasolina-fueled genre hit a sales plateau. Pop artists such as Shakira, Maná, and teen sensation RBD get more airtime now. Reggaetón still dominates the playlist, however, and DJs lace their bilingual banter with Puerto Rican street slang like perreo, which can mean dirty dancing or doggy-style sex — either way, the Federal Communications Commission wouldn't have a clue.

Bilingualism is the most innovative aspect of Hurban radio. In attempting to reach the ostensibly bicultural second- and third-generation young adults of Generation Ñ, Hurban stations hire on-air personalities who can code switch between Spanish and English with the fluidity of a United Nations translator — or a Spanglish-spitting street hustler. "If our audience talks like that, we just try to relate to them as much as we can," Espinoza says. "It's just natural — the way they talk on the street, the way they talk to their families, the way they talk to their friends."

La Kalle has the language down. The music is another question. In June the station ranked number 24 in the region, with four other Latin stations ahead of it. In order to compete, the station's programmers continually experiment with the format, trying to stay on top of the remarkably varied musical tastes of young Latinos. Espinoza contends that the latest craze is a hybrid of reggaetón and Dominican bachata balladry. Sometimes referred to as "crunkchata," the tropical style is favored by artists such as Aventura, Rakim y Ken-Y, and Toby Love, who top La Kalle's request lists.

Tropical music? This is California, carnales. Given that the vast majority of Latinos in the Bay Area are of Mexican descent, where's the Chicano rap? Where's the Mexican banda? No doubt, Chicanos in San Francisco like their island music. They've been dancing to salsa con sabor since the days of Cesar's Latin Palace in the Mission District. But the hottest thing right now among Mexican Americans is regional music from their homeland: ranchera, grupero, Tejano, norteño, and banda.

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