Hispanic radio stations are singing new song: New general manager making major changes

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Russ Dodge is used to scaling cultural barriers. For 17 years, Dodge, who is white, was a sales manager at WTLC, one of Indianapolis’ top radio stations targeting blacks. Dodge was central in numerous community outreach efforts at WTLC.

As the new general manager of two Indianapolis Hispanic radio stations, Dodge is attempting to hurdle not only another cultural divide, but a language barrier to boot.

Dodge, 54, took the helm of WEDJFM 107.1 and WSYW-AM 810 in April, and intends to use his experience from his WTLC days and his more than 30 years of industry experience to grow the stations’ business.

Already, he’s hired a new marketing chief and program director, made a major format change, and increased the stations’ marketing and outreach campaigns. And most important to Indianapolis-based parent company Continental Broadcasting LLC, he’s vowed to deliver double-digit percentage gains in listenership and advertising sales in the coming year.

He’ll also be brushing up on his Spanish. But he doesn’t see the ethnic differences between him and his listening audience as an obstacle to growth.

“I’ve got myself a new Spanish dictionary,” Dodge said with a laugh from his 1800 N. Meridian St. office.

But Dodge knows that connecting with the stations’ predominantly Hispanic audience is no laughing matter.

“When I was at WTLC in the 1970s and ’80s, we were the community’s station and were given a special trust,” said Dodge, who most recently was general manager for WXLW-AM 950, the local ESPN Radio affiliate. “Here, that might be even a bigger emphasis. Hispanic radio is a lifeline for our audience. We must be very good at handling the right information.”

Shortly after taking the reins at WEDJ and WSYW, Dodge launched Continental Cares, a program that requires each of the company’s employees to be actively involved in at least one community service organization. Most of his employees, Dodge said, have chosen to become involved in Hispanic outreach programs.

After succeeding Dwight Barnett as general manager, Dodge began studying the stations, their business practices and the central Indiana Hispanic community. In the last month, Dodge made his first two major moves.

He hired Manuel Sepulveda from Radio Tricolor Networks in Los Angeles. Sepulveda, a radio industry veteran with 10 years’ experience working in Hispanic radio, also worked at XBCE-FM, one of San Diego’s largest Latino stations.

Dodge also shook up the formats and overhauled the stations’ logos. Starting July 17, WEDJ began playing regional Mexican music and WSYW emphasized Latin hits, including salsa, bachata and merengue. WEDJ is also beefing up its offering of local, regional and national news of interest to Hispanics.

The format change is somewhat of a flip-flop of what the two stations formerly played, but there will be more emphasis on news and information on both stations and more Mexican music on WEDJ than either station played previously.

“In our studies, we found that most Hispanics coming to central Indiana are from central Mexico, and they like the regional Mexican format,” Dodge said. “We think this switch is going to enhance our advertising base.”

Dodge also promised to introduce listener contests and other outreach programs on both stations.

To market the changes, Dodge plans to launch billboard, television and print ads starting this month.

Already, Dodge said, there’s been an uptick in advertising and listener interest. Car dealers, restaurants, retailers and banks are showing more interest in advertising, Dodge said, and help-wanted advertising is also increasing. Dodge said the next six to 12 months will be telling. Local media buyers and advertisers agree.

“There’s a lot of potential in the local Hispanic radio market, and most of it has long been untapped,” said Bill Perkins, president of Indianapolis-based Perkins Nichols Media and a longtime media buyer. “Russ Dodge has a solid track record in this industry, so people will be watching what he can do here.”

Before going Hispanic five years ago, Continental tried a variety of formats on its two local stations, including hard rock, jazz and classical. When Hispanic groups started approaching Continental about buying air time, the switch was made.

According to radio ratings compiled by New York-based Arbitron Inc., WEDJ and WSYW each attract 25,000 to 30,000 listeners a week. And since the most recent quarterly ratings book ended June 21, it’s too early to tell how Dodge’s initiatives have taken hold, Perkins said.

“Advertisers are increasingly interested in the Hispanic market, so if [Dodge] can make improvements, it could really help his bottom line,” Perkins said.

Roberto Ponce, president of locally based advertising and marketing firm Ponce Publicidad, said the changes at WEDJ and WSYW are coming at an opportune time.

“The central Indiana Hispanic market is really starting to mature, and this is a segment that is not only growing, but is hardworking and brand-loyal,” Ponce said. “Many Hispanics have come to the U.S. to have a better life, and that means buying the things they couldn’t before. This is a powerful consumer group.”

According to U.S. Census figures, the Hispanic population in Marion County grew 294 percent from 1990 to 2000, with more than 50,000 Hispanics in Indianapolis alone, and nearly 200,000 in the metropolitan area. Ponce and Dodge agreed those numbers might be low.

Census data also shows Hispanics’ average household income has nearly doubled in the last decade, to near $40,000. While many Hispanics come to Indiana directly from a foreign country, an increasing number have been in the United States many years, but are migrating to Indiana for work and a more affordable lifestyle, said Charles C. Guthrie, a University of Indianapolis history professor who has studied and written about the influx of Hispanics into central Indiana.

Guthrie added that second- and thirdgeneration Hispanics born in the United States are also getting a better education and higher-paying jobs than their forefathers, increasing the market segment’s purchasing power.

“It used to be only certain companies were pursuing the Hispanic market,” Ponce said. “Now, every company that does mass marketing is realizing they must target the Hispanic population.”

Tom Taylor, editor of trade publication Inside Radio, said Hispanic radio represents one of the industry’s few bright spots. Hispanic radio revenue growth outpaced the general radio market more than 10 percent in 2005, and that is expected to carry through 2006.

Plus, radio makes up a much larger share of Hispanic ad spending than it does in the general market-21.5 percent versus just under 5 percent, according to industry trade publication Advertising Age.

New York-based Hispanic media investment firm Davidson Media Group acquired Indianapolis’ WNTS-AM 1590 for $2 million in 2005 and changed its format from gospel, making it the market’s third Hispanic radio station. Davidson officials said they bought and converted WNTS due to central Indiana’s fast-growing Hispanic population. Media buyer Perkins thinks the market is too small to support a fourth Hispanic station.

But industry goliaths are showing interest nationally. San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications and New York-based Infinity Broadcast Corp. have jumped into Hispanic radio in markets like Chicago, Dallas, Denver, San Antonio and Washington, D.C.

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