Wednesday, March 12, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
If you walk down the street in any Latin American city during a soccer game, you may hear a howled long vowel: “GOOOOOLLLL!”
The sound comes from a small transistor radio hanging from the neck of the bank guard, or lying on the rack of a newspaper salesman, or tied with rubber bands to the fruit vendor’s chair.
They’re everywhere, a sign of the primacy of radio, and soccer, in Hispanic culture.
As of this month, that sound has hit the Las Vegas Valley. KENO 1460-AM, ESPN Deportes, has become the valley’s first 24/7 Spanish-language sports station.
Tony Bonnici, vice president of Lotus Broadcasting, the station’s parent company, says bringing the station to the valley was the result of “a slam-dunk business model.” He mentions the nearly half-million Hispanics in the valley, 80 percent of whom are under 50. He points to the Arbitron numbers showing that four of the top 10 local stations in number of hours listeners were tuned in per week were Spanish-language stations. He says soccer matches often grab top ratings on Spanish-language TV.
Those numbers are mirrored elsewhere, which explains Spanish-language radio’s growth in the United States. There were 730 stations for Hispanics nationwide in 2006, according to Arbitron, 37 percent more than in 1998.
The arrival of ESPN Deportes on local radio is another sign of what expert Federico Subervi calls the “cultural Latinization of this part of the U.S.”
Subervi, who directs the Latinos and Media Project at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University-San Marcos, says radio’s importance in Latin America “has to do with the socioeconomic base” of much of the population, meaning many people are poor and transistor radios are cheap. Hispanics bring that preference with them to the United States. Plus, he notes that “Latino culture is a culture of storytellers. We love stories of all types, with heros and villains.”
Of course, “sports provides that,” he says.
Alvaro Puentes will host the new station’s three-hours-a-day locally produced show starting Monday. Now 43, Puentes has listened since he was a boy in Mexico to tales on the radio of heroes and villains in his two favorite sports, soccer and boxing.
There was one announcer’s rendering of a crucial moment in a boxing match: “He’s swaying like a palm tree sways next to the sea.”
Another’s depiction of a run for the goal: “He jumped on a motorcycle, rode down the street and wound up in the kitchen!”
One of Puentes’ favorite announcers punctuated compelling plays by screaming, “I stand on my feet and say, Hats off!”
“I remember I could picture the play with his words,” Puentes says.
Mario Sanchez, head coach of UNLV’s soccer team, recalls that when he was a Los Angeles high school student during the 1990 World Cup, the only way he could follow the matches was on Spanish-language radio.
He hopes the new station brings enough listeners for businesses to see soccer’s appeal, drawing them to back adult leagues, his own team and, eventually, a professional team in Las Vegas.
Puentes points to local soccer’s popularity as a reason for optimism in his new venture: more than 15 soccer leagues in the valley with 700 adult teams and at least 200 youth teams, adding up to what he calls “an army of 50,000, sportswise.”
He says those soldiers of soccer will spread the word. With the option of listening to soccer matches from Mexico, South America and Europe, as well as commentary on the local leagues and UNLV’s soccer team and piped-in programs from Miami and Los Angeles, Puentes thinks the valley’s workplaces, cars and homes will soon be tuned in to his station.
Live matches of great importance, like the one last week between Spain’s Real Madrid and Italy’s Roma, will preempt any regularly scheduled programming, Puentes says.
Bonnici notes that his company invested $4 million in the new station, but he’s not worried about the return. He says research shows that “mainstream” companies — beer makers and car dealerships, for example — want to advertise to Hispanic listeners. So do local companies geared toward Hispanics, such as La Bonita and Los Compadres supermarkets and money order stores. It all makes Bonnici wonder why nobody had done Spanish-language sports sooner.
Although the new station could make Lotus Broadcasting some money and be welcomed by thousands, others are likely to argue that the arrival of more Spanish-only media further isolates Hispanics from the mainstream, stalling assimilation into U.S. culture.
Subervi says that concern doesn’t get past midfield because “Latinos don’t assimilate, they acculturate.” By this he means they “pick and choose what’s convenient to keep and not keep” from their culture.
“And sports is one of those things there’s no reason to leave behind.”
Puentes thinks Hispanics “can become a part of (U.S.) society without losing their values.”
For thousands in the valley, he predicts there will be a reunion of sorts when they discover 1460 on the dial.
“It’s as if you left your true love behind, and now she’s back.”