Spanish language radio builds in Minnesota

DJ El Vacaro
DJ El Vaquero broadcasts on La Invasora, a Spanish-language radio station in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

One station has dominated Twin Cities Spanish language radio for the past quarter century.

"This is Radio Rey, La Ley, 63WDGY Hudson, St. Paul, Minneapolis," booms a recorded ID spot. "Radio Rey. It's La Ley."

Guadalupe Gonzalez
Guadalupe Gonzalez is described as the godfather of Spanish language radio in Minnesota. His station, Radio Rey, has dominated the local scene for decades.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

La Ley. That means "the Law." The standard.

Radio Rey, or "Radio King," is the creation of Guadalupe Gonzalez. He came to Minneapolis from Mexico in the early 1970s to work in a die casting factory, but says he fell into radio.

"You know, America," he says. "Everybody's got a chance. This should always make dreams for everybody."

Today, many call Gonzalez a pioneer, the godfather of Minnesota's Spanish language radio. Wearing his trademark grey fedora, Gonzalez says it's easy to understand the station's success and longevity.

"The people like it. Not because it's real professional, but because it's been so many years," he says. "Twenty-seven years service (to)the people. We got real country songs, just simple things. We don't do nothing way high."

DJ Nancy
DJ Nancy broadcasts daily on Radio Rey, the longest-running Spanish language radio station in the Twin Cities.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

Radio Rey broadcasts from a small storefront on East Lake St. in Minneapolis. The door to the cramped studio is not soundproof. Gonzalez simply walks in while DJ "Nancy" is on air, fielding calls during a dance concert giveaway.

"This girl's really good," he whispers. "This is where we do a lot of talking and this and that. And tricks."

Gonzalez plays Mexican regional music nearly all the time on his AM station. It's the sentimental favorite of his listeners, 90 percent of whom are from across Mexico.

Gonzalez is dismissive of competition. He says other Spanish language radio stations have tried to make it in the Twin Cities, but fail because their radio signal is too weak and they can't get the advertising revenue.

But now there's a new AM radio station just a mile away down Lake St. It's got lots of energy, money, and dreams of prying open Radio Rey's lock on the market.

It's called "La Invasora." The Invader.

Alberto Monserrate
Alberto Monserrate is president and CEO of Latino Communications Network, which owns La Invasora.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

Alberto Monserrate is president and CEO of Latino Communications Network, which owns La Invasora.

"One of the main reasons we use the name is because it was a popular name in Mexico, and most of our audience is from Mexico," he says. "But we did want to play a little bit with the concept of us invading the airways in the Twin Cities, and have a little fun with that, too. That's probably how the competition took it, that we were invading."

Observers say La Invasora could well give Radio Rey a run for its money and challenge its market dominance. That's largely because the station has a deep-pocket investor in New York. And, the station's owner also owns Minnesota's oldest and biggest Spanish language newspapers and magazines, including La Prensa and Gente de Minnesota.

Luis Fitch owns a design and marketing firm that helps corporate clients gain a foothold in the growing Latino consumer market.

"From an outsider, I think I would be really, really concerned with them," Fitch says. "What LCN offers, it's a complete package. If I was an advertiser, I would like to negotiate bigger packages than just radio. I would want to say, 'What else can you do for me?'"

Luis Fitch
Luis Fitch helps advertisers interested in breaking into the Spanish-speaking market. He says its becoming a multi-million dollar enterprise across the country.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

It doesn't cost very much to advertise on Radio Rey and La Invasora: $100 to produce a one-minute ad, and then $40 to $50 each time it airs.

In the biggest markets in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami or New York, you can't do anything for less than $200, and there's usually a requirement to buy multiple spots.

La Invasora's managers estimate the ad revenue for Minnesota's Spanish Language radio is about $1 million a year, but has the potential to grow to millions more as the market for Spanish language radio expands.

Marketing analyst Luis Fitch says advertisers who want to reach the Latino market should be interested in radio because it's hugely important to many Mexican immigrants living here.

Fitch says radio connects the community to cultural and political happenings, and many listen from when they wake up until they go to sleep at night. Fitch says most people listen four to six hours a day.

The majority of this target market are working at kitchens, at restaurants, they're working at hotels, they're gardeners, they're working on roofs. So they're always connected to radio.

"I'm going to generalize with this," Fitch says, "but the majority of this target market are working at kitchens, at restaurants, they're working at hotels, they're gardeners, they're working on roofs. And part of their entertainment is the radio. So they're always connected to radio. And radio's extremely, extremely important."

Given that listenership, it's not surprising the one thing both Radio Rey and La Invasora are focusing on is the current political situation.

As DJ El Vaquero talks to listeners about their favorite Mexican soccer teams from the La Invasora studio, Alberto Monserrate says the station is dealing with serious issues.

"It's usually the fun and games you're seeing now," he says. "But where we've really gotten the most response out of anything we've done is always been when we deal with the whole immigration issue."

Monserrate says his seven-month-old station was born with the current immigration rallies and recent boycott, called "A Day Without Immigrants." Both events aimed to raise the visibility of the economic and political muscle of Minnesota's Latinos.

Before the events this spring, Monserrate says station hosts exhorted listeners to show up and be heard at the demonstrations.

"It's a combination of something we felt we should do on the radio because it was very obvious that our listeners wanted it, and we felt we should be part of it ourselves," he says. "It's something our audience has responded like nothing else we've done."

La Invasora's competition, Radio Rey, also gave hours of airtime to promoting the rallies.

An estimated 30,000 people attended the April rally at the state Capitol. Many give Radio Rey and La Invasora credit for the big turnout.

The dominant English-language stations in the Twin Cities like KQRS and WCCO have little to fear from Radio Rey and La Invasora.

But Spanish language radio is undoubtedly a growing market. Clear Channel Communications has switched 33 of its stations nationwide to the Spanish language format. And the number one station in Los Angeles is all in Spanish.

Competition between Radio Rey and La Invasora is heating up. Radio Rey's owner, Guadalupe Gonzalez, recently learned his ratings are dropping. La Invasora, on the other hand, is talking about expanding its reach to the FM dial.

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