Los Angeles: Radio Bilingüe has target but no channel

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With backing from CPB, Radio Bilingüe is beginning to develop and test programming for a new multiplatform public media outlet to launch in Los Angeles next year, though the project still has not nailed down a radio frequency.

Based in Fresno, Radio Bilingüe has provided Spanish-language service to California’s agricultural regions for 29 years and operated a CPB-funded satellite network feeding programs to independently owned Latino pubradio stations for 16 years.

CPB announced July 14 [2009] a $2 million grant for the nonprofit’s new English-language format for young, educated minority listeners in Los Angeles.

“We have ambitious goals to open up a new kind of service for an audience that’s more reflective of the diversity we find in the country today,” said Bruce Theriault, CPB senior v.p. of radio. The primary target audience identified in a 2006 CPB-commissioned study was bilingual, educated and Latino, but plans now call for the service to appeal to a broader range of ethnic minorities, he said. “This fits with CPB’s goal of reaching a more diverse population with public media services.”

“By having it in English you are able to get to an audience that may be more open to public radio-style programming, with a bit of a younger, diverse feel to it,” says Max Benavidez, project director of LA Public Media, a working title for the new service. “You attract younger, college-educated more affluent Latinos, and bring in other groups as well.”

Benavidez is a writer, Hispanic studies scholar and consultant on communications and planning for nonprofits who served for a decade as a top public relations official for California Institute of Technology and then the University of California-Los Angeles.

The funding announcement follows months of behind-the-scenes negotiations and planning as Radio Bilingüe developed a blueprint for a service that CPB President Patricia Harrison described as an “important investment in the future of public media.”

“Los Angeles sits at the juncture of diversity and new media, and this is an opportunity to create a national model for public media innovation,” Harrison said in CPB’s news release.

“We’re definitely happy about it, but at the same time we see the responsibility that lies ahead,” said Hugo Morales, founder and executive director of Radio Bilingüe, which has traditionally served Latinos in low-income, migrant communities. “We’re talking about a major investment by the system to create something new. It’s a tall order, but, at the same time, it’s something that needs to be done.”

The $2 million grant covers the cost-intensive pre-launch phase, to be led by Benavidez and a chief content officer, not yet hired, who will guide research and development of “a new sound” for public radio that reflects Los Angeles and attracts a younger demographic, Morales said. “We’re looking for somebody in public radio or television or some other creative field” who is from Los Angeles or has strong connections to the market.

CPB began developing plans for the service with a 2006 research project, managed by American Public Media Group’s KPCC (Southern California Public Radio) in Pasadena, which identified young educated Latinos as the target audience.

KPCC and Radio Bilingüe competed for a second planning grant and discussed collaborating on it before KPCC withdrew and the grant went to Radio Bilingüe late last summer.

“We just decided it was not in our interests and stepped out to let Radio Bilingüe move forward,” said Bill Davis, KPCC president, who declined to elaborate.

“Initially we were attempting to forge a partnership with Southern California Public Radio to see if our joint competencies and assets could serve as a partnership to this,” Morales said. “In the end, they decided they had to deal with other priorities internally, but their interest in the service was there.”

Radio Bilingüe’s search for another broadcast partner in L.A. has come up short so far, Morales said. “That’s a real challenge and something we need to continue working on.” Stations approached as potential partners have wanted details of the new format. “It may be that we’re not able to attract a partner until they hear the sound,” Morales said. Although programs will be designed with L.A. listeners in mind, he hopes stations in other cities will consider broadcasting some shows.

CPB’s grant also will help the project develop plans for multimedia content, which, given shifting media habits, are key for any new programming venture. “This has been an incredible learning process and evolution,” said Theriault, describing the blueprint created by Radio Bilingüe. “Just by paying attention to what’s going on in the world around us, we realized we had to look at it as a multiple platform service from day one.”

CPB’s support for the project is a “wonderful step forward,” said Flo Hernandez Ramos, executive director of the CPB-backed Latino Public Radio Consortium, “This is going to be at the forefront of the effort to diversify public radio audience.”

However, a key piece of the project is still missing, she said. “A broadcast partner, to me, is essential because if you don’t have that, you’re not testing whether the format will attract an audience.”

CPB plans to maintain “a very large role” in assisting the service as it rolls out, Theriault said, and has made a five-year commitment to it. “A new organization has to be created in Los Angeles,” one that grows from a small team with big aspirations into a medium- to large size station with a budget of roughly $3 million, he said. It will earn its living through traditional public radio sources — foundations, underwriting and membership support.

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