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ARCHIVED  November 5, 1999

Tigre’ starts to roar in Greeley

GREELEY — When Ricardo Salazar arrived in Greeley two years ago to take charge of KGRE-AM 1450, he had a tortoise, not a tiger, by the tail.

The station had three advertising clients, including the bus company that owned it. The other two hadn’t paid their bills for six months. The Spanish-language voice of Northern Colorado was a whisper, losing between $5,000 and $10,000 a month. Battered reel-to-reel tape recorders, wobbly turntables and scratched LP records made up the equipment inventory.

Two years later, “El Tigre” is climbing the Arbitron charts that track Northern Colorado’s radio listening habits, advertisers are beginning to take notice and the nine-member KGRE staff are finding more to smile about.

“On a scale of one to 10, we were at a minus five,” Salazar said, reflecting on Nov. 2, 1997, the day he landed in Greeley after leaving his radio consulting job in Burbank, Calif., to make the risky KGRE purchase.

“Now, we’re at about three. We have a way to go, but we are getting there.”

For 51 years, the 1,000-watt KGRE has ridden peaks and valleys on Greeley’s radio scene. But no canyon was ever as deep as the one the station was mired in when it occupied space at a bus station on Eighth Avenue. It’s sunrise to sundown identity was part Spanish, part rock ‘n’ roll oldies.

Now El Tigre’s audience, which Salazar says is vastly undercounted by Arbitron, tunes in 24 hours daily to a lively mix of “original Mexican” music — the Spanish-language equivalent to country-western music — and more modern Mexican programming, popular with younger listeners.

Advertisers are beginning to get the message, said Jorge Amaya, president of the Northern Colorado Latino Chamber of Commerce.

“Ricardo and his staff go where no man has gone before here,” Amaya said. “The corporate sector is focusing on Spanish radio. The real estate companies and the banking community are beginning to realize that Spanish radio is the place to be.”

One of Salazar’s first moves was to keep KGRE up after dark, and now a loyal audience tunes in round the clock to tap into music that links many of them to their Mexican roots.

Salazar had been best-known to southern California radio listeners as the Spanish play-by-play voice of the NFL’s Los Angeles Raiders. From 1994 through 1997, he and a producer flew with the team to Denver for annual Mile High Stadium meetings with the Denver Broncos.

“I fell in love with the state when I was with the Raiders,” Salazar said. On one of the later trips, he learned KGRE was on the market and jumped at the chance to ditch sports and concentrate on his specialties — music programming and marketing.

“I saw the potential,” Salazar said of his decision to invest his personal savings in KGRE. “I saw the opportunity offered by the Hispanic market, and I saw the potential of being the only 24-hour AM radio station in Northern Colorado.”

It took Salazar just a month to rise out of the red. By the end of 1997, he had reached the break-even point.

“By January, I was in the black,” he said. “It was the palest shade of black. You could say it was almost white.”

Arbitron, the company whose listening audience surveys can make or break radio stations, has been one of Salazar’s best friends along the way — but also one of his worst enemies.

Arbitron’s count of the Spanish-language listening audience in Northern Colorado based on U.S. Census data is well off the mark, Salazar said. The service, which roundly figures the region’s population at 300,000, says that the Spanish-speaking share is 12 percent of that number — or about 36,000.

“At best, you could say that’s conservative,” Salazar said. “We believe it’s completely inaccurate.”

The Census Bureau’s undercounting of the U.S. Hispanic population has been well-documented by groups that depend on the count for delivery of services ranging from education to health care.

A suspicion of the head-count among Hispanic residents of Northern Colorado, and the failure of the Census Bureau to reach into all the areas where Hispanics live, skews the numbers, Salazar said. He estimates that the Spanish-speaking population of Northern Colorado tops 50,000.

Although Arbitron’s market count gives Salazar fits, the company’s measure of listener loyalty is a gauge that he happily peddles to advertisers. A critical component of the Arbitron assessment is TSL — the acronym for “time spent listening” that station managers regard as at least as important as audience share.

KGRE’s TSL figures — measured in numbers of weekly hours that an average listener is tuned to the station — are off Arbitron’s scale.

“The industry says three hours a week is considered good,” Salazar said. “The TSL for one segment of our market, women age 18 to 34, is 32.5 hours. That’s 1,000 percent better than what the industry considers excellent.”

The number turns advertisers’ heads. KGRE, long dependent on home-grown retail advertising, is beginning to attract national and regional accounts. Regular KGRE listeners hear pitches for AT&T, the cable successor to TCI, Kmart and Taco John’s. Garnsey & Wheeler Ford, Greeley’s second-largest new car dealership, is a KGRE regular.

Listeners also get a promotional message that comes straight from Salazar. “Censo 2000,” a campaign that aims to raise the census count of the Hispanic population, gets plenty of KGRE air time.

“I can’t do anything about what the bureau and the other agencies are doing,” Salazar said. “But maybe what I can do is minimize the fear that Hispanics have of the people who are doing the counting. äWhat’s at stake is more money for our schools, our bilingual programs, our health services.”

Higher counts will also mean, of course, higher ratings for KGRE. Salazar said the Censo 2000 effort is the next step on the station’s road to prosperity.

“We will get there,” Salazar said. “I have applied everything I’ve learned to have our listeners pay attention to the advertising. The only difference between my station, and one of the big guys, is the language in which we are broadcast.”

GREELEY — When Ricardo Salazar arrived in Greeley two years ago to take charge of KGRE-AM 1450, he had a tortoise, not a tiger, by the tail.

The station had three advertising clients, including the bus company that owned it. The other two hadn’t paid their bills for six months. The Spanish-language voice of Northern Colorado was a whisper, losing between $5,000 and $10,000 a month. Battered reel-to-reel tape recorders, wobbly turntables and scratched LP records made up the equipment inventory.

Two years later, “El Tigre” is climbing the Arbitron charts that track Northern Colorado’s radio listening habits, advertisers are beginning to…

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