Napa Valley radio company makes big shift to Spanish-language format

Creating a Spanish-language radio station wasn’t in the Marcencias’ business plan when they bought KVON and KVYN radio stations nearly five years ago.

But life has changed a lot in the Napa Valley since then.

That is especially true for perhaps as much as a third of the population who largely could not understand most of their programming. When it came to details about life changing events, like fires and the pandemic, they needed information quickly, but in Spanish.

What changed on Jan. 3 is the couple began broadcasting Napa Valley’s first commercial all-Spanish language radio station. KVON 1440-AM and translator 96.9-FM ended their talk-sports format that Monday and are now all Spanish.

The station is being rebranded as MegaMix; a nod to being music heavy with hits from the 1970s to today. KVON’s target demographic will be women 25-54. Before the audience was primarily men listening to sports.

“It will cross all boundaries in genres and geographically with music that is popular in Mexico to things that are big in South America. It will truly be representative of the Hispanic diversity that exists in the valley,” explained Will Marcencia, who with wife Julissa, owns Wine Down Media.

Napa County is 34.6% Hispanic or Latino, while Sonoma County is 27.3%, according to the U.S. Census.

The couple also owns KVYN 99.3-FM. It will remain music and entertainment focused, but now will carry local sports and have some talk segments, with all content in English.

The shift has also caused a shift in talent. Spanish speaking announcer Nicolas De Luna will takes the microphone at KVON on the weekday afternoon slot.

Regular listeners of the stations can hear Nicolas De Luna on KVON on weekday afternoons. Gabriela Fernandez, who has been on KVYN, is on the Spanish channel hosting the weekday morning show. Barry Martin, who is the news lead, has moved from the KVON morning show to KVYN.

The impetus for change

The Marcencias, who met while both worked in sales and marketing for the U.S. Spanish-language media conglomerate Univision Communications, had only owned the radio stations for a few months before the wildfires of 2017 erupted in Wine Country that October.

Spanish-speaking residents of the Napa Valley turned to KVON radio to help them figure out what was going on when the 2017 wildfires swept through the area. Knowing to evacuate because they saw their neighbors doing so still didn’t explain what was happening.

“We were getting bombarded with phone calls from Spanish speakers saying, ‘We don't even know what is happening right now’,” Will Marcencia told the Business Journal. “All of our messaging at the beginning was in English on both stations.”

The fire started on a Sunday and by Monday programming was in both languages to inform the community of the danger surrounding them.

At the time KVON had a regular Sunday morning all Spanish-language program hosted by De Luna, something he has been doing for 20 years. During the fires he came in more often to give listeners regular updates in Spanish.

The station then enlisted other fluent Spanish speakers to help deliver critical information across the airwaves during the crisis.

While the Marcencias both speak Spanish, they don’t consider themselves fluent enough to be on the air.

“I will never forget those calls. People were in tears. They thought we had more information than we were disseminating,” Marcencia said. “A story I try not to get choked up about is a dad who had not heard from his daughter in four days. We put him live on air. They were listening to the station at the evacuation center. She heard her dad ask for her. He ended up coming from New York and thanking us.”

Marcencia explained how the woman’s cell phone had died, there was no signal at the center even if she could have borrowed a phone, and her focus then was on her immediate needs, not of relatives 3,000 miles away.

Then came the pandemic in 2020.

The need to disperse information in Spanish about vaccination clinics, handwashing protocols and the like became even more apparent to the station owners. Programming started to be tweaked with more Spanish-language segments added. Plenty of government announcements like public health information started to be delivered in English and Spanish to reach the whole community.

It wasn’t long before the decision to go all-Spanish was made. It involved securing the on air personalities and a library of Spanish music. In the future other hosts are expected to be hired.

What others are saying

What Bernie Narvaez, president of the Napa County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, likes most about the changes at KVON is the sense of community the owners and radio personalities bring.

“There are some Spanish radio stations in Sonoma County that do reach Napa, but there is no community connection,” Narvaez said. “KVON will not just deliver music and news, but the radio hosts are from the county. The content is related to your neighborhood, your community.”

(Will Marcencia is on the chamber’s board of directors.)

Narvaez, who is on the Napa City Council, believes an all-Spanish station will help with language equity in a region that has a large Hispanic population.

This means people who only speak Spanish will not be left behind because they don’t understand English. He also welcomes the consistency of programming instead of having to remember what hours or days of the week Spanish segments were broadcast.

In Sonoma County, Melissa Galliani is general manager of Wine Country Radio based in Santa Rosa. She welcomes more Spanish programming in the region. She has two Spanish stations in her five-station portfolio — KXTS 98.7-FM and KSXY 95.5-FM.

Ravi Potharlanka’s B.C. Radio purchased the stations in early 2021 for an undisclosed amount from Sinclair Telecable.

“I love the competitive spirit and the creativeness of them to try something new. If you are the only kid in town, you don’t have to work as hard,” Galliani said of the Marcencias. “I say what is good for one station is good for all. It is good people are investing in their radio stations and coming up with what the public wants.”

Her stations bleed a little into northern Marin County and southern Napa County, but for the most part FCC licenses and signal strength dictate the reach on the dial.

The other Spanish-language stations in Sonoma County include: KJOR 104.1-FM, KSRT 107.1-FM, KRRS 1460-AM, KZNB 1490-AM, and KBBF 89.1-FM.

Keeping track of business

Galliani told the Business Journal she monitors ratings through Eastlan, a company that for 21 years has kept track of small and medium market radio stations.

Arbitron, the once powerhouse of radio ratings, was bought by AC Nielsen, which has been the leader in television ratings. It created Nielsen Audio to monitor the radio side of the broadcast listeners. However, it no longer services the North Bay.

Marcencia said, “We are such a small market we are not rated. I almost see it as a blessing. We are not doing everything with the ratings in mind.” Instead, the Napa station owners make sure they are in tune with what listeners want; with that information ascertained via surveys, remote broadcasts and other means.

Nielsen Audio reports 270 million people listen to the radio in United States each week. Nielsen put out a report in 2019 about the Hispanic radio consumer that said this demographic listens to the radio 13 hours a week, with 96% of these consumers tuning in every week.

The report also said, “At 69%, Latinx adults 18+ have the highest share of online time spent consuming audio and video; that’s 15 percentage points higher than for the total U.S. In addition, they were 42% more likely to have watched subscription service content on their smartphone, again illustrating the importance of the smartphone in the entertainment lives of Latinx consumers.”

Nielsen researchers also found that “language is a strong cultural connection” what with 71% of Hispanics speaking either primarily Spanish at home or a combo of Spanish-English.

The first all-Spanish station in the U.S. was launched in San Antonio, Texas, in 1945. Spanish radio of some kind has been it has been available in this country since the 1920s.

When it comes to attracting advertisers, which is the financial means to keep any radio station on the air, Marcencia and Galliani believe most every business and government agency needs to reach the English and Spanish speaking communities. Local utilities need to reach customers, drought/water saving information needs to be aired, as well as government aid groups like First 5.

Both radio station groups also rely heavily on local advertisers.

Galliani said in this job market having English and Spanish stations has allowed employers to try to attract workers through radio ads in both languages.

Spanish station KXTS, better known as Exitos, is the top money-maker for the Wine Country Radio group in Sonoma County. Galliani attributes this to the programming of Erazno y La Chokolata in the afternoons and Don Cheto in the mornings.

While the Sonoma County group does not have a news department, disc jockeys can easily stop regular programming during emergencies to deliver critical information to listeners.

Wine Down Media in Napa reported double digit growth in revenues from the time of the ownership change in 2017 to the start of March 2020. While listenership increased with people wanting information on the health crisis, by the end of March 2020 revenue had dropped 70 points, according to Marcencia.

“We are ending the year 5% below 2019 numbers, which is not the best, but I will take that. I’m not even looking at 2020 as a point of reference,” he said.

The best financial news for KVON is that advertisers have not jumped ship because of the format change.

“No one has rescinded their partnership with us because we are flipping to Spanish,” Marcencia said. “We definitely project growth within the first quarter of launching.”

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