Growth and challenges for city's Latino media

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – When Victor Cuenca began the publication Providence en Espanol, he was a one man news, advertising and circulation department working out of a walk-in closet in his North Providence apartment.

The Bolivian native still remembers the first day he went to print in August 1999.

"That was like a mother having a baby," Cuenca says. "That was interesting. I was suffering. I was standing outside the stores just to see the reaction of the people. And people were taking the paper and I was very happy."

A dozen years later Cuenca works out of a basement office on Broadway, in the city's west side.

It's deadline day on a recent Thursday morning and Cuenca and one of his three reporters are going over a story for the next edition. The story looks at how Latinos think Providence's first Hispanic mayor, Angel Taveras, responded to his first major snowstorm.

Cuenca employs 15 people, his weekly's circulation has nearly doubled to 25,000 and advertising has increased every year.

"And we are not just talking about local advertising," Cuenca says. "We are talking about national advertising. Huge corporations, like Lowes or Home Depot, they are announcing in Providence en Espanol because they see the right vehicle to reach the Latino community, and when they see the Latino community, they see purchasing power."

In a media landscape of dwindling circulation and revenue, Spanish language offerings have been something of a bright spot. In Providence, they've seen growth mirroring the rise of the city's Latino population. For some, that's meant increased staff levels and ad revenue. For others, it's also meant some growing pains.

Doctor Pablo Rodriguez broadcasts nearly daily out of his OBGYN office in Pawtucket. He's an occasional guest on WRNI's Political Roundtable and he's also the President of Latino Public Radio. It's only 6 years old, and its public service mission makes it different from the other Spanish stations on the radio.

"What we are in essence trying to do is take the place of community based organizations that, right now, due to finances and ability to outreach are finding themselves with very reduced missions," Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez used a federal grant to tie a program on health issues into a study on medical literacy. Fifty listeners followed the show last year and charted what they learned about topics like HIV, diabetes, smoking and health screening. Rodriguez says results show the program, titled Escuche, worked.

"We were able to document a well over 20 percent increase in measured, actual measured, knowledge in the subjects that participated with our study," Rodriguez says.

But Rodriguez says launching Latino Public Radio comes with challenges. The station, which broadcasts on a signal owned by the Wheeler School in Providence, relies on volunteer talent and support from local health care organizations. And the concept of Spanish-language public radio is unusual and, so far, the population isn't accustomed to donating money for the service.

"We need a lot of help," he says. "It's a labor of love but it's one that's unsustainable without further support."

His commercial counterparts also face challenges getting the money to follow the listeners.

At WPMZ, Poder 1110, the programming may sound like fun and games, but General Manager Tony Mendez says the economic downturn has been tough on his station.

Unlike the publisher of Providence en Espanol, Mendez says some local and national advertisers are skeptical about advertising to Spanish speakers even though he has the audience.

"It's a market that they're not aware of," Mendez says. "Some people think 'Well, it's something that's going to go away.' You know? 'They're going to learn English and just melt into this melting pot, and there's no need to do a separate outreach to them.'"

Members of the Spanish-language media are aware that their service could lose its appeal as generations of Latinos assimilate into American culture. Pablo Rodriguez says Latino Public Radio will likely expand its programming to offer more bilingual shows. At Providence en Espanol, Publisher Victor Cuenca is thinking the same thing.

"I see Providence en Espanol in bilingual in a couple of years, or maybe less," Cuenca says. "New generations of Latinos, they can understand Spanish but they don't read and they don't speak."

Cuenca says Spanish-language media watched English speaking media wither because they didn't change fast enough. He says they'll make sure they don't make the same mistake.

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