SBS Founder Raúl Alarcón Reflects on 40 Years of Success and Future of Spanish Radio

When Variety chose to honor Spanish Broadcasting System (SBS) founder Raúl Alarcón with its Legends & Groundbreakers Award at its Miami Entertainment Town event on April 13, it picked the perfect person to fit that definition. 

Among SBS’ 22 stations in the leading eight Latin markets are New York’s WSKQ-FM (Mega 97.9), the most-listened-to and streamed outlet in the U.S. in any language, Miami’s No. 1 station WXDJ-FM (El Nuevo Zol 106.7) and WCMQ-FM (Zeta 92.3) as well as L.A.’s top-ranked KXOL-FM (Mega 96.3) and KLAX-FM (97.9 La Raza), the first FM station to program regional Mexican music such as Norteñas and Banda, which once famously beat out an incredulous Howard Stern in morning ratings on KLSX. 

“I’m absolutely honored Variety would think of me in those terms,” says Alarcón, the chairman/CEO of the largest Hispanic-owned Spanish-language radio chain in the U.S., founded with his father in 1983. “When you do something for 40 years, people tend to remember who you are and what
you’ve done.”

In fact, Alarcón was born to the business. His late father, Pablo Raúl Alarcón, started his first radio network in Camagüey, Cuba, where he had been a local disc jockey spinning records since high school.

“He loved being on the air,” says Alarcón. “It was his life’s passion.”

When he was four years old, Alarcón’s family became “political refugees” from the embattled island in 1960 after his father’s station was “intervened,” taken over by the government headed by Fidel Castro following the overthrow of the U.S.-allied military dictator, Fulgencio Batista.

“Castro always insisted, even in meetings with [then-U.S. VP Richard] Nixon, that he was not a communist,” Alarcón says. “In the beginning, Fidel was a charismatic idealist who said he wanted to help the poor. Batista, in hindsight, wasn’t so bad after all. He may have been cruelly heavy-handed, but Castro proved to be far worse.”

His father left with the family, including young Raúl, traveling to New York City to pick up transmitter tubes for his station thinking it would be a temporary stay until Castro was removed, but never looked back. Not knowing a word of English, he took a job as an on-air DJ at Spanish-speaking WBNX-AM, whose call letters stood for the Bronx, though the offices were located on Fifth Avenue and 46th Street in Manhattan. The elder Alarcón eventually became the station’s program director and general manager before starting his own advertising agency catering to the local Hispanic market.

“I grew up with my father coming home from work with a bunch of records under his arm,” says Alarcón. “We’d listen to them together into the early hours of the morning. When he first was hired, the station’s programming consisted of old trios and guitar groups, romantic balladists from Spain and South America and the old mambo and cha-cha-cha orquestras. He came into it with a very modern brand of radio, the emerging Top 40 format with jingles, promos and artists that didn’t get exposure anyplace else.”

In 1970, Alarcón’s father leased a spoken-word Yiddish station from Jewish news organization the Forward, WEVD-FM — after noted socialist Eugene V. Debs — and relaunched it with a brand-new signal on the Empire State Building as the first Spanish-language music FM outlet. That spot on the dial, 97.9 FM, is now the home of Spanish Broadcasting System’s flagship WSKQ-FM, which Raúl Alarcón bought 18 years later and is now Mega 97.9 FM, the nation’s No. 1 most-listened-to and most-streamed station in any language.

In 1983, the Alarcóns founded the fledgling Spanish Broadcasting System with the acquisition of WSKQ-AM in New York for $3.25 million. “It was a beautiful music AM station [WVNJ] with the sister FM station eventually becoming Z100,” Alarcón says. 

With terrestrial radio undergoing a current belt-tightening amid numerous “reductions in force,” Alarcón remains bullish on the medium, looking to continued expansion, doubling down by recently selling his TV division and acquiring Florida radio stations in Orlando and Tampa just last year. 

“Over the course of four decades, we have had lean years and we have had healthy years,” Alarcón says. “But I don’t see signs of attrition. What I focus on is, do we have an audience?  Are they excited by the music trends we identify? Is our on-air talent creative, relevant and ‘sticky’? If all those answers are yes, then other than cyclical macroeconomic issues, I remain extremely bullish on the future of Hispanic radio.”

Indeed, the current crossover explosion in Latin music — from Bad Bunny and J Balvin to Rosalia, Anitta and Becky G performing in their native tongues — perfectly positions Alarcón’s radio empire for the foreseeable future, especially with his company’s concert promotion business covering New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Puerto Rico and San Francisco as well as its prescient online holdings, which include apps, acquired in 1999, and talent portal The company also has a syndication arm, AIRE Radio Networks, with a national radio platform of nearly 300 affiliated stations reaching 95% of the U.S. Hispanic audience. The stations’ Latin music formats include Tropical, Regional Mexican, Spanish Adult Contemporary, Top
40 and Urbano. 

“I was caught by surprise by the explosive popularity of today’s Hispanic music,” he admits. “Music was something I grew up with, but I never thought it would have the mass appeal, the sustainability and the global acceptance it has now!”

Despite living in polarizing Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ backyard, Alarcón remains firmly on the fence politically, though he is well-aware of the importance of the Latino swing vote, which has moved to the right from its formerly Democratic leanings.

“I like to keep my options open,” Alarcón says, adding he is not registered with either party and is an “impartial” observer. “The fact that Hispanics are such a large unbeholden constituency makes them a very valuable political force, especially here in Florida, where SBS is in a unique position with the largest footprint in the Spanish-speaking markets. Our stations are diverse and adaptive to the local market. That’s always been radio’s strength.”

Alarcón’s impressive resume includes a $435 million IPO back in 1999, still the second-largest such offering in the history of the radio broadcasting industry, that gave him the opportunity to pare down debt and fuel further expansion into Chicago, San Francisco and Puerto Rico, as well as the aforementioned Orlando and Tampa.

SBS continues to be a family affair. Daughter Alessandra, SBS Entertainment president, oversees the concerts and events division, and daughter Bianca manages the digital production at His son Andrés is expanding the company into talent development and artist management in the executive suite.

The competitive Alarcón’s motivation continues to be winning in every new — and present —market and expanding his digital properties, but he also reiterates “the enormous satisfaction that comes from knowing that every single day, our company touches the lives of millions of Latino listeners, entertaining and informing them while providing a platform for thousands of businesses wanting to reach the nation’s fastest-growing consumer — as well as hundreds of our nation’s politicians wanting to secure the decisive and elusive Hispanic swing vote. These absolutes remain as true today as they were 40 years ago, only more so … and growing!” 

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