Fresno radio station’s investment in Hmong community pays off

In the late 1970s, the radio station KBIF in Fresno, Calif., focused primarily on religious broadcasting. It was getting by financially, but that was about all it was doing.

Then, in the mid-1980s, the small AM station decided to make a few changes in its programming. California’s Central Valley was beginning to see more Asian immigrants settle in the area, so KBIF decided to broadcast some programs aimed at that community on the weekends.

The station’s shows featured news and traditional music for people from a variety of Asian nationalities, as well as information about how to buy life insurance or how to navigate the government bureaucracy.

What started as a few programs heard late on Saturday and Sunday nights gradually became a total transformation in KBIF’s format. No longer a religious station, KBIF became the first media outlet in the Central Valley to cater specifically to the area’s burgeoning Hmong population.

“Most of the people in the Central Valley who were Asian listened to us,” said Tony Donato, the station’s general operations manager. “We had a lot of elders who didn’t speak English. They used the radio for information because there was nothing on TV for them to understand.”

The station targeted its programming toward one particular group of Southeast Asian immigrants, the Hmong. The Hmong are an ethnic group from Laos who came to the United States as refugees after the end of the Vietnam War. Known for being extremely close-knit, most of the Hmong who immigrated to the U.S. settled only a few locations around the country, especially in the California Central Valley.

KBIF has other ethnic programming besides shows in the Hmong language. Others include Punjabi, Hindi, Japanese, Vietnamese and Laotian.

But Hmong brings KBIF its biggest following among ethnic communities. The station boasts being “the best source for reaching the Hmong community in the Fresno and surrounding areas. At last count, more than 90 percent of the Hmong community alone listened to asianradioam.com on a daily basis.”

KBIF also claims to be the best source for the Hmong community when it comes to “current national, international and local news, including weather, sports, features and current events in their own language.”

Donato said the station decided to change its format not out of compassion for the community’s newcomers, but simply for financial reasons. The religious format wasn’t paying the bills, and he said the change has paid off.

“More people started tuning into us and finding us,” he said. “Our ratings were making the book,” he said, referring to the guide advertisers use in deciding where to buy spots to promote their products.

He stressed, “We were getting better numbers — just as good numbers as the rock stations at night. It was crazy.”

Donato said having a new audience meant making some adjustments to the way KBIF operated.

He said the station’s news programming has had to become a mixture of international and hyperlocal.

KBIF carries stories about what’s going on in Laos, but “we also get a lot of requests for death announcements because of their culture and how they celebrate that person.” He added, “You would never hear that on any kind of a general market station unless it was a public figure.”

There’s also the matter of that timeless radio station staple — on-air contests.

“We have contests and instead of giving away tickets to a ball game or a color TV, we’ll give a pig away,” he said. “They’ll want chickens or pigs. We’ve given a water buffalo away.”

KBIF no longer holds a monopoly on the ears of Asian radio listeners in the Central Valley. Donato said other stations have added programs of their own that cater to the growing diverse Asian population.

He said Asian radio programming has become lucrative for stations in the Fresno area because local businesses are clamoring to purchase advertising during programs with large numbers of Asian immigrant listeners.

“Advertisers said ‘We want to reach the Asian community,’” Donato noted. “They’re a part of our community now.”

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