MIAMI — As thousands of Hispanics packed the American Airlines Arena in Miami on Saturday to watch some of the biggest Latino acts perform including Pitbull, Jennifer Lopez, and Don Omar, an unlikely group was enjoying the show from a VIP lounge next to the stage.
Nearly 20 political operatives from pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA, the Republican National Committee, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, EMILY's List, Voto Latino, and more were invited to the iHeartRadio Fiesta Latina for a weekend on South Beach, that included a private luncheon with top executives overlooking the beach, with champagne and without a hard sell ("It's a fiesta!" they repeated). In September, the company hosted a similar set of 25 general market operatives (and their plus ones) in Las Vegas for the iHeartRadio Music Festival, before an invitation to talk business in D.C.
Included in all this is a short but clear pitch: If you want to target Latino voters, iHeartradio has the tools and the audience to do it.
Many think of political radio as conservative talk radio — one of the enduring ways to reach millions of Republican voters. But there’s another radio market, one more digitally based, growing, and younger. iHeartRadio, and its online competitor Pandora, have become an integral market for reaching tens of millions of Hispanics.
Both iHeartRadio and Pandora boast robust targeting programs in line with the data-driven campaigns of the present. The reach is huge: iHeartRadio reaches 30 million Hispanics monthly across 858 terrestrial radio stations as well as 8 million on its app, on mobile, and on desktop, according to Comscore. Pandora — used in 2012 by the Obama campaign and the RNC, and in 2014 by Rick Scott's successful campaign for governor of Florida — reaches 15 million Hispanics monthly on digital platforms. Hispanics, according to Arbitron, listen to three more hours of radio per week on average than other Americans.
"We are able to tell political campaigns exactly where the persuadable voters are, precisely at the time they should deliver their message and what artists their target audiences like," said Kenny Day, iHeart’s political director.
What iHeartRadio calls the "Rising American Electorate" program is already a success: The spending so far is “unprecedented,” according to the company. (Eight campaigns have already used the platform: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and Chris Christie.) Pandora says candidates are up earlier than ever before in Nevada, the early state where the Latino vote is sizable. The company declined to say which campaigns, citing nondisclosure agreements, but said they’re already working with seven.
"People think radio is the old guard, some distant, uncool cousin media device," said Dolores Inés Casillas, a University of California professor in the department of Chicana and Chicano studies. "I think in some ways immigrants, Latinos have seized radio.”
Casillas, the author of Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-language Radio and Public Advocacy, noted the long history of Spanish-language radio, particularly regarding immigration, from the 1950s during Eisenhower's deportation program of Mexican nationals and Mexican-Americans called “Operation Wetback” (which Trump cited favorably at the GOP debate Tuesday) through Ronald Reagan’s 1986 amnesty program to 2010 in places like Los Angeles where radio stations developed codes to alert listeners of immigration checkpoints and raids during the rise of hardline immigration laws like Arizona’s SB1070.
And, she noted, traditional radio is listened to on the way to jobs and during shifts by working-class Hispanics.
Yvanna Cancela, the political director of Nevada's culinary union, where Latinos make up more than half of the 55,000 member organization, agreed. When the union decided to advertise an anti-Trump rally at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas in August to juice attendance, they chose Spanish-language radio.
"We know that at a certain point our members have to get to or from work and the likelihood that they have a radio on near them is pretty high," she said.
For its part, iHeartRadio has a stable of terrestrial radio stations, but where the company and competitor Pandora feel they offer something new and fresh is in their unique ability to target the tough to corral Hispanic market, particularly the holy grail — young Latinos.
Pandora has been gearing up to reach Latinos for a while now. At an industry conference in 2014, Pandora CFO Mike Herring said "the first half a dozen [audience segments available to target] have been around Hispanic and Spanish speaking and political affiliation and income levels” — in other words, the company’s early targeting programs were for Latinos.
The company offers a level of sophistication: In ads reviewed by BuzzFeed News, Rick Scott’s campaign ads aimed at Hispanics were over English-language music by artists like Pink and Alicia Keys. But if someone was listening to reggaeton star Daddy Yankee, the ad promised "leadership during difficult times" — in Spanish.
If, in 2012, the company was viewed as a new publisher, political campaigns now come to them as a proven partner, said Sean Duggan, Pandora's vice president of ad sales. One of their fastest growing segments is listeners over 35, and in 2014 Pandora was increasingly used to reach voters 35+ and 45+, he said.
iHeartRadio told BuzzFeed News they put voters into 12 nuanced political categories, from "ultra conservative" to "left out liberals," and are finding that a major opportunity exists with the "informed but unengaged" and "on the fence" blocs.
Hispanics, who are always said to over-index in their use of social media and mobile, do so because they are disproportionately younger than other ethnic groups. Here too, streaming companies see an opportunity in the English-language stations with Latino listeners — iHeartRadio calls these stations English with a "cultural wink."
In addition to their 42 Spanish-language stations, iHeartRadio has 125 English stations "whose audience ranges from 16% Hispanic listenership up to 50% Hispanic listenership," said Liz Sarachek Blacker, executive vice president of Hispanic strategy and sales.
"It’s the most targeted form of communication in modern politics," said political consultant Chuck Rocha, who was in Miami for the iHeartRadio event. "It’s so effective because when you leave your house, you get your keys, your wallet or your purse — and headphones."
And in Miami, the pitch was working.
One source said iHeartMedia particularly targeted Anne Caprara, the executive director of Priorities USA, and had a receptive audience. According to the source, Caprara suggested that she wanted to do ads and more, leaving no stone unturned to reach Hispanics. Priorities spokesman Justin Barasky denied that the super PAC already agreed to ads and said in an email that while it has run ads aimed at Hispanics in Nevada and Colorado, “no additional decisions on spending have been made at this point."
Other organizations said that while ads on the platform may not necessarily be right for them, working together with iHeartRadio is definitely in the cards, possibly with sponsorship opportunities at each other's events. During the luncheon in Miami, the company's executives said iHeartRadio is planning a major parade for Hispanic Heritage Month in 2016 on the level of something like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, feeling that Hispanic Heritage Month doesn't have a big, signature event to call its own.
The RNC, which has worked with Pandora and showed interest in targeted ads during the midterms in states like Florida, Colorado, and North Carolina, said they might be interested in future events with iHeartRadio where they can interact with Hispanic voters on the ground.
"We’re going to work together to find different ways we can leverage our political relationships with their relationships with celebrities," said U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce spokesperson Ammar Campa-Najjar, pointing to the Hispanic chamber's convention next year as a possible opportunity.
Voto Latino said they’re “excited about the prospect of partnering with iHeartMedia” as part of their work to get young Latinos “informed, engaged and to the polls,” said María Urbina, vice president of politics and campaigns.
And the focus on Hispanics is only going to intensify as the election draws nearer. The Latino strategists were asked to film short videos answering questions on camera for use by iHeartRadio's sales team. Questions like "why is it important for companies like ours to court Hispanic consumers?" And "what does multiculturalism mean to you?"
Then they were free to network and have fun, but not before getting a taste of the data that would be afforded to them if they choose to work with iHeartRadio in the future.
iHeartRadio had surveyed their listeners, the operatives were told, and across ideology, across candidates from both parties, listeners had one thing in common: Pitbull was on most lists of their favorite artists.