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The Washington Post

In NYC, Mano A Mano Radio Station Yanks Show Host Who Didn't Pull His Punches

By Christine Haughney

July 9, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Washington Post Company. All Rights Reserved.

NEW YORK -- Mayor Rudy Giuliani? He's the Pinochet of City Hall.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez? She has no political ovaries.

President Bush? He's the Forrest Gump of the White House.

And these are some of local radio host Gerson Borrero's milder insults.

"I'm an equal-opportunity offender," Borrero says, breathing out some Bronx machismo. "My greatest sin to them is being irreverent."

But after nearly three years of afternoon rants on New York's WADO-AM, Borrero's toxic words cost him his show on the Spanish-language radio station. And Borrero, who is also the editor of a prominent Spanish-language newspaper here, blames his targets.

When Reps. Velazquez (D-N.Y.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) met with station executives in Washington several weeks ago, they complained about Borrero's attacks. The next day, station management warned Borrero to tone it down, he acknowledges.

Instead, Borrero threatened a few days later to denounce the politicians on his show and accuse them of jeopardizing the station's license renewal, a charge they deny.

WADO fired Borrero the next morning.

His firing ignited a political thunderstorm. Listeners bombarded the radio station's other shows with calls. Latino politicians, even those who bear scars from Borrero's verbal lashings, protested. And Latino activists worry that silencing Borrero signals a return to the sonorously placid musings that characterized Spanish-language radio here in the past.

"We have one Latino show that offers political commentary and analysis on major issues of the day and we're getting rid of it," says Juan Figueroa, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, who appeared on Borrero's show to talk about housing, education and voting rights. "That far outweighs matters of taste and language."

Neither WADO General Manager Stephanie McNamara nor David Lykes, vice president of public relations of the station's parent company, Hispanic Broadcasting Corp., returned repeated phone calls seeking comment over several days.

As for the trio of congressional reps, they deny threatening the station's license. But it bugged them to hear a radio host suggest that they lack reproductive organs.

"As a man, I think that suggesting I don't have testicles is a personal attack," says Serrano.

As he walks the streets of his Bronx district, Serrano says voter after voter asks him why Borrero dogs him so much, and why the congressman does not strike back. Voters have called Menendez's office to ask the same thing, adds a spokesman.

New York's Latino population is emerging as a political and demographic force, with more than a quarter of the city's 8 million residents identifying themselves as Hispanic or Latino. Many activists and journalists say the community is big enough now that it can comfortably tolerate critics like Borrero.

Howard Jordan, a professor at Hostos Community College in the Bronx and a columnist for a Spanish-language newspaper, recalls attacking Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer five years ago for flip-flopping on the death penalty. Latino politicians promptly attacked Jordan for his "divisive" writings.

"They will accept Anglo criticism from Anglo media," Jordan said. "But then if it comes out of the community, then it's like you've broken the pact."

Borrero, a compact 50-year-old with a coffee-rich voice, traces his reputation as a gadfly to his childhood. He arrived in New York City from Puerto Rico at age 4, part of a wave of migration from island to mainland. His divorced mother raised him and his brother, even as she labored long hours at a jewelry factory and sold Avon and home cleaning products.

Watching his mother work so hard for so little fed his innate sense of outrage. To this day, he refuses to watch Paul Newman films because the actor's "Fort Apache, the Bronx" denigrated Borrero's neighborhood. But he wouldn't join groups like the militant Puerto Rican nationalist Young Lords, dismissing them as "too structured."

Instead he helped found the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy. He later opened a public relations firm, and even helped Velazquez in her initial run for Congress in a district created with the intent of electing an Hispanic.

He regrets that.

"I thought that Nydia Velazquez had character. She turned out to be one of the good old boys."

In 1996 he landed a column called "Bajo Fuego" ("Under Fire") in that most venerable of New York's Spanish-language newspapers, the 88-year-old El Diario la Prensa. Publisher Rossana Rosado, a longtime friend, says Borrero understood the city in a way that the paper's Latin America-trained reporters did not.

His column caught the attention of WADO's management. Soon, Borrero was roiling listeners three hours every weekday afternoon. His style was swing-from-the-lip: Send Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba. Latino pols are gutless wonders on the bombing of Vieques.

The listeners loved it.

"I was touched by how many kids and teenagers listen to the show," said Tony Melendez, a retired bodybuilder who listens to the show every day. "He was like a father."

Borrero's audience grew to about 165,000 a week, according to Arbitron ratings. Even his foes acknowledge his power.

"He's a very popular guy," says the Rev. Ruben Diaz, a city council candidate Borrero has called a conservative "homophobe."

"He could make you. He could break you."

Others rub their bruises and acknowledge that Borrero's verbal whackings often serve lacausa.

"He held my feet to the fire for four years," said Tonio Burgos, who worked for Gov. Mario Cuomo. Burgos was the first Puerto Rican to oversee patronage in the state government, and Borrero wrote several reports for the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy blasting him for not hiring enough Latinos.

"It took some skin off of me." But, Burgos adds, "in the end it was the right thing to do."

A year ago, El Diario promoted him to editor in chief because of the "cross-promotional opportunities," Rosado says. But his management style, which some say has much in common with his radio personality, is not universally admired.

"Whatever he says is what goes," said Richard Araujo, a former editor. "He's like the Cubans in Miami: They criticize Castro but they censor everything."

Dona Fowler, a Newspaper Guild representative, sighs. She also works with the New York Times and Scholastic Magazine but spends more than half her time on cases filed by El Diario's 117 employees.

"We're up to our armpits in grievances," she says. "The atmosphere in the newsroom is not nice."

"Not nice" was an understatement when it came to Borrero's on-air attacks on Velazquez. He teased her about getting married, joked that he would crash her wedding. And then came his no-ovaries line, a reference to her alleged lack of political virility in the dispute over the bombing of Vieques.

That comment really angers Serrano, who had already stopped appearing on Borrero's show. "I didn't appreciate hearing at the top of his voice, 'Nydia, do you have no ovaries?' " said Serrano. He contrasts Borrero's show with Oliver North's radio show, where he has been "grilled hard but not disrespected."

As if Borrero cares. "I've never attacked their family members." He pauses, and adds that he does regret having called Giuliani's son "a twerp."

Then came the meeting with the three angry congressional representatives. In May, Hispanic Broadcasting Corp. and WADO executives walked into Menendez's Washington office to ask the trio to participate in community radio programs.

"Our reaction was 'You guys have to be kidding. Your station has no respect for us on a personal basis,' " Serrano says. " 'No, we don't intend to help you.' "

Borrero took the sacking with his usual sang-froid. He went on a rival morning show to plead his case. When he got off the air, he promptly lampooned his host's oh-so-proper Spanish.

"The hosts get off the mike and sound like Mickey Mouse -- "

Then his voice cut Bronx all over again. He was the avenging angel.

"Now I know why my program became so popular," he said. "I'm telling the people the truth and they're not getting it anywhere else!"

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