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Latino Radio Gaining Popularity And Scrutiny


August 13, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

PHOTO: Krista Niles/The New York Times

Luis Jimenez is a host of a popular call-in show in New York City.

On any given morning, the talk on WSKQ-FM can include listeners being asked why they think their husbands are gay or what was the most shameful thing they ever told a doctor. Calls from listeners of the show, "El Vacilón de la Mañana" ("The Morning Goof-Off"), pour in, and a bleep button intended to keep expletives and assorted radio no-nos off the air can barely cope.

"Easy," Luis Jiménez, a co-host of the show, admonished a female caller recently as her sexually explicit spiel was being broadcast. "People are having breakfast."

And some people having breakfast are having fits.

The New York chapter of the National Hispanic Media Coalition said recently that it is gathering ammunition to challenge the federal license of La Mega, as the station at 97.9 FM is known, over the content of "El Vacilón." Marta Garcia, the group's co-chairwoman, said the station's morning-show fare is not only crass and insulting, but violates Federal Communications Commission regulations against indecency.

The move against "El Vacilón" is not the only recent bit of turmoil involving the content of Spanish radio programming. Gerson Borrero, a self-described "disrespectful" talk show host on WADO-AM (1280), was fired in May after local Latino politicians complained about his assessments of their work and character. He cried censorship; the station's owners, the Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation, refused to discuss it.

Underlying both the debate about "El Vacilón" and the dispute concerning Mr. Borrero is a single truth, one with a complicated set of consequences. Spanish-language radio's popularity has soared in the city in recent years, delighting the owners of the stations and making significant celebrities of the talent on the shows. But with the popularity has come increased scrutiny, and heightened awareness of the content and influence of the programming.

Even music shows on some stations have provoked protests, and, yes, pickets. In a rare display of unity, Latin-music performers in New York who said they grew tired of being ignored by both La Mega, which is also a salsa and merengue powerhouse, and Latino Mix, Hispanic Broadcasting's tropical music station, banded together earlier this year to pressure the stations to diversify their play list to include local talent that they say is recognized around the world but not at home.

The popularity of Spanish radio in recent years speaks to the rapid growth of the Spanish-language radio audience as both the city's and the country's Hispanic population has exploded. "El Vacilón" is one of the city's top radio shows between 6 and 10 a.m., lagging behind only Howard Stern (WXRK-FM) and the all-news AM station 1010 WINS. La Mega, the station that carries the show, was ranked seventh in New York last month, beating most competitors in any language.

Ms. Garcia, the head of the group that monitors the inclusion and image of Latinos in the media, said that the success of Spanish radio — Spanish stations now attract 12 percent of the city's total radio audience — has ended what used to be a license for the shows to do as they pleased, the days when, as she put it, the stations assumed that they could get away with anything because no one was really paying attention.

But Joseph A. Garcia, executive vice president of the Miami-based Spanish Broadcasting System, which owns La Mega and is the nation's second largest chain of Hispanic stations after the Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation, defended "El Vacilón." He said it is controversial in the way Howard Stern is controversial, nothing more. And he said the show's popularity cinched his argument about how many people are fans and how many are offended.

The show, he said, has proven so popular there are now both weekday afternoon and weekend "Best of El Vacilón" editions.

"If `El Vacilón' is so successful, it's because the audience likes `El Vacilón,' " Mr. Garcia said. "At the end of the day, the listener rules."

At the moment, according to research by the Arbitron rating service, there are four Spanish-language stations ranked among the 25 most popular in the city. And each of the four has shows that are ranked among the top 25 during morning drive-time.

The likelihood that those who object to the content of some shows will succeed in persuading the F.C.C. to act is hard to gauge. The F.C.C. can impose fines and revoke the licenses of stations broadcasting shows whose material is deemed indecent, and it has over the years fined Mr. Stern's employer, Infinity Broadcasting Corporation, hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Infinity has come to settlements and continued broadcasting the show.

Ms. Garcia said her group was taping shows of "El Vacilón" and collecting material. She said she was gathering complaints from listeners, but had not yet formally filed with the F.C.C. A spokesman for the commission said it had no record of any formal complaints about the show.

To some, Spanish-language radio has a heightened obligation in New York to maintain high standards, both because there are still relatively few stations, and because Spanish speakers tend to rely on radio for information and entertainment more than other groups. Arbitron research shows that Spanish-speaking radio listeners, many of whom come from countries where radio plays a critical role in disseminating information, listen to more radio programming here than their English-speaking counterparts — an average of 22 hours a week.

And because of the high cost of entry into the New York radio market, there are only six commercial Spanish stations serving the city, a much less competitive environment than markets like Los Angeles and Miami, each of which has at least a dozen stations.

But while La Mega pays heed to some cultural sensitivities — it does not play "El Vacilón" on Good Friday, for example — it is clearly meant to push limits.

In one show taped by Ms. Garcia, a caller identified as a 4-year-old boy is egged on to use profanity by both his mother, who can be heard in the background, and one of the show's hosts, who tells him, "Say one of those little words of yours." The boy complies with a string of expletives, to raucous laughter in the studio. In another show, the hosts claimed the Lincoln Tunnel was flooding. Carey Davis, general manager of La Mega and its sister station in New York, WPAT-FM (93.1), said the station apologized for the tunnel segment.

But the popularity of Spanish-language radio, and perhaps the potency that comes with it, elicited another angry response at WADO.

For more than two years, Mr. Borrero, the talk show host, provoked listeners from his perch at WADO. Mr. Borrero's weekday show, "Bajo Fuego" ("Under Fire") gave a pointed spin to a variety of subjects, from Darryl Strawberry's drug problems to the goings on at the Board of Education, whose members were known to his listeners as the "seven intellectual midgets."

And he did not spare Hispanic politicians — to describe Representative José E. Serrano of the Bronx, he used a vulgar Spanish term that roughly translated into weather vane, and Representative Nydia M. Velázquez of Brooklyn was deemed politically gutless.

Last May, Mr. Borrero was fired after a meeting between officials from Hispanic Broadcasting and Mr. Serrano, Ms. Velázquez and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who like other Hispanic politicians, Mr. Borrero called corrupt. Officials with Hispanic Broadcasting and WADO have refused to talk about the action, but Mr. Borrero, 50, who is also editor in chief of the daily Spanish- language newspaper El Diario La Prensa, asserts that he was taken off the air after he refused the station's request to curb his criticism.

The three officials have denied Mr. Borrero's allegation that they threatened to block renewal of WADO's federal license if the commentator did not tone down his talk. They said they met at the request of the radio officials, who talked about the elected officials' possible participation in new community programs like town hall meetings that the station was planning, but they made it clear they did not support the station's programming, singling out Mr. Borrero's harsh personal attacks. "They exercised censorship and buckled to pressure by these three public officials," said Mr. Borrero, who said he is considering suing the station.

And for some stations, there is the continuing confrontation with the city's local musicians.

Supported by veteran Latin music stars like Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colon and Larry Harlow, a group of musicians and artists picketed for two days in front of La Mega's offices on West 56 Street in May, arguing that the stations are denying present and future generations their music legacy. The group said it is still in conversations with the stations, but its main goal — to get more air time — has yet to be achieved.

"We want a chance," said Jill Armsbury, spokeswoman for the 50- member group of protesting musicians, who go by the name United Musicians Front. "The stations have gone so far to the commercial side. They're so out of touch with the people in this city."

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