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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Spanish-Language Radio Takes A Risqué Turn
By Sandra Hernandez
September 2, 2003
Did you hear the one about the woman and her assortment of sexual partners? Probably not, unless you happened to tune in to Spanish-language radio.
Once the domain of English language stations and shock jocks such as Howard Stern, Spanish-language airwaves increasingly are filled with raunchy jokes, strong language and controversial hoaxes.
Sleepy little stations that played sixties' songstress Vikki Carr and featured local ads are a thing of the past.
Spanish-language radio is big business and that means anything goes to attract an ever-growing number of young Hispanic listeners and their pocketbooks.
Material that would light up switchboards at English-language stations and spark protests from some women's groups draws scant attention from the Federal Communications Commission, the agency in charge of policing the nation's airwaves for decency and fairness, either because they don't understand what's being said or don't have the staff to monitor the programs.
"What you see happening on English-language radio is replicated in Spanish-language radio as people compete for dollars," said Felix Gutíerrez, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication in Los Angeles. "As you get more stations, they have to niche out. All the stations can play the most popular music, but the personalities are driving radio today. And with that comes raunchy and bawdy stuff."
The number of Spanish-language stations in the United States grew from 400 to more than 600 in the past 8 years, according to Arbitron, a company that tracks listenership and stations. Eight of the 35 FM stations in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood market are Spanish-language format that range from light chit-chat to ballads to Generation Ñ deejays who mix pop and tropical sounds. Nearly all of them rank among the top 20 stations locally.
"There is a lot of vulgar stuff out there," said Joe Ferrero, who along with his co-host Enrique Santos are the voices behind "El Vacilón," or The Party, a popular morning show heard daily on WXDJ FM 95.7. The pair recently made headlines after placing prank telephone calls to Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, then launching into some strong insults once the respective leaders were on the line.
"Frankly, if some of the stuff was translated into English they probably couldn't get away with it. But we don't do that. Sure, we push the envelope, but our guideline is we won't say anything on the air that we wouldn't say in front of our mothers. We do satire," Ferraro said.
Locally, stations such as WAMR 107.5 FM based in Coral Gables are serving up some of the most controversial morning fare. Among the station's top shows is Desayuno Musical, or Musical Breakfast. The morning-drive program features a combination of pop ballads, news and often risqué humor. The station is No. 4 in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood general market, according to Arbitron. It drew an estimated 374,700 listeners in a market with 3.7 million listeners, according to the latest data.
Luis Luasec, the producer, insists the show is funny but never tawdry.
"We have double entendres but we never use bad words," Luasec said. "We are trying to entertain people but we don't cross the line. If we did we would get complaints and we don't."
Critics disagree. They insist Hispanics simply are passive listeners who are reluctant to speak out, especially in immigrant communities where some are wary of federal officials or think they must speak English to file a complaint.
"Unfortunately, our community isn't too sophisticated when it comes to logging complaints," said Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. The Los Angeles-based watchdog group is among the few organizations that monitor Spanish-language radio for content. It has filed more than 150 petitions with the Federal Communication Commission, the agency in charge of regulating broadcasters and enforcing standards.
Moreover, Nogales thinks Spanish-language stations can get away with more because of language barriers. "You have to remember the FCC doesn't really speak Spanish."
FCC officials insist it isn't a question of language but rather staff. The agency relies on complaints because it doesn't have the personnel to monitor the more than 20,000 AM and FM stations licensed in the United States. Once a complaint is filed the agency investigates the allegations regardless of the language.
FCC officials won't discuss ongoing investigations against any station including Spanish-language broadcasters, according to John Winston, a spokesman for the FCC. He did acknowledge the number of complaints filed with the agency has increased in the past few years.
Last year, the agency fined a Georgia Spanish-language station $7,000 for airing graphic sexual jokes, including one involving masturbation and Parkinson's Disease.
The bulk of the agency's attention, however, has been focused on English-language stations. The FCC has fined several English broadcasters that routinely air more explicit sexual material. Among those cited was a Michigan station that was fined $27,000 for "patently offensive" language that included references to sexual and excretory organs and activities. In 1992 Infinity Broadcasting Corp. was fined a hefty $600,000 for remarks made by Howard Stern.
But it isn't just raunchy radio that is raising eyebrows. Some question the type of pranks practiced on listeners.
"In New York, one of the stations called a lady to tell her that her son was killed in a car accident. It wasn't true. It was a joke," said Federico Subervi, a media consultant and former professor of communications at the University of Texas at Austin. "They went live on the air with her reaction. The woman was hysterical. Finally the (deejays) told her 'caiste' or 'you fell for it.' I don't think any of the English-language stations would do something like this."
In South Florida, Ferrero and Santos insist their pranks are based on headlines and never venture into cruel or humiliating hoaxes. The show has a loyal following that helped secure the station's success. WXDJ is among the top 15 stations in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood market, according to Arbitron.
Recently, the pair poked fun at José Luis Rodríguez, "El Puma," after the aging pop star reportedly endorsed actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in his bid to become California's governor. The actor is controversial among Hispanic groups because he voted for Prop. 187, a proposal that sought to cut off social and educational help to undocumented immigrants.
In a mock commercial, the two deejays impersonated El Puma: "For $3.95 I'll endorse you. For $5.95 I'll ask people to vote for you. And for $14.95, I'll endorse anyone's political lies." The duo then called Rodríguez at his Miami home and played the faux ads on the air. Rodríguez and the two deejays laughed.
While those jokes are unlikely to draw any fire from critics, Nogales and others insist they aren't trying to soul patrol the Spanish-language airwaves but rather simply trying to ensure they are held up to the same standards as the English-language counterparts.
"Spanish language stations are worse, and it isn't simply a matter of turning the dial," Nogales said.