|Photos by Gregory Bojorquez|
The sun has not even risen, but the alarm goes off and the radio blares, “¡Despiértese, despiértese con Piolín por la mañana!” Many in the Latino community are up and taking care of the kids at home or getting ready for work or school. In Los Angeles there are a host of locutores (Spanish-language DJs), but these days, it’s Piolín por la mañana on La Nueva KSCA-FM (101.9) who’s getting la communidad out of bed.
You’ve probably never heard of him, but across the country millions listen to his nationally syndicated show every morning, which airs locally from 4 a.m. to 11 a.m. According to Arbitron’s latest ratings, Piolín has the No. 1 Spanish-language morning show in Los Angeles, with a 5.0 (5 percent share, or approximately 500,000 of all radio listeners in his time slot), not to mention a higher rating than Howard Stern, KIIS’s Ryan Seacrest, KROQ’s Kevin & Bean or any other English-language morning radio show you can think of. He also has the No. 1 syndicated show among the 645 Spanish-language stations nationwide. In short, Piolín is the No. 1 morning radio show, Spanish-language or otherwise, in the U.S.
If you are looking for a symbol of the country’s changing demographics, look no further than Piolín. Much of his ratings pull has to with the fact that at nearly 40 million and growing, Latinos are the largest minority in the country, representing 13 percent of the population. Los Angeles is almost 50 percent Latino, many of whom are recent immigrants who find both reassurance and a sense of community by listening to Piolín and other Spanish-language jocks as they struggle to navigate this strange new city. In this forum, they are not ridiculed for being undocumented, working class, and for speaking only Spanish. After all, many locutores, including Piolín, have endured such stigmas.
Born in Ocotlán, a small rancho in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, Eddie Sotelo was an energetic kid whose constant joking around would often land him in trouble. As a youth, he would be entertained by a traveling projectionist who traveled from small town to small town showing films using a white sheet as a screen. The projectionist charged a small fee to enter what looked like an old garage, but Eddie had no money, so he would climb onto the roof and watch from above. It was from there that he first watched Mário Almada films. Almada is the Mexican version of the action hero; never without his rifle, he’s Eastwood and Bronson wrapped into one. In these films, characters would talk about the U.S. Eddie got curious and started to investigate. One day, he asked his father if he could go work in the U.S. In 1986, while Mexico was hosting soccer’s World Cup, Eddie arranged for a coyote to cross him over from Tijuana.
“I thought Tijuana was the U.S. because so many people were talking English. I thought you just crossed — someone grabbed your hand and you crossed,” Sotelo laughs. At night, he, the coyote and two other people decided to make their move, but they had barely gotten started on the trek when they saw the border-patrol helicopter chasing some other people and quickly coming toward them.
“ ‘Watch out for the Mosco,’ the coyote told me. I thought, ‘Mosquito?’ Man, we got tons of mosquitos in Jalisco. Why should I be afraid? But he meant the helicopter!”
He hid in some brush, but soon he felt a beam of light on him. The helicopter hovered over him for a while, kicking up debris and issuing orders from its speakers in English, which Eddie did not understand.
“That’s when I knew this was serious, a real experience. I prayed hard, and soon enough the helicopter flew away,” he says. But just when he thought everything was clear, the coyote told him to run because they were sending the trucks to find them. Sotelo ran as hard as he could in his borrowed sneakers and hid in a creek, while the border patrol searched all over for them. After finally evading the border patrol, the coyote had a car waiting for them, but it was on the other side of the freeway. So, in a case of life imitating art, they ran across the freeway just like the infamous signs one sees while driving south on the Interstate 5.
“When I was crossing the freeway, I thought the cars were going to stop,” he laughs. The coyote told Sotelo to run for it when he saw a break in the traffic. They made it to the other side, and as they were jumping the last barrier, one of the group accidentally kicked Sotelo in the head and knocked him out for a split second as cars sped by. They jumped into a residential area and barely evaded a woman and her barking dogs. The coyote quickly put the three into the trunk of the car and took off.
“There came a point where I couldn’t breathe, so I ripped open a part of the carpet in the trunk to try to breathe. We came to an immigration checkpoint. I could hear the dogs barking, and I thought they were going to open up the trunk of the car. I kind of wanted them to open the trunk ’cause we couldn’t breathe. We were in a small car, three of us sweaty and hot,” he says.
They drove up to the Orange County city of Santa Ana, where Sotelo’s uncles were waiting for him and where he would begin his new life in the States.
Sotelo’s nickname, Piolín (“Tweety Bird”), came from longtime friends who clowned him about his short stature and the big lips he now flaps effectively for radio. In a studio the size of a bedroom, Piolín jockeys to set up his next caller and hit the laugh-track buttons, a staple on his show. Meanwhile, his crew of seven producers and sketch players — hailing from places as varied as Mexico, El Salvador and Peru — is armed with laptops and busy managing different aspects of the show, including writing, on-air participation, special effects and instant Google searches, which help Piolín move his show along. Peruvian-born Luis Garibay sets up gunshot sound effects like a court stenographer: Cock, Cock, BOOM! This is especially effective on the Piolínbomba, where listeners call in and tell their jokes. Piolín is the main character, but the show also features a full lineup of characters with distinct personalities: Chela Prieto, a single mother of two; Don Poncho del Codo Agarrado, an old retired politician who firmly believes men are superior to women; Casimiro Buena Vista Mira Lejos, the town drunk; El Talpujas; Chipilín; Culantro; and 14-year-old Telorino. The show comprises chistes (jokes), bromas (pranks) and crank calls that are at times sexual in content but generally in good taste and good fun.
Today Piolín calls up the manager of an apartment complex and complains that the neighbors above make love all night and that he can’t get any sleep.
“Hello, yes I can’t sleep,” he tells the manager in broken English, “Here, listen.”
Piolín pretends to put the phone up to the neighbors’ wall and plays the sound of a squeaking bed.
Marcela Luevanos, who also does news and traffic, gamely simulates enthusiastic copulation.
“My grandmother asks me questions about the noise and I don’t know what to say,” Piolín tells the manager, “and my dog won’t stop barking because of the squeaking.”
The crew is laughing hysterically, though the manager seems really concerned: “Okay, sir, I’ve heard enough.”
At Saddleback High in Santa Ana, Sotelo was a student who couldn’t sit still, a joker who would get kicked out a lot except during theater class. But he was serious about getting into radio, and he tells his story of how he got started like it’s a creation myth.
Sotelo started out taking food and drinks to the local deejays in Santa Ana in hopes of getting his foot in the door. Then, he was getting a haircut one day in 1991 when a family member ran over to tell him that a small station in Corona wanted to interview him for a job. He borrowed a car and got to the station at around 10 p.m. There, the program director asked Sotelo how much experience he had. Sotelo, who had none, lied and said lots. The program director asked Sotelo if he could do news. Of course, he said, even though he had no idea how to do news, or anything else in radio, for that matter.
“So he told me to come back at 5 a.m. I had no family in Corona and knew no one, so I slept in the car, which I parked right next to the radio station, and freshened up at a nearby lake in the morning,” he says.
He screwed up the news, but the station saw his determination to learn radio and they gave him a midnight–to–2 a.m. gig. He played music and talked to callers. It wasn’t the greatest, but he was learning. However, when the station learned he didn’t have a green card, Sotelo was fired. He went to Radio Laser in Oxnard and then was offered a morning gig at the Super X in Sacramento. It was the opportunity he always wanted — to show off his comedy skills. Before long, Sotelo’s show started to give the rival stations competition. In response, Sotelo says, a competitor began to investigate him. One day when he finished doing his show, immigration officers were waiting for him outside the studio.
“I had a fake green card. I had applied for immigration, but they didn’t qualify me,” he recounts. “So I had to get fake papers. They handcuffed me at the studio; they treated me like a criminal. My intentions were only to work and help.”
Sotelo says the immigration officers felt sorry for him, even apologized for what they were doing, but he was still given 30 days to leave the country. He thought about going to another state and starting over, but his co-workers told him, “No, they’d find you.” He left demoralized, thinking his life was over and wondering what he’d tell his parents, who had followed him to the U.S. and were living in Riverside. “I couldn’t tell them the truth,” he says. “I told them I was on vacation.”
Next thing he knew, he was recycling cans and cardboard for money. “When they were going to deport me, I had appointments in San Francisco,” he says, “so when I drove up the 5 freeway and came to those big hills, I would turn the car off and coast down to save on gas. I had no money.”
The day of his deportation, he went before the judge and told him the truth: He was only here to work and help his family with their house payments. The judge asked him where his family was. Sotelo had told them to wait outside because he didn’t want them to see him in this state. Sotelo says the judge, like the immigrations officers, was sympathetic but had no choice. Sotelo was handcuffed and shuffled off to an exit where his family would not see him.
“At that moment I prayed hard. I asked God to do what was best for my life,” he remembers, his voice turning from lyrical to emotional. “As the bailiffs were carrying me out, someone came up to me and asked, ‘Are you Mr. Sotelo? Here’s your work permit.’ I couldn’t believe it. I started crying. Right there my faith strengthened, and I said, ‘I’m going to help people.’ ”
Like his idol, Mexican comedian Luis De Alba, Piolín strives to entertain the masses. But lowbrow humor is only half the story. Community involvement is what sets locutores like Piolín apart from their English-language counterparts. They help their listeners with immigration issues, financial crises, illness and legal troubles. While the crew pulls morning bromas, a 22-year-old distraught pregnant woman calls in crying about her male partner, who has left her to raise the child on her own. She’s scared about raising her child without any financial help. Piolín and his crew try to comfort the woman and give her options. If worst comes to worst, she can receive Women, Infants and Children benefits, they tell her. Listeners call in and offer the woman financial help. During another show, Piolín has set up a surprise telephone call between Julio Ramos, an Army MP stationed in Iraq, and his mother, wife and son. The reunion becomes an emotional event, with Piolín now playing the part of Oprah.
On a different day, the laughs turn to politics as Piolín and crew break down Arizona’s Proposition 200, an initiative that would have state, county and municipal employees immediately start reporting suspected undocumented immigrants who seek public benefits. Mothers call in and talk about being afraid to take their children to school or to get shots for their kids. Piolín brings in a reporter from La Opinión who’s written on the subject to discuss the prop and to reassure mothers of what the law could and could not do. Then, Piolín sends a shout-out to a car wash in Phoenix, where a Mexican family is asking for financial help to transport their father back to Sonora to get a proper burial. The show also seeks help from a variety of nonprofit organizations and professionals, including doctors who counsel on relationships and sex.
“If people need help, we help them. If someone needs a transplant, we try to find a donor and help them. We try to get people off drugs. Anything we can. We have a great family; everyone who listens to us is part of the family. It’s a balance of entertaining people but always helping people,” says Piolín.
Listeners have a relationship with these locutores that typically runs deeper than in English-language radio. Many in the community consider Piolín part of the family — the day I went to interview him, a Mexican man waited in the lobby to invite him to his daughter’s birthday party. Piolín even finds time to play soccer at the local park with some of his listeners after his morning shift on Saturdays.
A look at the demographics of Piolín’s listenership helps explain the closeness between jock and audience. An Arbitron study showed that at 18.4 percent of the market share, Mexican Regional, which is Piolín’s station’s format, is by far the favorite Spanish-language format among Hispanic listeners, particularly in the morning. What is Mexican Regional? Norteños like Lalo Mora’s “Aguanta Corazón” (Mora recently came on Piolín’s show and downed a bottle of Salvadoran liquor), Banda el Recordo de Don Cruz Lizarraga’s “El Sinaloense,” and Corrido classics like Antonio Aguilar’s “Lamberto Quintero.” Mexican Regional music accounts for more than half of all Spanish-language record sales in the U.S. — selling almost four times as much as all the “Tropical” styles put together. This is not Gloria Estefan, or salsa; this is rancho music, straight working-class. Consider the Mexican Regional makeup: More than 55 percent have household incomes under $25,000 per year. Fifty-one percent have not completed high school. Nineteen percent have gone beyond high school to attend college. Mexican Regional listeners are 15 percent less likely than the general Hispanic population to own their own homes. They are the ones most likely to have children in the household, and when they have a problem, they look to the radio for help.
“That’s one of the secrets of its success,” says Jackie Madrigal, Latin Formats editor for the trade journal Radio & Records. “Hispanics, by nature and culture, are very family oriented, and even when they become assimilated to the ‘American’ way of life, they will always be Hispanics first. Those who listen to Spanish-language radio do it for a number of reasons, but one of the most important is that the language and the music make them feel closer to who they are. When Hispanics come to this country, they never forget about the countries they left behind, and radio is a way to feel close to those countries, whether it be Mexico, Colombia, Honduras, etc. It’s the nostalgia factor. So when radio is community oriented, Hispanics get attached and consider their favorite radio station, or radio personality for that matter, part of their family. And they depend on them for all sorts of things, just as you would a family member.”
During a morning talk segment, one of the callers gets emotional and starts to cuss, bleep after bleep. One of Piolín’s crew members, Jorge Velásquez, busts out a bullhorn and tells the caller to please show respect and refrain from using bad words. “If you want to cuss go to another station,” he tells him. Then, the Cock, Cock, BOOM! sound effect.
Perhaps he was taking a jab at Piolin’s main rival, Renán Almendárez Coello, known as “El Cucuy” (“The Boogey Man”). El Cucuy has held the top spot in Spanish-language radio for as long as anyone can remember. With his Tropa Loca (“Crazy Crew”), El Cucuy is considered the Howard Stern of Spanish-language radio, and just like Howard he’s been under the watchful eyes of the FCC for sexual content and what some consider raunchy talk radio. Piolín took over the morning slot when El Cucuy moved to the afternoon, and then took over the top ratings spot when El Cucuy bolted La Nueva for rival La Raza KLAX-FM (97.9) — reportedly after fighting with management over issues of content and compensation for his crew.
Here is an example of an El Cucuy skit:
Harp sound effects set the mood.
Narrator’s voice: “A husband comes home and finds a man naked in his bedroom, with his wife nowhere to be found.” He asks, “What are you doing here?”
“I’m the fumigator. I’m here to take care of the termites,” he responds.
The husband asks, “Why are you naked?”
“Oh my god,” says the fumigator, “the termites must have ate my clothes.”
Cue laugh track.
El Cucuy says his comedy is based on picardía, a popular form of Latin humor based on wordplay and double-entendres. As a general rule, no cuss words are allowed on morning radio, especially since a lot of children listen to the shows, but that doesn’t mean Spanish slang words like baboso or güey (both meaning “idiot”) aren’t used.
“I don’t think Spanish-language radio is more raunchy than English-language radio. The difference is that the use of double-entendre is part of the culture, and some personalities rely on it,” says Madrigal. “And then you also have to consider that while we all speak Spanish, we don’t speak the same Spanish. There are significant differences in the way we use certain words, the meaning we give them, or the way we perceive them depending on which Spanish-speaking country we come from — even if the Spanish dictionary gives a universal definition for a word. If you don’t know the differences, you may be speaking to a Mexican just fine, while saying a word that is insulting to a Puerto Rican or Argentinean, for example, and not even know it.”
El Cucuy, who is from Honduras, is also deeply committed to helping out the community. Recently a woman called in to El Cucuy to thank him for helping her move in to an apartment after her house burned down, and for buying her a new recámara (bedroom set) and giving her una estufa (a stove). Throughout the call, she repeats, “Gracias a Diós.” El Cucuy also hosts community events like free diabetes screenings and even has his own foundation, “La Fundación El Cucuy” (www.cucuy.org), which, among other things, raises millions of dollars for charity and helps Central Americans build homes.
“I have much respect for El Cucuy,” says Piolín. “He is a teacher of the microphone. He has done a lot to help the community. Also opening up doors for people like me.”
Wearing a beige Calvin Klein sweater, Eddie Sotelo stands in his studio before a poster that reads, “Piolín por la mañana. El show #1 en el pais.” Changing the landscape of Los Angeles and national radio has been a long, hard road but Piolín hasn’t forgotten.
He signs off each show with his signature mantra:
“¿A que venimos a los Estados Unidos? [Why do we come to the United States?]”
“A triunfar! [To triumph!]” his crew and listeners respond.
Hard work, determination, faith and the will to triumph — this is something one can understand in any language.
¡Viva Los Locutores!
Los jefes de la mañana
KBUE 105.5 (La Que Buena) El Mandril y Los Guapos de la Mañana. El Mandril also pulls pranks and is big on the laugh tracks. The station plays norteños and corridos from artists such as Los Tigres del Norte, Chalino, Adan Sánchez and Lupillo Rivera.
KSES 107.1 (Super Estrella) Ysaac y Serralde and La Regadera. These guys yap and yap with every other word being güey. The station plays Latin pop like Paulina Rubio, Shakira, Juanes and Ricky Martin.
KXOL 96.3 (EL SOL) Pepe Barreto, a longtime radio personality who has a star on the walk of fame. Pepe is old school; no laugh tracks, and you’ll actually hear music, specifically romanticas like Luis Miguel, Ana Gabriel and Alejandro Fernández.
KKHJ 930 AM (La Ranchera) Humberto Luna, another old-school cat who has had his own TV shows. The station goes with mariachi classics like Jose Alfredo Jimenez, Pedro Infante, Javier Solis and Vicente Fernández.
KRCD 103.9 FM (Recuerdo) Jaime Piña spins oldies like Paquita la del Barrio, Trio Los Panchos and Los Yonics.
KLOVE 107.5 FM (DONDE VIVE EL AMOR) Omar and Argelia play romanticas like Pepe Aguilar, Pablo Montero and Christian Castro.