It's a new day for Spanish radio in Los Angeles: The Bogeyman who once ruled the airwaves is gone, and Tweety Bird is the new king.
For six straight years, El Cucuy de la Ma & #324;ana (Bogeyman of the Morning) was the highest-rated radio personality in Los Angeles, consistently beating English-language competitors Rick Dees and Howard Stern. But by 2003 his ratings had started to slip. Two weeks ago, he landed in 27th place.
That's when he aired his last broadcast on KLAX-FM (97.9), a local station owned by Miami-based Spanish Broadcasting System Inc.
The exit of Cucuy marks a generational change in Spanish-language radio, and will benefit a rising crop of Spanish-language DJs, especially Piolin (Tweety Bird) on Univision Communication Inc.'s KSCA-FM (101.9) and Don Cheto on KBUE-FM (105.5), owned by Burbank-based Liberman Broadcasting Inc.
Cucuy, whose real name is Renan Almendarez Coello; Piolin, whose real name is Eddie Sotelo; and Cheto have targeted their acts to appeal to Hispanic males 18 to 34, the core group that advertisers want to reach on morning radio.
"Where you had one big host years ago, now you have three going for the same audience," said Adam Jacobson, associate editor at Hispanic Market Weekly newsletter in Miami. "Renan was the oldest of the three in terms of content and his ability to bring in new listeners."
For the second week of September Cucuy's last week on the air Arbitron ratings show Piolin's station came in second place, behind English-language talker KFI-AM (640) during the morning weekday drive. In contrast, Cheto finished in ninth.
"Advertisers look at those averages, and when you see them trending down that affects ad dollars," said Stella Cruzalegui, media director at Al Punto Advertising in Tustin. "So you bet on a sure horse that means Piolin."
In terms of style, Cruzalegui said Piolin emphasizes Latino pride and community events, while Cucuy is closer to a shock jock.
Meanwhile, Don Cheto "speaks to a specific audience young Mexican men who love women and beer," said Jacobson.
Shock wore off
While Hispanics found Cucuy wildly funny a few years ago, the shock wore off, Cruzalegui said, a phenomenon that mirrored the fading popularity of Howard Stern in the English-language market. In contrast, Piolin waxes sentimental on the air and has adapted his message to social conditions.
Two years ago, he urged other Spanish-language deejays to rally their listeners to a march protesting a crackdown on illegal immigration. A half-million people turned up for a march down Wilshire Boulevard. Piolin was credited as a driving force of the event.
"Because radio is an art, it's hard to express it in business jargon," said Julio Rumbaut, a Hispanic media consultant in Miami. "But when someone has it, he has it. This gentleman Piolin has it, and the ratings show it."
Given Cucuy's declining numbers, radio insiders had expected his departure, Jacobson said.
Almendarez told the Business Journal that it was a mutual decision.
"We negotiated with management, and they agreed to let me end the contract early," he said. "They paid me for the time left on the contract."
Cucuy's departure is not the company's biggest issue, however.
Spanish Broadcasting System has lost nearly 90 percent of its stock value since the beginning of the year. It currently trades for around 30 cents and has until February to get its price above $1 or face delisting by Nasdaq.
Industry newsletter Inside Radio has quoted multiple unnamed sources saying that SBS management actually wants to drive the stock price lower so they can take the company private.
As a result, SBS cut spending on marketing and promotional events. That contributed to Cucuy's decline among listeners.
Cucuy has announced plans to start his own radio network, starting with a station he owns in Albuquerque, N.M. He plans to build a studio in Los Angeles, where he will play regional Mexican music on radio as well as continue to tape his weekly TV show, "Azte Pa'Ca," for the L.A.-based Azteca America network.
He faces plenty of competition, including Univision, SBS, L.A.-based Entravision Communications Inc. and Spanish media conglomerate Prisa Group.
Moreover, the U.S. Hispanic market is fragmented, with Mexicans and Central Americans dominating the market in Los Angeles, Puerto Ricans in New York and Cubans in Miami. That makes national programming a challenge.
Piolin currently ranks as the top Spanish-language DJ across the country, thanks in large part to marketing by Univision. Piolin's show is syndicated in 50 U.S. markets, including 17 stations owned by Univision.
"Piolin has been able to succeed because of syndication efforts by Univision Radio, but also because of his on-air connection to listeners," Jacobson said. "He just became a U.S. citizen. Like them, he came here illegally and worked his way up the system. There's a lot for listeners to relate to."
But Piolin attracts listeners in markets where there are many Mexicans. His show failed in Miami, and in New York it only does well among the Mexican submarket.
The disconnect between a local Hispanic audience and programming piped in from another city remains an issue at Cucuy's former station. SBS replaced Cucuy with a program hosted by Joaquin "El Chulo" Garza, who is based at WLEY-FM (107.9) in Chicago.
It might not be a smooth transition.
"When people wake up in the morning and put on FM radio, it isn't to hear music," said Rumbaut. "It has to relate to their everyday lives not to what's happening in Chicago."
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