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Amping It Up:

Sure, his gags can be goofy, but from his No.1 spot on L.A. morning radio, Piolin unites and incites. March on City Hall, anyone?

January 07, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

THE woman on the phone with Los Angeles' top-rated morning DJ confides that she used to work as a prostitute. On the air, she sounds young and conflicted. She has tried to get out of the life, she tells the radio host in Spanish. But her current job in retail just doesn't pay, and she's tempted to sell herself again.

The woman's call comes in just before 10 a.m. on a recent day at the Glendale studios of La Nueva, KSCA-FM (101.9). Piolin, the former undocumented alien who helped rally last spring's massive immigration marches, is almost six hours into his marathon daily shift. He has an hour left to go but shows no sign of waning.

Though his program is often frantic and noisy, he takes on the soothing voice of father/confessor to delicately reassure the caller, using Spanish terms of endearment that melt with avuncular compassion.

"You can improve yourself, mamita," coos Piolin, the Spanish name for Tweety Bird. "You must find a new path because your body is worth its weight in gold. Remember, hija, you have a mission here on Earth."

Abruptly, the voice of one of his zany cohorts rudely interrupts: "Your mission is to please men."

"Shut that pig up!" somebody else shouts.

Then, the wisecracker insults the host: "She reminds me of your ex-wife, only this one charges."

"Saquenlo! (Get him out of here!)," commands Piolin. "He has no shame!"

The dramatized ejection -- with the DJ literally chasing the offender around the studio -- is accompanied by a cacophony of catcalls, hoots, jeers and whistles. Such antics surrounding real-life dramas are a staple of "Piolin por la Manana," the hugely popular morning show hosted by Eddie Sotelo, who got his nickname because childhood friends thought he looked like the bug-eyed cartoon character.

The former class clown from a working-class town near Guadalajara, Mexico, has grown up to become the most popular Spanish-language DJ in the United States -- syndicated by Univision in 16 major markets, including San Francisco, Houston and Phoenix, with plans to move into 10 more this year, including New York, Miami and Chicago. Most Americans had never heard of him until he helped mobilize half a million people to demonstrate for immigration reform on the streets of L.A. last spring. The dramatic marches helped stall a strict immigration bill in Congress and push legislation to a back burner.

Within the Latino community, the DJ's popularity just keeps growing. In the last year, Piolin's ratings have jumped dramatically from a 5.1% audience share in summer 2005 to 7.2% this summer, the reporting period immediately following the marches. He not only far surpassed his closest Spanish-language competitor, No. 2-ranked "El Cucuy" on La Raza (KLAX-FM) with a 4.9 share, but he also eclipsed all his English-language rivals: KROQ's Kevin and Bean, KFI's Bill Handel and Rush Limbaugh, KIIS-FM's Ryan Seacrest and Power 106's "Big Boy."

On one level, "Piolin por la Manana" is pure madcap entertainment. The program is boisterous, irreverent and chaotic, more squawk show than talk show. The host is a mash-up of Oprah, Jerry Springer and Cantinflas.

At the controls, Piolin goes loco, dancing in place to music and hopping in glee at a prank. He is in constant motion, taking calls and orchestrating the vocal participation of a whole village of odd characters -- Casimiro Buenavista Miralejos, the town drunk; Chela Prieto, the single mom; and Don Poncho, the wealthy macho who considers all women inferior.

Meanwhile, his handful of in-studio assistants are stationed at microphones around a crescent-shaped console, facing him like a peanut gallery spouting cracks. A producer stands at his side, whispering in his ear. When the rabble says something offensive, which is often, Piolin shouts his famous "Saquenlo" (Get him out of here!), and the noisy chase around the studio is on again.

Outreach pays off

DURING an interview following his show recently, the normally loquacious DJ was at a loss to explain the ratings. He bowed his head in silent prayer before lunching on a chicken sandwich at the building's cafeteria, then simply called his success a "blessing."

The key, he finally offers, is audience participation. Piolin compares his show to a soap opera. There are people in distress. There are good guys and bad guys, winners and losers. And the audience is either cheering or booing. The difference from the tube is that radio listeners can be interactive.

"That's the nice thing about the show: The listener becomes a part of it," says Piolin, whose lunch was interrupted by a fan who had driven four hours from Santa Maria to meet him. "It's the stuff of daily life. You have the drama and you get angry or you get happy when the guy gets the girl, so to speak. The listeners are driving along and they want to jump in and participate. They say, 'Hey, I didn't like that joke and I'm going to call and give him a piece of my mind.' "

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