From the barbershops of El Monte to a mariachi outfitter's in Boyle Heights, many Southern Californians struggled Tuesday to make sense of the sudden disappearance of the wacky, warmhearted man they'd woken up with for the last decade.
On Monday, Univision Radio Network announced that it had dropped "Piolín por la Mañana," the highly popular, nationally syndicated Spanish-language morning radio talk show hosted by Eddie "Piolín" Sotelo, whose ratings have been in decline for years. The decision, which could have significant economic impact on the country's growing Latino market, also reflects that population's cultural assimilation.
Sotelo, whose nickname means Tweety Bird, is an immigrant from Jalisco, Mexico, who crossed illegally into the United States from Tijuana in 1986 as a 16-year-old and rose to become one of this country's top-rated and best-known radio personalities. His Horatio Alger story, as well as his advocacy of immigrant rights, resonated with his core audience of recently arrived and first-generation Mexicans and Central Americans.
"He's a good guy. He fought for us," Juan Carlos Palma, 30, a Mexican immigrant gardener, said as a barber snipped his hair at Ruby's Beauty Salon in El Monte. "I liked that he would call to Mexico and let people talk to their mom or dad, who they had not seen in years. He tried to make life not so hard for us who just want to work."
Although his radio listenership was slipping, Sotelo's growing English-speaking proficiency and oversize personality had earned him a number of small feature film roles and a more visible general-market presence as he attracted guests such as First Lady Michelle Obama. His toothy, beetle-browed visage bursts out from billboards across Los Angeles.
Univision, the New York-based radio and television behemoth, gave no reason for the abrupt cancellation of the show, a daily melange of loony skits, double-entendre humor, pointed social commentary and listeners' confessionals about their romantic trials and economic hardships. It aired in Los Angeles on KSCA-FM (101.9). Sotelo could not be reached for comment.
Though the network didn't explain its decision, most who follow the industry thought it was a straightforward business decision. One advertising executive who monitors Univision closely suggested that "Piolín overplayed his hand in contract renewal negotiations."
In the increasingly competitive world of Spanish-language morning radio, Sotelo's show had been losing ground to rivals such as Ricardo "El Mandril" Sanchez's program of regional Mexican music on KLAX-FM (97.9).
In June, the most recent month for which figures are available, Sotelo tied for sixth among all morning hosts in the Los Angeles-Orange County market, according to the Arbitron ratings service.
In the 6-to-10 a.m. time slot, he garnered 4.1% of all listeners age 6 and older, the same as KBUE-FM (105.5). Sotelo averaged 470,300 weekly listeners in June, far from his audience totals even two years earlier. The top spot went to El Mandril, who even beat conservative news talk station KFI-AM (640), where shows by Bill Handel and Rush Limbaugh have dominated morning ratings for more than four years.
Since the beginning of 2012, Sotelo has camped out in the lower half of the top 10 morning shows. He sank as low as 19th in 2011, far below his peak popularity between 2005 to 2008.
The Spanish-language radio marketplace has shifted dramatically in the last few years, and the growth of so-called Mexican regional formats has slowed as younger, more assimilated second- and third-generation Latinos increasingly tune into English-language formats.
Mexican regional, which encompasses a variety of musical genres including ranchera and norteño, remains the most popular Latino radio format in the U.S., about on par with contemporary Christian formats, according to Arbitron.
But according to a report in Hispanic Market Weekly, among listeners tuned to Mexican regional formats, those 18 to 34 years old made up 38% in the spring of 2012, down from 52% in 2005.
"The Hispanic market is evolving rapidly, particularly in Los Angeles," said Adam Jacobson, a Miami-based Latino market media strategist. "And unfortunately Piolín is still targeting a segment of the population that has shrunk in its dominance."
Jacobson said that although Sotelo's show had focused intensely on immigration politics, a substantial segment of his audience has moved on to other concerns. "They are more worried about the economy and jobs and affordable housing," he said.
Other radio analysts said that Latino broadcasters hadn't come up with the right formula to meet the current youth-driven market dynamics. "The Hispanic market has changed dramatically for the last few years, and a lot of station owners are no longer sure that you need to have a big-name morning show," said Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming for New Jersey-based Edison Research.
Still, Jacobson said, because Sotelo's show was nationally syndicated, its cancellation would have major ramifications. "We are talking about thousands and thousands of advertising dollars being flushed down the toilet, particularly for the smaller stations that rely heavily on this program," he said.
Among Sotelo's legions of local listeners, there were numerous expressions of surprise and sadness, mingled with less-flattering appraisals from those who regarded the show as cartoonish and demeaning to U.S. Latinos.
Jorge Tello, 59, a Guatemalan immigrant who has made outfits for mariachis for 50 years at La Casa del Mariachi in Boyle Heights, said he didn't listen to "Piolín por la Mañana" or other shows of its ilk because he finds them clownish and vulgar.
"A lot of these other programs use a lot of bad words," he said. But he added that some of his young Guatemalan employees tune into them. "I say, 'How can you listen to that?'" Tello said with a laugh. "There's no advancement for the mind when you listen to these programs."
For the most part, however, on Twitter, blog posts and in dozens of interviews, listeners praised Sotelo's empathy for his listeners' daily travails, and his promotion of immigrant rights.
"His show was very popular because he developed a strong rapport with his audience. He spoke their language, he understood how they felt and what kind of challenges they faced," said Hector Orci, chairman of the Santa Monica advertising agency Orci.
Orci said that Piolín's humor generally was less ribald than that of his morning radio rivals. "He didn't have to go into the sleaze like so many other comedians do," he said.
Betto Arcos, a native of Veracruz, Mexico, who hosts the world music show "Global Village" on KPFK-FM (90.7), affirmed that Sotelo's program was directed toward Spanish-speaking immigrants who came to the United States "in the last 10 years or so," primarily from small towns and villages.
But if "Piolín por la Mañana" spoke to listeners in the relatively rough-hewn language of the rural Mexican campo, Arcos said, that didn't make it any less valuable.
"I'm as proud of Piolín as I am proud of any other Latino of higher stature, whether it's Gustavo Dudamel or Placido Domingo," Arcos said, referring to the superstars who lead, respectively, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Opera.
Times staff writer Robert J. Lopez and special correspondent Steve Carney contributed to this report.
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