An Immigrant DJ's Morning in America

El Piolin's show trounces English-language broadcasts in the ratings.
El Piolin's show trounces English-language broadcasts in the ratings. (By Carlos Puma For The Washington Post)
By Darryl Fears
Sunday, April 30, 2006

LOS ANGELES -- It's two hours before dawn, and Eduardo Sotelo, the star of America's top-rated morning radio show, greets the massive workforce that feeds and builds and spruces up the nation's second-largest city. "¡Despiertese!" he shouts. Wake up!

Maids get out of bed and slip on their uniforms, landscapers load leaf blowers into rusty flatbed trucks before chugging up the freeway and cooks turn on restaurant stoves to make flapjacks. They, like other listeners, know Sotelo as El Piolin, or Tweety Bird, and they regard him as a Mexican immigrant hero, someone like them, a role model. Twenty years ago, Sotelo sneaked across the Mexican border into California by hiding in the trunk of a car, and now his Spanish-language radio show, "El Piolin por la Mañana," has made him a rags-to-riches story, a DJ who beats Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh and Tom Joyner every weekday morning, according to Arbitron ratings.

Tweety Bird in the Morning is probably the biggest radio show that most Americans have never heard of, and its quiet triumph over English language shows speaks volumes about the living arrangement between Americans and the estimated 11 million to 12 million immigrants who reside in this country illegally. These immigrants are hidden in plain sight, even as their numbers and purchasing power grow ubiquitously day by day.

Advertisers, however, have recognized their value -- "Forty million people, spending $700 billion -- it will be $1 trillion by 2010," says Moses Frenck, managing editor of Adweek's Marketing y Medios, which follows the Spanish-language industry, and "if you advertise on Piolin's radio show, you will have a whole cross section of people buying your product."

Sotelo downplays the attention, saying, "I just felt like another person that's putting a brick on the dream for 11 million people, living without papers. I went through it. I know the feeling, and you feel terrible. I don't want no one to go through that. It's painful."

Last month, Piolin pushed more than product on his show. He is credited for supersizing the city's March 25 immigration rallies to more than a half million, making America sit up and take notice of immigrant demands for reforms that would give them a chance to become citizens.

As a result, Sotelo's name crossed over to English-language media for the first time. He was the cover boy of LA Weekly's March 25-31 issue, in a staged photo, appearing frantic as he peeked out of a half-open car trunk. " Despiertese, Despiertese!" read the headline. "Piolin breaks out."

Sotelo's publicist, Georgia Carrera, says he's just been invited to the White House for its Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

"He's the biggest," says one fan, the Puerto Rican singer Noelia Lorenzo. "Whatever he says is like the word of God."

When alarm clocks go off at 4 a.m., Sotelo's high-pitched wake-up is the first word of the day for many of his listeners. It is followed by that crazy Looney Tunes music, mixed with a Mexican flair, playing off the Tweety Bird nickname. He broadcasts for seven hours, Monday through Friday, on KSCA (101.9 FM).

His show is heard in 17 markets and features your typical morning radio fare, entirely in Spanish. Aided by a five-man crew, Sotelo cold-calls area businesses, disguising his voice, asking for what can only be described as dumb stuff, until they're let in on the gag or hang up in frustration. He tells bromas -- jokes -- to canned laughter and devotes chunks of time to callers who dish their own. Here and there he plays wildly popular Mexican ranchero music, with its oompah-like sound.

Music, fun and games are a kind of medicine for listeners with difficult lives. His audience is full of people who risked life and limb to enter a foreign country illegally, and now find themselves alone, penniless, jobless and a step away from deportation. Grown men weep because they miss their mothers. Children wail because they can't find their parents.

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