What It Takes

Pedro Biaggi's road back to his dream

To get back into radio, Pedro Biaggi said he had to start at the bottom and work his way up
To get back into radio, Pedro Biaggi said he had to start at the bottom and work his way up (Jeffrey Macmillan - For Washington Post)
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By Avis Thomas-Lester
Monday, May 17, 2010

Pedro Biaggi credits his success to a series of angels that have taken him under their wings.

Biaggi, 47, of Silver Spring, grew up poor in Puerto Rico. His father was a steelworker, but he was raised by his stepfather, a musician, and his mother, a housewife. At age 16, he set his sights on New York City, but was almost deterred when an adult who was holding the $500 he had saved disappeared. With [money] a friend borrowed for him, Biaggi headed north with a one-way airplane ticket. A contact back home led him to Walter Terry, a dance critic who referred him to the American Ballet Theatre, which offered him a full scholarship even though he had limited dance experience. Biaggi left the ABT to work at the Playboy Club in Atlantic City, but was left unable to dance again after suffering a leg injury. Chance meetings led to opportunities to work as a news director, deejay and promoter for Sony's and Warner's music divisions.

Ten years ago, he decided to go back to his first love -- radio. For five years, he has been "Pedro en la manana!" -- the popular morning drive host on Lanham-based and CBS-owned, 50,000-watt WLZL, El Zol 99.1-FM, drawing an audience estimated at about 500,000 from Delaware to southern Virginia. He is active in charities that benefit children and immigrants.

Why he's successful: "It's the passion that I have for living and the desire that I had to be somebody. That got me to where I am against all the obstacles -- the passion, God and the commitment I have to be a better person every day, to act as if God is within me every day."

Obstacles he overcame: Poverty in Puerto Rico and prejudice in New York. "When I got to New York, somebody told me I was Puerto Rican ... Somebody told me it was not good, that it was the worst thing that could happen to me. I was never going to be able to be successful ... I was thinking, 'Just because I'm Puerto Rican, I'm not going to make it?' It was like a challenge for me."

First job: Selling newspapers. "I had to have been in the fourth grade. This was in San Juan, where we moved when I was 9 years old."

Best job: "I couldn't be luckier than [I am] to do what I do! To get the love I get for doing what I have a passion for! We rank very well in the general market ... When they tell us how many listeners, you think, 'Yeah, right.' If I were to think that I had that many people listening to me, I would get really nervous, get blocked. This is a dream-come-true job."

Worst job: Working as a busboy. "I told myself that one day I was going to own my own restaurant. I went from busboy to waiter to bartender to manager to owner of a restaurant by the time I was 20. My wife at the time and I owned it. It was called the 11th Cafe on 11th and 2nd Avenue ... When we separated, she kept the restaurant."

Smartest move: Moving to New York. "For the poor people where I grew up, going to New York was like the solution, the ultimate possibility to make your dreams come true ... My parents had no money. I was the one who was supposed to help the family ... When I wanted to go, my mother made me ask everyone in my family. I promised them, 'I am going to be somebody and get you out of here.' I think it was always in my head that I promised my mother that."

His dream: "I arrived in New York on a Friday night. By that Monday I had a scholarship to the American Ballet Theatre ... Oh, my God! Imagine! ... I realized I could make money. It was my ticket out of poverty, but it was not my dream. My dream was to be what I am today, a morning jock. When I was 5 years old, across the street from my aunt's house, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, there was a radio station called WISO. I used to escape from my house and go to the building. I was friends with everybody. The console of the station, where the buttons are, I couldn't see it. And the smell of the station, the cold air conditioning with all the equipment, is the very same smell I get every time I walk into a radio station ... I used to look at those guys talking and say, 'That's what I want to be when I become an adult!' "

Biggest misstep: Quitting his job as music director at WADO radio in New York a month after his father died in 1988. "With my father's death, something died in me ... My mother sent me a letter telling me she was leaving my stepfather ... Having to take the full responsibility for my mother and my sister and brothers really helped to refocus me."

How he found his way back: He eventually worked as a publicist and promoter for divisions of Sony's and Warner's Latin music divisions. "I didn't want to do that either ... but that's when my family started to have a better life. There were limousines, five-star hotels and all the stars. I kept going higher and higher on the ladder of success and getting away from my dream. One day I said, 'This is it ... I'm tired of this unhappy life.' If you are not doing what has meaning for you, it doesn't matter how grand it is." He asked friends about returning to radio. "One friend said, 'If you come back to radio, you have to start from zero, being nobody, getting paid nothing ... because too many years have passed since your glory days in radio.' I said, 'I'm willing to take that risk.' I wanted it so bad." He took a job at a station in San Jose, then moved to Los Angeles, where he was later promoted to morning drive. "I did that for two years, then moved to Washington."

What inspires him: "The innocence that I lost when I was 4 years old [when he was sexually abused] is the biggest inspiration I have today. Through my nephews and nieces ... I have been able to recapture that naivete that you need to survive in this world, that feeling that there are more good people than bad, that good is more powerful than evil."

What's next: "Syndication would be great. Moving to New York would be great because that is like my hometown -- my family is there ... And going on a cruise. I have never done that."

Advice to the aspiring: "Believe in your dreams and go after them and work very hard because nothing comes that easy in this life."

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