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Mystery surrounds hiatus of top-rated morning radio show

Television IndustryMedia IndustryRadioEntertainmentArbitron IncorporatedUnivision (tv network)

Until a month ago, Ricardo Sanchez was flying high as Los Angeles' top-rated local morning radio host.

Then the Spanish-language radio personality known as "El Mandril" disappeared from his slot on KLAX-FM (97.9), the Los Angeles station owned by Spanish Broadcasting System.

Now details are emerging concerning the 47-year-old radio host's eviction from L.A. airwaves in early November. He's still going to work every day, but his show is no longer being broadcast.

The question is, why?

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Sanchez's manager, Fernando Schiantarelli, said Monday that Sanchez was pulled from the air during negotiations over his employment contract, which ends next month.

But Schiantarelli also confirmed, as did other industry sources, that Sanchez's show has been the subject of an investigation by research giant Nielsen, which acquired radio ratings firm Arbitron in late September, into allegations of ratings tampering.

"There was an investigation raised by some other competitors who were very concerned that Mandril was being so successful," Schiantarelli said, adding that such investigations — and complaints from rivals — are not uncommon in the industry. He said the investigation didn't turn up anything.

Allegations have been raised that members of Arbitron's audience panel had been contacted by people connected to Sanchez's show and encouraged to listen to his program, a violation of Arbitron's and Nielsen's practices.

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A Nielsen representative said the company had no comment on its investigation, adding, "Nielsen Audio is committed to the highest standards of integrity in our data and our panels."

A KLAX programming executive also confirmed that Sanchez's program was taken off the air because of an investigation. The executive referred The Times to top company executives who did not return repeated calls for comment Monday.

Schiantarelli said a top SBS executive told the janitor-turned-radio star to show up to work every day but sit around "doing nothing."

"Mandril is not out because he has been suspended," Schiantarelli said. "He is out because SBS considered this the best way to pressure him into negotiating their conditions for a new contract."

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Sanchez and Schiantarelli both said they have never been told that an investigation had anything to do with the show going off the air. They denied any wrongdoing.

In an interview, Sanchez said he was told by SBS' chief operating officer, Albert Rodriguez, that he was being taken off the air but wasn't given a specific reason why. He said he was asked about traveling to Miami this week to negotiate his contract.

"But the contract they sent me is not convenient for me or my team," Sanchez said.

Rodriguez did not return calls seeking comment.

Although he is off the air in SBS' major markets in L.A., Chicago and San Francisco, Sanchez said he continues to record in another studio for programs that air in more than three dozen other markets.

Although his contract ends Jan. 13, as of this week Sanchez is free to seek out a contract with another media company.

"At the moment, I'm doing what they asked me to do," Sanchez said of SBS. "And as employers, they continue to pay me."

In April, Sanchez surpassed former Univision Communications Inc. star Eddie "Piolin" Sotelo in the ratings on his way to becoming the No. 1 morning host in L.A. Sotelo's syndicated program was canceled in July amid allegations of sexual harassment, which Sotelo has denied.

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On Monday, Univision — which had been thought to be a possible destination should Sanchez leave SBS — rolled out a new program called "El Bueno, la Mala y el Feo" (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), which emphasizes popular regional Mexican music on its KSCA-FM (101.9) station. The program has three hosts: Raul Molinar, "El Bueno"; Sylvia del Valle, "La Mala"; and Andres Maldonado, "El Feo."

"El Mandril" posted a personal Facebook message to his fans Friday, saying his absence was related to an assignment given by executives.

The message, which only deepened the mystery among his fans, was deleted shortly after being posted. On Monday, Schiantarelli said it was a "euphemism" for "an assignment to go and sit and do nothing" during contract negotiations.

hector.becerra@latimes.com

meg.james@latimes.com

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