On the Edge With Humberto Luna

Times Staff Writer

Humberto Luna stands grinning beneath a billboard bearing his likeness at the spot where, according to Hollywood lore, dreams come true--Hollywood and Vine.

The symbolism is not missed. Luna has seen his fondest dream come true--and then some.

"I never thought it would be like this," Luna said. "I wanted to live well and do something on radio. I still don't believe that because of radio I'm doing so much and so many people know me. I still feel it's a dream."

If so, it's an awfully sweet one.

The 41-year-old morning deejay is the highest-rated Spanish-language radio personality in Southern California, a superstar of Spanish-language media and, accordingly, its highest-paid performer. Luna recently negotiated a $1-million annual salary and a five-year contract for his goofy morning-drive antics on KTNQ-AM "Super 10-Q" (1020).

"This makes him clearly the highest-paid Spanish radio personality in the country and puts him right up there with the top-flight English-language disc jockeys," said Jim Blancarte, the lawyer who helped negotiate Luna's lucrative deal. "I thought he was worth twice as much. He continues to be on the cutting edge of Spanish-language radio."

The cutting edge of Spanish-language radio sounds a lot like English-language radio.

Luna spends each morning from 6 to 11 bantering with his collection of "character" callers (whom he dubs his "Luna-tics"), employing sound effects such as toilets flushing or eggs frying, discussing news events, introducing popular Latin musical selections and generally being his charming and affable self.

Luna says he still can't quite believe he is so well remunerated for having a good time.

"I thank God that I have fun and that they pay me for it," he said. "They are paying me for doing something I enjoy. I prepare something the day before, but most is improvisation. It's the facility that God has given me to think quickly."

Luna's morning show is broadcast via satellite and heard in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Miami and parts of Latin America. This week he was broadcasting live from Mexico in honor of Mexican Independence Day (which is Saturday). Luna often broadcasts shows from remote locations, including Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Rome.

And Luna's stardom extends beyond radio. He has had roles in 24 films made in Mexico and also hosts "Hablemos de Cine" ("Let's Talk Movies"), a weekly Spanish-language version of Siskel and Ebert's film-review TV show, syndicated by the Univision network and reaching an estimated 6.5 million viewers in the United States. Locally, "Hablemos de Cine" is aired on KMEX Channel 34.

Luna is no overnight success. He has been on the air at KTNQ for 19 years and started in radio when he was 20.

Actually, Luna marks the start of his broadcasting career much earlier--at a shoe store in Tlaltenago, the small town in which he was born in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico.

"I began as an emcee at 11," Luna said. "I worked at a shoe store announcing the specials."

The shoe store was across the street from the town center and a kiosk where Luna would "broadcast" information via loudspeaker about the latest shoe sales.

"I put two speakers outside and I was broadcasting," he said. "Inside the shoe store, I took the microphone and played music and did announcements, commercials. The store had very good sales. I would say things like: 'We have very nice shoes for you and your family. Come inside.' "

A few years after his early success as a barker, he decided to go to Mexico City to attend radio announcers school. After studying two years, he received his certificate in 1968 and left for Los Angeles, where his father was living.

Luna had hoped to learn English and eventually work in radio. Instead, he found there was an immediate need for Spanish-language broadcasters. He began working for XEGM-AM ((950), a station based in Tijuana but heard as far north as Los Angeles. At the time, the company that owned XEGM also operated KTNQ, and Luna moved to the Los Angeles-based station in 1970.

He began accumulating a stable of regular callers with whom he would stage on-air routines and developed segments like a "Swap Meet of the Air," a "Dating Game" spoof; a gossip hour, and "Rate-the-Record," where listeners call in and decide whether a record should be played or broken.

Luna is convinced that other deejays who have hit the airwaves after him have borrowed from his style and material.

"I listen to all the other stations to see what they're doing," Luna explained. "All of them have stolen a little from me--my informality, my jokes, my collaborators. . . . They do a lot of what I started. I established informal, crazy radio in Los Angeles."

His current boss, Heftel Broadcasting president and KTNQ general manager Ken Wolt, regards Luna as the station's crown jewel.

Wolt said KTNQ and its sister FM station KLVE are the highest-billing Spanish-language radio stations in the country, with advertising revenues of more than $20 million in 1988 and $23 million projected for 1989. KTNQ was rated No. 15 among all 80 Los Angeles radio stations in the most recent Birch-Scarborough Ratings survey. Luna ranked eighth among morning shows, according to station manager Jeff Lieberman.

"No one deejay (at KTNQ) has the audience that Humberto has," Wolt said. "It was through him that we catapulted. . . . That's why we were so anxious to sign him on long-term. We made it so lucrative that he's not going to go away."

The usually outspoken Luna is uncharacteristically reticent when asked about his handsome salary.

"I'm well paid but it makes me uncomfortable for my people, because I'm identified with the people, the average person, the average Mexican," Luna said. "I don't want to seem presumptuous, but I appreciate that they're recognizing my work after 20 years on the air."

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