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Ready for Drive-Time Players

Kevin Baxter is a Times staff writer

It’s just past 9 o’clock on a foggy Southern California morning, yet Pepe Barreto has already been at work for more than four hours. Businesslike in a long-sleeve shirt and tie, he sits in a spacious studio surrounded by a battery of computer screens, looking more like a stockbroker than the top personality on Southern California’s top-ranked radio station.

Down an adjoining hallway and around a corner, in the studio of KLVE-FM’s (107.5) sister station, KSCA-FM (101.9), the scene couldn’t be more different. The tiny booth, crowded with five men, has all the charm and civility of a high school locker room, with everyone talking and laughing at the same time. In the middle of the crowd, wearing bright yellow pants and enough ornate jewelry to make Dennis Rodman jealous, sits Renan Almendarez Coello, the only morning radio host in the Los Angeles market with better audience ratings than Barreto.

Separated by just a few dozen yards in their studios and by just a few percentage points in the ratings, Barreto and Almendarez are worlds apart in just about every other way. One is a born-again Christian from South America who is as comfortable speaking English as he is Spanish. The other has been married four times, says he has fathered 19 children and takes pride in the fact that he’s succeeded without learning English.

One is painfully serious; the other could make light of a train wreck. Yet it’s their dramatic differences that have made a rousing success of Heftel Broadcasting’s decision to put both on the air at the same time.

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“It’s like Leno vs. David Letterman,” says Allen S. Klein of Media Research Graphics, which analyzes the Spanish-language radio market in Southern California. “You have two guys, [and] people have an affinity or feel more comfortable with one than the other.”

For much of the last three years, however, it’s been Barreto’s show that has drawn the largest audience of any morning-drive program in the market. His five-hour show, which starts at 5 a.m., first topped the quarterly Arbitron rankings in March 1995, and since then, he’s slipped from the top spot just twice--finishing second to KLSX-FM (97.1) and syndicated shock jock Howard Stern in the fall of 1995 and to Almendarez last summer.

The fact that their paychecks are signed by the same person does little to temper the ferocity of the competition between Barreto, 50, and Almendarez, 44. After all, finishing second to someone you see every day can get old after a while.

“On the air, it’s serious competition,” Almendarez says. “We say hi to each other in the parking lot, in the bathroom. We’re friendly. But on the air, we’re competition.”

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“I guess when you’re on the air, everybody competes with each other,” Barreto says. “I try to focus on my show. I’ve learned through the years that you have to stay focused on your show, not to divert your attention to what any other person does or does not [do]. In this business, there are ups and downs. What really counts is that you stay up most of the time.”

Barreto’s rise began three years ago when the programming team of Bill Tanner and Pio Ferro came to Los Angeles from Miami to refine KLVE’s format of adult-contemporary music. Long commercial blocks were eliminated, deejays were ordered to cut back on the chatter, and the station’s regular playlist of Spanish-language music was trimmed to a svelte 380 titles. In six months, the station went from 11th in the market to No. 1, a spot it has held in nine of the 12 most recent ratings periods, including the last eight.

Many of KLVE’s listeners are English-dominant Latinos who tune in to hear soft ballads and love songs by Mexican artists such as Ana Gabriel, Luis Miguel and Alejandro Fernandez. And the station promises them 50 minutes of music every hour.

But while the music may drive KLVE’s programming, personalities are what frequently attract listeners during the competitive drive-time hours. And Barreto’s unobtrusive, button-down style has provided both a perfect complement to the station’s easy-listening music and a dramatic contrast to the wacky and racy drive-time shows hosted by Almendarez, KTNQ-AM’s (1020) Humberto Luna and the formerly top-ranked team of Juan Carlos Hidalgo and El Peladillo on KLAX-FM (97.9).

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“People like to be represented by the type of programming I do,” Barreto says. “They feel that this is the programming they want to represent their values, their idea of how the rest of the market wants to perceive Hispanics.”

Which isn’t to say Barreto doesn’t let his well-coiffed hair down once in a while. He does. Each Friday, for example, he plays matchmaker, taking calls from lonely listeners and setting them up on dates with other callers. But fittingly, Barreto insists that the segment is a public service, not a gimmick to increase his audience.

“One of the biggest dangers for the immigrant is loneliness,” he argues. “And they perceive the announcer as their friend. Sometimes that’s the only person they have. Just a voice there in the radio. So they come to me, [and] I do my best to help them.”

Barreto takes few things as seriously as his commitment to Southern California’s burgeoning Latino community. He has been a tireless campaigner for immigrant rights and, during the past seven years, has faxed and mailed out thousands of application forms for the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s annual visa lottery. His frequent on-air updates on immigration law have had such an effect, in fact, that congressional offices sometimes call him first when a new bill is pending.

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But politicians aren’t the only ones who phone for help. In September, Barreto got a call from a woman who had just given birth to triplets, one of whom had a kidney disorder that required extensive surgery. What’s more, the woman’s husband had just lost his job, so there was no money for food, much less surgery. Barreto spent 45 minutes talking to the woman on the air, and as a result the station was flooded with hundreds of calls, offering everything from cribs and diapers to money and jobs.

“When I do things like that,” Barreto says, “we are like tools of God. Maybe it was God that wanted to help that woman and God used me . . . as the medium.”

God and Pepe have been good friends for a number of years, ever since Barreto made an inexplicable recovery from injuries suffered in an accident in his native Peru. Barreto, 19 at the time, spent several months in the hospital, lapsing in and out of consciousness, until he heard two doctors describe his case as hopeless; a priest was summoned to perform the last rites. But then, Barreto says, “a miracle happened.”

“I started to gain strength and started to move. And I survived,” he says. “So from that day, I decided . . . I’m going to take one day at a time. I’m going to thank God for every day.”

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It was a humbling experience for a teenager so sure of himself he literally boasted his way into his first job. The son of a soldier and housewife, Barreto grew up in the Peruvian capital of Lima, where he developed a voracious appetite for English and such an insatiable love for radio that he spent hours working on his voice intonation.

When the Beatles took Latin America by storm in 1963, Barreto figured it was time to put his knowledge of English and his interest in radio to use, hanging out at a local station and repeatedly telling the deejays he could do a better job than they did. One day, when someone called in sick, management put the 16-year-old braggart on the air, hoping to embarrass him into leaving. Instead, Barreto was so impressive, he was hired on the spot.

From there he jumped to the Voice of America and U.S. Armed Forces Radio before moving to Los Angeles nine years later. After bouncing among half a dozen TV and radio stations here, he eventually landed at KLVE in 1985.

And though Barreto and KLVE have ridden to the top together, that marriage may soon be ending. Barreto’s contract expires in June and he says he has already received calls from at least two competitors--both of whom broadcast in English.

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“I’m not being compensated accordingly. That’s a little disappointing,” he says. “I don’t value my work for money. I value my work more for satisfaction--the community service that I’ve done.

“But it’s money that [shows how much] they respect you.”

Neither Barreto nor station management would say how much he’s making, but it’s been reported that Luna, who broadcasts from a studio adjoining Barreto’s for Heftel station KTNQ, negotiated a five-year, $5-million contract in 1989. Luna’s morning show now draws an Arbitron audience share about a third the size of Barreto’s 6.4%

Clearly Barreto built his popularity--and ratings--by doing more than simply playing records. But would listeners tune out if Barreto left? The station may be willing to take a gamble.

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“If Pepe asks for something reasonable, which he should, then we’ll try to keep him,” says Pio Ferro, KLVE’s program director.

But if it fails, says media analyst Klein, the station isn’t likely to suffer dramatically: “It’s a music station; it’s the music that drives the format. He blends in perfectly with the station. . . . [But] if he leaves, I can’t believe it would be a problem, because it’s a music station.”

Down the hallway at KSCA, however, it’s a different story. The station has recorded a meteoric climb since switching from English to a format of regional Mexican music 10 months ago, becoming the third most-listened-to station in the local market (Los Angeles and Orange counties). And it’s ridden there largely on the back of Almendarez.

It’s not the first time he’s carried a radio station to prominence. When KKHJ-AM (930) switched from English to Spanish, Liberman Broadcasting gave its morning spot to Almendarez and soon his show was the third-ranked morning program in Los Angeles. Just as significant, since he left KKHJ in the fall of 1995, the station has lost more than half its daily audience, going through three formats in an effort to lure them back.

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“Renan tied Howard Stern in his best book on an AM 5,000-watt station,” says Tanner, the vice president of programming for KSCA, KLVE and KTNQ. “So you don’t have to be a wizard to figure out that if you took that man and you put him on a full-signal, full-power FM station, that he’d do well.

“Renan is an amazingly compelling performer. Renan is funny, he’s earthy. He’s a man of the people totally. But, boy, does he ever get radio. He understands what it takes, the sacrifices required. And he’s prepared to do it.”

Six mornings a week, those sacrifices include waking at 3 a.m., making his way over the Cahuenga Pass from his San Fernando Valley home to KSCA’s still-temporary studios in Hollywood and leading his “tropa loca” through a lightning-fast, high-energy show that is almost completely improvisational.

In front of the microphone, Almendarez acts like a wide-eyed kid on Christmas morning, bouncing animatedly from one subject to the next. Like the English-language shows of KLSX’s Howard Stern, KLOS’ Mark & Brian and KROQ’s Kevin & Bean, his program features ribald humor, improvisational skits, phone calls from listeners, lots of canned sound effects and very little music.

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When the show ends, it’s as if the air has been let out of a balloon. Shortly after retiring to his sparse office to receive the day’s rush of well-wishers, lines begin to form around his eyes and his voice grows noticeably tired.

“I put a lot of energy into the show,” he says in Spanish. “I start at 100 mph at 5 o’clock and finish at 150 at 11. On the bad days, I just have to work twice as hard.”

The name of his on-air persona, “El Cucuy de la Manana,” is a Mexican version of the boogeyman. But rather than inspiring fear, Almendarez’s cucuy produces laughs.

“El Cucuy is daring, innocent, infantile, sagacious. Everything,” he says. “But more than anything, he’s innocent. That’s the real personality of El Cucuy. He’s almost completely ignorant of everything, but at the same time, in his ignorance, he knows everything.

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“I don’t know why. El Cucuy never studied. But he’s lived a lot. More than anything, he has a lot of heart and that gives him the capacity to help everyone.”

In describing El Cucuy, of course, he’s describing himself.

Almendarez started in radio at the age of 15, spinning records for a music station in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa and telling jokes over the air when he thought no one in management was listening. The management of a rival broadcaster was, however, and soon Almendarez was doing prepared skits and radio novellas for the government-owned station’s national morning show, “Buenos Dias, Amigos.”

In 1982, he came to the U.S., landing first at XEGM-AM, which taped its shows in Southern California but broadcast them from a studio in Rosarito, Mexico. His show was heard by Luna, then the top-ranked Spanish-language radio personality in Los Angeles, who made a spot for him on his own comic morning program on KTNQ. After Luna’s show and a short stay at KLVE, where he was ridiculously miscast as a news reader, Almendarez moved to a sleepy little station in Fresno.

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“They told me to do a funny show, and that’s where I started to apply what I had learned in Honduras,” he says.

Within six months, Almendarez was back in Southern California, hiding out at Radio Exito, Liberman Broadcasting’s tiny AM Santa Ana station, until the purchase of KKHJ and its move from English to Spanish could be completed.

But just as suddenly as Almendarez had taken KKHJ to the top, he was gone. In the fall of 1995, he walked out on contractual obligations he says tied him to the Libermans and their low-power AM signal through 2002. The resulting legal battles kept him off the air for 14 months, during which he underwent treatment for ulcers, traveled through Mexico and Europe and got to know his family again.

“The time served me well,” he says. “To regain my sanity, I exercised every day, I took care of my body, my mind, and got myself ready for my next assignment.”

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Not surprisingly, that assignment turned out to be guiding another station through the transition from English to Spanish.

“We did some market research, and when we asked people what they wanted to listen to, his name came up again and again,” says KSCA Program Director Maria Nava. “He’s the biggest personality there has even been in Spanish-language radio.”

Almendarez’s show is not without controversy. Many critics have painted him as a Spanish-language version of Stern, a comparison others consider unfair since Almendarez’s humor is based largely on double-entendres rather than outright vulgarity.

Almendarez takes such criticism seriously. And although his show will never match Barreto’s in terms of public service, he has moved noticeably to a higher plane in recent months. Last month, he took an on-air call from a listener looking for a missing woman and another from a group trying to raise money to ship three ambulances to El Salvador. Even his witty sparring with jilted lovers, which has become an integral part of the show, has evolved from straight comic foil to often serious discussions on how to repair troubled relationships.

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Which isn’t to say Almendarez will ever rival Laura Schlessinger. The goal of his show will always be laughs.

“More than anything else, [it’s] entertainment,” he says. “I try to get 85-90% laughs. Every time I get behind the microphone, I have to make somebody laugh.

“The human being is the only creature who can laugh. And this is a gift from God. And we have to put that into practice every day. Because laughter is a massage for the soul. The most effective remedy to cure what ails you is laughter. I take that medicine every day.”

And certainly there’s a lot of smiling, if not laughing, going on in programming executive Tanner’s office these days. Because while Barreto and Almendarez wage their heated battle over the top spot in the rankings, he has the luxury of cheering for both.

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“It’s like asking a parent, ‘Do you love this child more or this child?’ ” he says. “If [the numbers] stay right where they are, we can’t complain.”


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