Voice of el pueblo

Times Staff Writer

For five years, Renan Almendarez Coello -- "El Cucuy de la Manana," or "morning Boogeyman" to his radio audience -- has ruled morning radio in Los Angeles.

Mixing crass, sexist humor with such populist causes as speaking out on behalf of a disputed 400-year-old oak tree in Santa Clarita or helping a paralyzed man get an electric wheelchair, he generates ratings that routinely top those of everyone who faces him, whether they speak English or El Cucuy's native Spanish.

The ratings in Los Angeles -- he's the morning mainstay on KSCA-FM (101.9) -- say the formula works. And El Cucuy, heard in such cities as Chicago, San Francisco and Dallas, enjoyed success with his recently published autobiography, which HarperCollins put out in Spanish only.

But now the outrageousness that made the Boogeyman the local radio leader is also bringing him another kind of attention.

El Cucuy regularly touted two faith healers, who were later accused of giving a Santa Ana man seeking treatment for a rash an injection that killed him.

The radio host also promoted on the air a self-described doctor named Fernando Lozano ("Dr. Misterio"), who police say sexually abused people in his office, including minors. One alleged victim was a 15-year-old girl who sought treatment for stomach pains. The trial against Lozano, originally scheduled to begin Dec. 9, has been rescheduled for Jan. 8.

Coello is not a defendant in either case.

"I only want to help," Coello says, in Spanish. The 49-year-old says he has used one of the faith healers himself. "I don't mean for these bad things to happen. It's not what I intended. But I think there comes a point where things are out of my control and responsibility."

"He doesn't deserve the fame he has because he is not doing good things for our community," says Hollywood listener Maria del Carmen Cuellar. "He's taking advantage of humble people who don't know where to turn for help."

Federal Communications Commission spokeswoman Rosemary Kimball says the agency only investigates radio personalities when there are complaints. She is unaware of any complaints against KSCA or Coello.

In fact, his show, heard 5 to 11 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays, receives thousands of pleas for help each day.

"His show really speaks to the need of the people, not so much his inability to help them," says Alejandro Moreno, a Santa Ana social services advisor for National Compadres Network. "If we had the family resource centers we should have, maybe there wouldn't be a demand for El Cucuy."

On a recent morning, a 62-year-old woman named Lupita calls in, complaining about unusual sexual urges. It's the sort of call Coello loves and he weaves the woman's comments through more than two hours of his six-hour program. Coello insists the call is not a hoax.

"I really don't know what is going on. But I feel it from the time I get up until about 8 p.m.," says the woman.

Coello continues with a slew of sex jokes and canned laughter fills the airwaves.

Then, the woman becomes more serious. She sometimes sees bugs. She thinks they are imaginary. She doesn't trust her doctor.

Coello hooks her up with help. Not a doctor, a psychologist or social worker, however.

Instead, it's Maria Lolita de La Paz, a Santa Ana-based astrologer. Although she does not advertise on the program, she advertises on El Cucuy's Web site and has appeared with him at numerous public functions. The astrologer and Lupita are going to continue their chat off the air.

Coello has held the No. 1 spot during the morning drive for several years, drawing an average daily audience of 2.5-million listeners, evenly divided between the sexes. With a warm voice, he links Spanish-speaking immigrants to current events and to quick solutions to a variety problems.

"I am el pueblo [the people]," he explains. "I am of the same cloth as my listeners. I think that is why I have been so successful."

Coello begins his six-hour show at 5 a.m., five days a week, often saying, "Arriba, arriba, arriba, arriba. Wake up. It's time to go to work. That's what we came to this country to do."

Manuel Alvarez, a listener in La Habra, says El Cucuy "tells jokes that are macho stuff and that's not really good. But he's one person who seems to respect a person like me. He is a way for me to know about what's going on. A lot of things he does show how much he cares about the Latino community."

The radio personality often talks about his recent radio-a-thon that raised $1.6 million for Parents Against Cancer, or the $1.7 million he raised for communities in El Salvador ravaged by earthquakes and a hurricane. He went to El Salvador on vacation to help rebuild several communities; two were renamed "Comunidad Renan Almendarez El Cucuy de la Manana."

Back at the station in Glendale, he is equally comfortable with the stars of Spanish-language music who visit his show, including Marco Antonio Solis, Vicente Fernandez and Juan Gabriel, among others. It's all a far cry from a humble past in his native Honduras, where he lived in substandard housing until coming to the United States in 1981, fed up with poverty.

It was not until 1984, at age 31, that he had his first home, an apartment at Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue. He called it "the Hollywood of the poor," but he relished it: "I remember how wonderful it was just to be able to put a key in a door and be in my own place," says Coello, whose book narrates how he lived in his car.

He owes his success, in part, to his ability to wait in lobbies. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, he would wait for hours at radio stations for the chance to show off his resume filled with experience in Honduras. He worked at several stations, during which time he writes that he regularly abused drugs and alcohol.

But when he arrived at KSCA in 1997, he says he went cold turkey. His ratings skyrocketed.

Coello has never learned more than rudimentary English, but the four-times-married radio star claims ownership to part of the American dream. "We are part of the dream once we cross into this country," he says. "Where I come from, people just dream of getting here. Once we are here, we are surrounded with opportunities. We have to find them and work and work."

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