Saturday, August 13, 2005

Spanish Language Media No Longer Immune

History was made. Yesterday, a San Francisco man was awarded $270,000 from Univision Radio (the largest Spanish-language radio broadcaster in the Unites States) in an arbitration court desison. Univision was found liable for "outing" the man during an on-air phone prank on a morning show. Roberto Hernandez, the victim, argued that the forced "outing" had a "devastating" effect on his personal and professional life.

I am aware that a few years ago the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined a Puerto Rican radio station for broadcasting obscene language but this is the first time that I am aware that a court or regulation enforcement agency has forced a Spanish-language media coropration based in the United States to pay for these kind of stunts.

And the fact is that we are not talking the usual radio shock-jock banter that people hear on, say, Howard Stern, or elsewhere. A local radio show here in New York, "El Vacilón de la Mañana" (97.9 La Mega FM) which is syndicated nationaly, practically invented the format (jokes, prank phone calls and parody songs all morning long with brief news and wheather alerts) and caught a lot of people unguarded when they actually beat Howard Stern's ratings consistently and became, from time to time, the most-listened radio station in the New York metropolitan area, regardless of language. Now the "La Mega" format is being exported to other cities around the United States and even rival Spanish-language stations in each market are imitating them.

So what is so offensive? A couple of examples:

In a song skit called "Cuando Me Violaste" ("When You Raped Me") set to a bachata rhythm, a guy sings about being raped by another man the previous night. He sings about how huge a hole the guy left afterwards and how much it hurt (while siging longingly and lisping a few words here and there).

In a "Vacilón" prank phone call a man is told that his wife has tested positive for HIV and that he needs to rush to the hospital for testing before he dies. The man, who does not understand what HIV means asks for clarification to which the pranker says "SIDA, amigo su mujer tiene SIDA!" ["AIDS, my friend, your wife has AIDS!]. At that moment the man starts losing his composure, gets agitated, and the radio jokey actually tells him that this is why it's so important to rush to the hospital: Because - if he also has it - he could die in a couple of hours. They also tell him that his wife has admitted sleeping around with other men. The guy on the phone sounds as if he's on the verge of tears but towards the end he seems to realize this is too much and asks if it's a prank. When he is told that it is, he lets out a sigh of relief and laughs along. Never mind the misinformation spread through these skits (HIV is not the same as AIDS, someone diagnosed with HIV or AIDS can live a long life, etc.).

You actually do not need to rely on my descriptions: These and other skits are included in one of the four popular CD compilations that "El Vacilón" has released commercially (where this type of material is defensible as a Free Speech issue). But so far, no fines from the FCC for the live broadcast of the same skits (which are not defensible if broadcast on live radio or television under FCC regulations).

They get away with it because nobody at the FCC seems to speak or undesrtand Spanish or care much about the most-listened radio show in the New York City metropolitan area. They get away with it because they began to run some HIV prevention messages during the commercial breaks as a shield. They get away with it because agencies like mine see the huge listenership as a means to reach as wide a Spanish-speaking population with an HIV prevention message and go to the show to 'inform' the community (but then get ridiculed the moment they leave the studio as when the HIV disclosure skit mentioned above was re-broadcast the moment members of my agency had left). They get away with it because so many people in the community don't see anything wrong with the skits.

At the very least, after that last experience, the top brass at my agency said that they had learned their lesson and will not be back on the show. But it certainly has undermined the on-going efforts to keep them from spewing so much mierda.


Anonymous said...

Outrageous. Totally outrageous.

Anonymous said...

I will not go into details, but the same exact thing happens here in Florida with the mayor Spanish radio stations. Is as if they lost complete respect for the audience listing. VJ's sound as if they're doing it for their own amusement and to get a kick out it for themselves and not for the respect of others. Ironically, the show is called “El Vacilon de la manana”, just like in NY.