Luis Jiménez: The King of Latin Radio
por: Robert Domínguez
Every morning as the sun begins to rise over New York City, there is a silent ritual that Luis Jiménez never fails to perform while he makes his way to work.
As he drives into Manhattan, Jiménez spends a moment taking in the majesty of the skyline and appreciates just how far he’s come, and how hard he’s worked, to become one of the city’s top-rated morning radio hosts and its best-known Spanish-language deejay.
“When I drive to the city and see it from the bridge and I know I’m about to wake up New York, it’s just a special feeling,” says Jimenez, 43. “This is the No.1 radio market in America, and I feel very lucky. I know there’s a lot of talent out there who don’t get this kind of opportunity.”
It’s a pre-dawn ritual Jimenez has been doing for 20 years as the ringmaster of raucous and racy morning-primetime shows he’s helmed since coming to New York in 1993 from Orlando, Florida — by way of San Juan, Puerto Rico — with little experience but loads of ambition.
“The Luis Jiménez Show,” broadcast Monday to Friday from midtown Manhattan on WXNY/96.3-FM since 2008, has attracted a huge part of the city’s overall radio audience and is regularly among the Top 10-rated shows in any language.
But it’s also the highest-rated show among New York’s diverse and ever-growing Latino market, thanks to a successful blend of on-air banter between the charismatic, quick-witted Jimenez and his studio crew, over-the-top sketches, song parodies and guest appearances by some of the biggest Latino stars in music, movies, television and sports.
The lighthearted, Spanish-language show, which often bounces to English and Spanglish and back again, is also syndicated to more than a dozen stations across the U.S., serving the Latino community in such major markets as Boston, Philadelphia, Orlando and Daytona Beach, Hartford, Nashville, and stations in Jimenez’s native Puerto Rico.
By now, the story of Jiménez’s unlikely rise to the top of the radio industry is as familiar as his pleasant, lilting, on-air voice. Born and raised in San Juan, Jiménez says he had one goal in life since he was a little boy — to be on the airwaves. In what seems an apocryphal tale, a six-year-old Jiménez even turned down an offer from his father to go to Disney World, opting instead for a tour of a nearby radio station.
He ended up working part-time for a local station, and by his late teens had talked his way into a job at an Orlando, Florida, station — though his responsibilities included cleaning the building.
“I was working part-time on the radio when I was a janitor, but I just wanted to be full-time on the air and get paid to do that and not have to clean bathrooms,” Jiménez recalls.
“It’s dignified work but it’s not what I wanted to do. My goal was to get paid to be on the radio, and that’s all I was focused on — not even to be famous. I didn’t see deejays signing autographs.”
Even as a part-timer, he built a name for himself as a deejay in Orlando. But Jiménez caught a major break when a former colleague, now working for WSKQ-FM in New York, got him an interview at the station. A nervous but excited Jiménez jumped at the opportunity and took the first flight to the big city.
“I remember feeling so overwhelmed,” he says. “When I got to the airport in New York no one picked me up. I had to pay my own fare, which was $45, when all I had was $75. It was a bad morning. The cabdriver was crazy, and at the station they made me wait around for six hours — and then they put me on the air with no preparation.
“I had no idea what button I had to press, or what I had to do. At times there was nothing but dead air. I thought, ‘I can’t do this. I’m going back to Orlando to sweep floors. This is too much.’ ”
Of course, he got the job.
“It was supposed to be a midday spot, and I was going to be paired with a guy until they found a replacement. I guess they never found him.”
What the station found instead was a natural talent in Jiménez, who learned the radio ropes quickly and was soon hosting “El Vacilón de la Mañana” on La Mega 97.9. But his dream gig didn’t start out smoothly, especially when station executives didn’t take to the show’s over-the-top, envelope-pushing skits, jokes and bawdy song parodies.
It also didn’t help that not a lot of listeners were tuning in.
“The ratings were horrible,” Jiménez says. “That first year and a half, if Howard Stern had a 17 share, we had like a 1.1. Horrible! We felt like we were going to get fired. But then they brought in Junior Hernández, who was an established deejay, and we worked together and the show took off. And when they fired the people who wouldn’t let us do anything, we were finally free to do our thing.”
Jiménez spent more than 14 years on La Mega, his high point coming in 2004 when the show was rated No. 1 in the New York market in any language — finally knocking Howard Stern, the self-proclaimed King of All Media, off his throne.
In 2008, Jimenez moved to rival station WXNY as host of “The Luis Jiménez Show,” which he soon brought to the top of the Spanish-language ratings.
Like his former rival Stern, Jiménez’s broad following over the years has allowed him to spread to other forms of media — including starring in and producing a raunchy and hilarious 2005 feature film, “El Vacilón: The Movie,” hosting live radio shows at Madison Square Garden, producing such TV shows as “Sábado 47” and “WEPA!” for Spanish television, and lending his distinctive, dulcet tones as a voice-over artist for HBO Latino and The History Channel.
Jiménez is currently working on several outside projects, including screenplays for a comedy film based on one of his show’s characters, as well as a horror movie, which he says is one of his favorite genres.
But Jiménez says he would be more than happy to spend the next 20 years and beyond on the airwaves while still pursuing his other projects.
“I’ll be happy just to be successful. I love film and I love doing different things, but I love doing radio. I see myself doing radio until I die. It never gets old.”
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