RIP Polito Vega, the Master Voice of New York Hispanic Radio
Polito Vega and New York Hispanic radio grew up together, and over their six intertwined decades they created quite the party.
When Vega died March 9 in his North Bergen, N.J., home, age 84, he was widely and rightly hailed as one of the pioneers who elevated New York area Hispanic radio from an afterthought to the power player that reflects the city’s rich Spanish, Caribbean, South American, Central American and Latino presence.
It wasn’t part of a master plan. It just happened.
“I never expected to be in radio,” the good-natured Vega said in a 2000 interview. “I wanted to be a singer, playing my guitar. But then I started helping a friend with his radio show called Fiesta Time on WEVD. It was a 30-minute show. I’d visit him in the studio and I began to like it.
“On August 26, 1960, I started my own show on WBNX [later WKDM]. Once you start, it becomes a habit. You don’t want to let go.
“Back then there was no Channel 41, no Channel 47. There were two part-time Hispanic AM radio stations. Then they became full-time. Then we got the two TV stations and the FM radio station, WSKQ [later joined by sister WPAT-AM].”
New York had never lacked an Hispanic or Spanish-language audience. Broadcast media to serve that audience was slow to develop because of, surprise surprise, money. Radio runs on ad revenue and ad agencies weren’t convinced that advertisers needed to reach Spanish-language listeners.
Hispanic media executives fought this perception for years, noting that Spanish-language listeners bought furniture and cars and insurance policies and took vacations just like their English-speaking counterparts.
Vega watched that perception change over his years in radio, particularly after he became executive vice president of programming for WSKQ. He noted that many of his listeners were bilingual and some were English speakers who just loved the music.
He also watched that music, like all popular music, undergo a continuing evolution.
“When I came on the air,” he said, “it was all trios and guitars. Music was described by its rhythm, like ‘rumba’ or ‘bolero.’ You never heard the word ‘salsa.’ But I liked the word, so I used it.
“What we played was Machito, Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente. The real stuff. I was surprised how popular it became.
“Today when I play a Tito Puente or a Machito record, some of my listeners don’t know who they are. But the music is so compelling they still have to stop and listen.
“Things are always changing. Everything changes. The people on the radio today have a different style, and that’s good.
“When I started, radio was all live. There were no cartridge machines, only turntables. You read all the commercials from a book. I learned so much about radio just from reading commercials.”
Vega had cut back his own airshift over the years as he moved more into programming, a transition sparked in part by his long-time friendship with Raul Alarcon, who owned WSKQ and was also a major force in the blossoming of Hispanic radio.
By 2000 Vega was 62 and doing just one weekend shift. “Sometimes I think I might like one more,” he mused at the time, and sure enough, nine years later at the age of 71 he was doing two shifts, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 8 p.m.
“I feel great,” he said. “I just took a shower and it felt like a shot of tequila.”
In 2009, anticipating the occasion of his 50th anniversary on radio and potential retirement, WSKQ and WPAT set up two concerts at Madison Square Garden to salute Vega’s radio career.
The first show featured Juanes, Enrique Iglesias, Paulina Rubio, Alejandro Sanz, Laura Pausini, Luis Fonsi, Cristian Castro, Don Omar, Gloria Trevi and others.
The second night was Gilberto Santa Rosa, Víctor Manuelle, El Torito, Millie Quesada, Olga Tañón, Oscar de León, Luis Enrique, Elvis Crespo, Grupo Manía and Los Hermanos Rosario.
The all-star nature of those lineups reflects the affection and appreciation Polito Vega had earned over 50 years.
And then would continue to earn, since he shrugged off retirement and stayed on the air for another few years after that.
In keeping with his ongoing lack of a grand plan, he said with a laugh that all of it was mostly just luck.
“The only Spanish radio host from when I started who’s still around today is Paco,” he said in 2009. “We joke about it all the time.
“And from all the WABC and pop radio jocks I heard when I got here, like Scott Muni and Murray the K and Herb Oscar Anderson and Dan Ingram, the only one who’s still on the radio is Cousin Brucie.
“I don’t know why I am still here. I must have good DNA.”
That must be it.