On a frigid night in January 2003, tropical radio disappeared from Chicago’s airwaves. Salsa listeners who set their alarm clocks to La X Tropical, at 1200 AM, woke up to a canned simulcast of Viva 93.5-103.1 FM, the city’s mainstream Latin pop station.

“Do you know how many kids got slapped, how many ears got pulled? How many parents were yelling, ‘Who touched my radio?’ says DJ Eddie “Mozkito” Cruz.

Mozkito, who’s 39, is a veteran of the tropical and house music scenes in Chicago. He began his career at 12 in Humboldt Park, lugging records for DJs. “I didn’t last very long carrying equipment. They were breaking my back for $25,” he says. In 1985 he left Chicago to work for KSJL in San Antonio. “I was the first one to bring mixing to Texas,” says Cruz. “They didn’t know what to do with me. They thought I was scratching up the table.”

He came back to Chicago in 1990, spinning house and freestyle at Club 123 in Belmont-Cragin for five years, then went back to his tropical roots, playing salsa and cumbia nights at local Latin clubs. From 2000 to 2002 Cruz deejayed the drive-time mix on La X. So as something of an insider, he could understand the business calculations behind the station’s shutdown.

“There’s no La X because it’s corporate,” he says. “When you’re not raking in five million a year, it’s not worth it for them.”

Cesar Canales, who was the Chicago operations director for Hispanic Broadcast Corporation, which owned La X when it changed formats, says, “We did much market research in Chicago. We called people, checked with communities, and saw the need for another station that was Latin pop. For the young crowd 18 to 34 years old, reggaeton, Latin hip-hop, and Latin pop is the new trend.”

But thinking of the ethnically mixed crowds that flocked to his club gigs, Cruz suspected that there was a healthy audience for less commercialized tropical. So with the help of a silent investor–and drawing on most of his life savings–he launched La Clave, Spanish for the wooden sticks used in Afro-Latin percussion. He started the station as a piggyback, renting airspace from WAIT 850 AM, which otherwise has an adult-standard format. Using a transmitter in Crystal Lake and renting a broadcast studio in Jefferson Park, Cruz took La Clave live last November, airing weekends from noon to 8. He had $102,000, not even half of the $250,000 he’d budgeted. “By May we were out of money,” he says.

But the eight-hour weekend show quickly pulled in a wide swath of listeners attracted to its mix of bilingual call-in debate and indie and local-label tropical music, classic salsa, bachata, reggaeton (a mix of hip-hop, merengue, and reggae), mambo, and Latin house. It sure as hell wouldn’t fly on Clear Channel. The programming’s comparable to a contemporary country station playing old-school icons Hank Williams and the Carter Family alongside Neko Case and Kelly Hogan.

While La Clave’s base is largely Hispanic, it’s picked up at least some gringo listeners. “Polish people are calling in asking us to play Lenny Kravitz singing salsa in English,” Cruz says. “We get collect calls from jail. Women call us from 26th and California.”

Cruz estimates that La Clave’s audience is in the range of 60,000 listeners. He hasn’t contracted for a rating with Arbitron, which charges an annual base fee of $250,000, so “we can’t come up with a guaranteed number of listeners,” he says. Instead he does what WAIT and other small stations do, using a formula that multiplies call-ins, Web hits, and e-mails by 100.

Cruz’s estimate may be generous, but La Clave definitely has some street buzz. As Cruz and I spoke over a picnic table in Humboldt Park we were interrupted by Willie Garcia, lead singer for Orquesta Sabor. “I’m a fan. He plays my stuff,” Garcia said. Aficionados devote time to organizing station events like singles mixers at HotHouse and Cruz’s recent birthday bash at the Adler Planetarium. Hundreds of people attended La Clave’s one-year anniversary party at Joe’s Bar last week.

Ad sales have picked up enough that La Clave has ditched the weekend program in favor of a three-hour drive-time show Monday through Friday on WNTD 950 AM. Along with the new time slot, the station now has new digs, just off Michigan on Fairbanks, and a 5,000-watt transmitter off Roosevelt Road. Its broadcasts reach as far east as Michigan City and as far north as Wisconsin.

“My airtime costs me $5,650 a week. We’re looking for investors,” Cruz says. “Sometimes there’s times we don’t know where the money is coming from.” But “we all have day jobs,” he goes on. Cruz still makes his living playing club gigs and private parties, putting most of his earnings into the station. Business and events operations are run entirely by volunteers like Angel Cruz (no relation), the station’s business manager, who works as a corporate buyer for Citibank by day.

Cruz and Michelle “La Chula” Rivera, a Columbia College broadcasting grad and La Clave cohost, build their audience and surprise their listeners by showing up at barbecues, block parties, and birthdays. “I tell them if they invite us, we’ll come,” says Cruz. When listeners win a record or prize pack, he or one of his volunteers hand delivers it. “We’ll come to your house, wash your car, we’ve even taken people out to eat,” he says.

Though it’s impossible to tell for sure, Cruz believes his bilingual format has had an effect on larger corporate radio stations over the past year. “Now B96 is running Spanish ads, and commercial Spanish stations are running English ads and their DJs are trying to announce bilingually in their broken English,” he says. “Is it us? Are they listening?” Canales, now director of operations for Viva 93.5-103.1, is unconvinced that there’s been a change. He says that though his station has been airing some ads and occasionally even responding to on-air calls in English, 95 percent of the broadcast remains in Spanish. Of La Clave itself Canales says, “That’s not really a formal station. It’s a broker station where they’re buying some of the hours. I think they are appealing mostly to the Caribbean community.”

Tom Taylor, editor of the trade publication Inside Radio, compares La Clave and other shows that rent airtime to late-night infomercials. “They’re not playing for ratings, they’re playing for results,” he says. “They’re in the direct-response game. What matters to them is that people advertising are getting customers.” At $70 a pop for a sixty-second spot with a six-month contract, La Clave’s ad rate may be among the lowest in the midwest. And while it depends upon the support of mom-and-pop stores like Chicago Avenue Discount and computer retailer Genes 2000, companies like Verizon and Hennessy have purchased time as well.

But perhaps the best indicator of La Clave’s popularity is its audience’s willingness to feed the staff. When Cruz bellows on air “I’m hungry, who’s cooking?” the call-board lights up.

“When you have listeners cooking you arroz con gandules and bringing it to you, you’re doing something right,” he says.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.