The joke goes like this: Two friends are standing on Fifth Avenue in New York as Polito Vega and the Pope stroll by, talking together. One of them asks, "Who's that?" The other replies, "I don't know who the old guy with the white robe is, but he must be important if he's that friendly with Polito!"
Polito, as in Polito Vega, the longtime PD of WSKQ (Mega 97.9 FM) New York, the top-rated Spanish-language station in the country, and longtime host of his own weekend show, "Polito Vega y Su Equipo."
There are few more recognizable radio personalities in New York - likely in any language - and probably none that's been as celebrated for more than five decades on the air.
Three years ago, Vega sat atop a throne in a backstage dressing room at Madison Square Garden as a troupe of A-list talents - Enrique Iglesias, Laura Pausini, Luis Fonsi, among many others - got ready to perform in his honor. He was dressed in his traditional white trousers and white, starched shirt, his ever-present baseball cap replaced by a makeshift crown. A steady stream of visitors - label executives, managers, artists - filed past his throne, paying their respects in a scene that seemed out of a movie, but was fitting for the short man with the bigger-than-life persona and booming, recognizable tenor.
Vega was celebrating 50 years as an icon of Spanish-language radio in New York, and the scene - despite its comic and entertainment value - was no joke. Vega was a force to be reckoned with and was being honored with two massive shows at the Garden, one featuring just tropical acts - Vega's signature genre - and one featuring pop.
It was enough to call it a day, and Vega had actually done so. Five years before, he predicted he would retire by 2009. Instead, he seems to have gotten bigger with age.
On Sept. 30, Vega will celebrate 53 years on the air with what promoters SBS Entertainment and Felix Cabrera have dubbed "El Megatón Mundial de Polito Vega" (The Polito Vega World Megathon), a show at the Citi Field stadium in Queens featuring performances by Gloria Estefan, Don Omar, Alejandro Sanz, Juanes, Ricardo Arjona, Daddy Yankee, Paulina Rubio and Tito "El Bambino," among many others.
The concert is an ambitious endeavor whose roster of performers is only possible thanks to the clout and good will Vega exerts as a proven tastemaker in Latin radio.
"He's a Latin music institution," says Gloria Estefan's husband, entrepreneur/producer Emilio Estefan, who's known Vega for years. "He's done so much for us - not just Gloria and I - but for the industry as a whole. As musicians, our first relationship with the industry is through radio programmers and DJs, and it's important to be thankful."
As part of WSKQ for 29 years, Vega's opinion has long counted - a lot - and given La Mega's ratings, countless artists, in some measure, owe their hits to him.
"Above all else, Polo is the personification of the word 'friend,'" says SBS president/chairman/CEO Raúl Alarcón Jr., who grew up listening to Vega on the air. "He is that rarest of rarities: a man who wields enormous power and yet has no enemies. He contributes integrity, knowledge, friendship, experience, judgment, expertise, notoriety, honesty, authenticity, visibility, camaraderie, veracity, enormous recognition and fun. Stated simply, SBS owes an enormous debt to Polo, and I am honored to call him my friend and colleague."
Many artists who will be performing at the Megaton show agree.
"It's a double honor to be part of this celebration because Polito is from my country. He's a radio great and I believe his understanding of music is deep and wise," Tito "El Bambino" says. "But most importantly, he's been my friend for many years."
Vega's influence also rings true for a new generation of singers.
"I grew up listening to Polito," young bachata singer Prince Royce says. "He was one of the first to support my music, and the first time I heard one of my songs on the air it was on his show."
Conversely, if Vega's opinion counts it's because he has the ratings to back it.
"He is New York City's most important radio personality," SBS Entertainment senior VP Lucas Piña says. "He's spent 50 uninterrupted years on the air. The audience has grown with him and he's been with them generation after generation. I think that out of respect, admiration, tenacity and perseverance, he is someone that deserves to be recognized by New York and by Latins in New York."
Tickets to the event, which seats approximately 35,000, range from $39 to $199.
The show will be promoted locally on SBS stations La Mega and WPAT (La Variedad 93.1 FM). Mega TV, SBS' TV channel, will also run Vega specials on its flagship shows, including "Paparazzi Magazine" and "Esta Noche Tu Night Con Alexis Valdés."
"No one has ever done something this ambitious in New York City," SBS COO Albert Rodríguez says. "We want to make it a yearly event."
Born in Hipólito Vega Torres in Puerto Rico, Vega came to New York harboring artistic ambitions. He wanted to become a singer, but instead, he found his calling behind the mic inside a radio booth rather than on the stage. In New York, and indeed - most of the country - Spanish-language radio was a fledgling business where broadcasts had part-time slots on AM stations, and Vega's first job was as a DJ on a half-hour show called "Fiesta Time," which aired on now-defunct WEVD-AM.
He eventually landed at WBNX, where he met senior PD Raúl Alarcón Sr. It was the beginning of what would be a lifetime and life-changing relationship. Alarcón, who'd had radio stations in Cuba before fleeing after the revolution and had big ambitions of his own, would soon purchase his first station in the United States, launching what would become SBS. Twenty-nine years ago, he hired Vega, who never left.
As for Vega, he developed his voice - the signature booming, resonant instrument that remains emblematic to this day - and a reputation for defending the music he was passionate about. Vega was the first to play a record by a Fania artist on the radio, and he still hosts "Polito Vega y Su Equipo," playing salsa on weekends from noon to 8 p.m.
"He has that rare and unique combination of personal assets and experiences that make him a veritable expert where Latin music is concerned," Alarcón Jr. says. "He has seen and heard it all, and he retains an uncanny ability to judge what's good and what's lacking, despite the constant change in musical trends and the whims of an extremely fickle public. He has a golden ear that can't be fooled, and he is as unfailingly relevant today as he was 50 years ago."
In a Q&A with Billboard, Vega reflects on his lengthy career.
In addition to being Mega's PD, you are also programming WPAT (93.1 FM) [now La Variedad]. How do you like this programming role?
I've always assisted, but I never had the official programmer responsibility until a little over a year ago. I've seen programmers come and go, and many are arrogant; many, not all. And I always thought, "If I were a programmer, I'd like to keep the cool attitude I have." It's my mother's DNA. Gentle. I can't stand obnoxious people. If an artist brings me a song, and the song doesn't have the quality to go on the air, it's not my place to say that. That would leave such a bad taste in the person's mouth. I always try to provide constructive criticism. And we're programming the music people want to hear. We're programming bachata and reggaetón. And the ratings are rising. Mega is doing very, very well. La Variedad is a romantic station, and we're trying to define its personality.
You've been on the air 53 years. What's a major difference in how you do your job?
Programming in New York is very difficult. Forty years ago, you were programming to Dominicans or Puerto Ricans. Now, it's full of Colombians and Peruvians, too. You need to program music that grabs their ear even if it's not from their own country. And La Mega is the best-known station in the country, and we get music from all over the world and it's very good music. But obviously you can't play everything. It's difficult.
What's the trend today?
Reggaetón is still strong and bachata is stronger than ever. Bachata wasn't accepted in New York 15 years ago. You couldn't play back-to-back bachatas because they had strings, guitars. It wasn't an orchestra. But time went by and the genre got better, and new artists like Frank Reyes, El Torito, Romeo [Santos] came up. Now everybody likes bachata. It's made Santo Domingo fashionable, like merengue did before. Now it's all bachata and reggaetón, and once in a while some salsa. What I love is salsa, but I can't deny reality.
I see more and more music in English on the Latin charts. How much are you playing on your stations?
We compete here with stations like [WHTZ] Z100 and many of our listeners are Nuyorican, they're bilingual and comfortable in English and Spanish. So we're trying to pinpoint our format. We may play some English tracks, but I don't have any English music in La Mega. Zero. It's a purely tropical station. But we experiment on Amor.
Talk about your relationship with SBS.
I started in radio with Raul Alarcón Sr. I was trying to get a job at WVNX at the same time he arrived from Cuba and went to see the owner of the station. And he knew so much to begin with, he was hired right away, and I came in about the same time. There were only two Spanish-language stations at the time, and they were both AM and part-time. Alarcón began to do jingles and contests on that station, and he would tell me that one day he'd have an FM station. He ended up having 24 of them. And when he died, his son, Raulito, stayed with the company, and our relationship remains unchanged.
When was the first time you sat behind a microphone?
That was around 1962 or 1963. The station was a part-time station but then it went to 24 hours, and they asked me to do the midnight to 6 a.m. shift. And I was so eager, I felt I'd gone to heaven because I could program and I had my own format and the show was a hit. That's when I first got a taste of what it felt like to have the liberty to speak and express myself in the same way I do now.
You've had such a long career, but is there a day or moment that's particularly memorable?
When I was crowned "King of Radio" for the first time. [Late promoter] Ralph Mercado and two or three other promoters produced this huge dance and they wanted to tie it to a gimmick. They said, "You're the favorite, so we're going to include you on the promotional material and crown you." It was a beautiful day and I was crowned the king of New York radio. It was a huge moment. And Ralphy Mercado remained my friend until he died. But my biggest ambition was that Mega get the respect it deserves. And it has. It's the top station in the country.••••