The King and the Invader

Two titans of local Spanish radio duke it out in court

It's an ugly clash of two local media powers desperate for competitive advantage. The accusations abound: A violated non-compete agreement. Stolen trade secrets. Lies spread about the rival going out of business.

This isn't a rundown of Par Ridder's short-lived career as publisher of the Star Tribune. Rather, it's the struggle between two of the most prominent titans of local Spanish-language media.

It started, as does so much in the Twin Cities media world, with a decision made by Bill Kling. In the spring of 2005, fresh off Minnesota Public Radio's $10.5-million purchase of what is now the Current, Kling decided to focus his empire's resources and pull out of the for-profit radio game.

He sold two Twin Cities stations, 1400 AM and 1470 AM, which played American standards, for $5.2 million to Davidson Media Group. A deep-pocketed company that owns nearly 50 immigrant-oriented radio outlets nationwide, Davidson went looking for local talent to run one of the stations.

One candidate was Guadalupe "Don Lupe" Gonzalez, the fedora-wearing owner of Radio Rey, which has ruled the Spanish-language airwaves here since 1979. Broadcasting on 630 AM for nearly a decade, the station is a mainstay of Latino homes, restaurant kitchens, and break rooms throughout the Twin Cities. Interested in moving Radio Rey to a new home on the dial, Gonzalez angled to join forces with Davidson and shore up his market share.

But there was another player in town: Alberto Monserrate, owner of Latino Communications Network, a local company putting out three Spanish-language weekly newspapers and a yellow pages. An urbane, soft-featured Puerto Rican with a strong competitive streak, Monserrate says he'd been interested in radio since founding his company in 2000. Radio, he says, "would give us the ability to sell mixed-media advertising packages to our clients."

Impressed by Monserrate's mini-empire, Davidson chose him to run the new station. Launched in late 2005 with a format similar to Radio Rey's, 1400 AM represented an unambiguous challenge to Gonzalez's dominance. In case there was any doubt, the station's intentions were evident in its name: La Invasora–"The Invader."

La Invasora's new general manager was a familiar face to Gonzalez: Cresenciano Rodriguez had spent the last four years as Don Lupe's second-in-command at Radio Rey. But in late 2005, just before La Invasora hit the airwaves, he quit and joined forces with Monserrate.

Gonzalez, both furious and fearful that Rodriguez would take many of Radio Rey's advertisers with him, sued his former protégé, charging that he'd violated a non-compete agreement preventing him from working for a competitor for up to two years. Gonzalez also accused the turncoat of stealing a copy of his non-compete agreement from his personnel file, and of taking confidential advertiser information from Radio Rey.

Don Lupe drew first blood in the legal battle. In February 2006, just a week after filing suit, a Hennepin County District Court judge granted a temporary restraining order barring Rodriguez from working at La Invasora.

Rodriguez declined to comment for this article through his lawyer, but he has maintained his innocence throughout. He insists the undated non-compete agreement is invalid because he signed it during an earlier stint at Radio Rey, and also because it is overly broad. As for stealing documents from his old station, Rodriguez's lawyer, Barry O'Neil, says the charges are baseless. "There isn't a shred of evidence of anything missing," he says.

Nevertheless, Rodriguez agreed to a settlement in March 2006. The terms of the deal barred him from working at La Invasora until that August. Six months later—just two days after the agreement expired—Gonzalez filed court papers seeking to nullify the settlement on the grounds that Rodriguez had been illegally selling ads for La Invasora the whole time.

The next morning, Monserrate paid a visit to Radio Rey's office on East Lake Street. Angry that his rival was dragging out the legal battle, Monserrate warned him to let Rodriguez work in peace or risk getting sued for spreading lies to advertisers about La Invasora going out of business. The meeting ended abruptly, with both sides exchanging insults before Monserrate stormed out.

Soon afterward, an uneasy, unspoken truce settled over the two camps. It held until the following spring, when Gonzalez filed a new lawsuit. This time, he named Monserrate as a defendant, accusing him of knowingly benefiting from the theft of his trade secrets. Gonzalez also charged that during their confrontation in his office, Monserrate "got inches away from my face" and said he "was going to start a war," according to Gonzalez's affidavit.

Monserrate insists the charges are absurd. He says he'd gain nothing from Radio Rey's advertiser data. Who is advertising where and for how much is hardly a secret, he says. And with his multiple publications, he'd already been selling ads to most of Radio Rey's clients before getting into radio.

As for the allegation that he threatened Gonzalez in the visit to his office, Monserrate is unequivocal. "It's absolutely, completely, absolutely false," he says.

Now, after months of saber rattling by lawyers on both sides, the two companies are putting together mounds of sales records and other documents to make their cases. If they can't reach a settlement, a trial is scheduled for July.

But with an economic downturn causing slumping ad sales across the board, the costly legal battle isn't doing either side's bottom line any favors. "I've got a business to run," Monserrate says. "I try to think about this as little as I can."

 
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