Cala: The Power of seduction

Por: Juan Abelardo Carles Rosas 
Photos: Carlos Eduardo Gómez Velásquez y Cortesía Cala Enterprises


Ismael Cala manages his many talents very well: as he steps onto the stage at the Teatro La Huaca in Panama City, he captures the attention of a mostly female audience, who follow him with their eyes, like sunflowers, as he moves from one side of the stage to the other, speaking of his life experiences and how he now shares them through his newfound career as a writer. At the close, he leaves the stage and sits down amidst the riotously cheering crowd to sign copies of his first book, The Power of Listening.

The fact that this scene is taking place in Panama is incidental; it could have been Caracas, San José, or Miami, to name only a few of the cities that have welcomed him. It is worth mentioning, however, that this Central American capital was the first stop on his first promotional book tour; he appeared as part of the 9th International Book Fair of Panama. The tour, sponsored by Copa Airlines, will take him to several cities across the continent. It’s no secret that the buzz around The Power of Listening is in part linked to Cala’s fame as a talk show host, and that he chose a literary genre currently very much in vogue, accounting for close to 70% of all book sales worldwide: inspirational or self-help literature, as it’s also known. The morning after the much-attended book release, Panorama of the Americas caught up with Cala to talk about what this book means to his professional life.

“I think the self-help label is very limiting and I’ve never thought it applied to my work. I think my book goes beyond that, given the amount of autobiographical information it contains. I’ve read a lot of self-help books, but I’d rather call this inspirational literature, a genre I’ve consumed for over fifteen years, since leaving Cuba. Back on the island, I read the classics in psychology and psychiatry. I don’t think you can classify inspirational literature as good or bad; it depends on how you use it. The way I see it, people who grow spiritually and develop as leaders have an innate desire for their success to mean something to others and they want to share what they’ve learned; it’s an aggregate value you can offer the collective,” he explains.

Thousands of readers across the continent welcome his success story with open arms −a book in one hand and a pen for autographs in the other. Your average journalist would run from such massive fits of adoration, being more accustomed to turning the spotlight on the person they’re interviewing rather than themselves. But it’s nothing new to Cala, who became accustomed to stardom even before he left Cuba. He doesn’t see himself as a journalist anyway. “I think of myself more as a communicator than a journalist. Fame is nothing new; in fact, I used it as a kind of shield in public because I was a shy, retiring adolescent, but people would see and recognize me anyway, and they’d approach me and want to talk. I started working in radio at age eight, television at fifteen, and later I hosted huge events. This, naturally, made me a ‘celebrity,’ but many people don’t know that part of the story.

Does all the adulation feel strange? “Sometimes it can be a bit hard to assimilate, but I consider it a great blessing. For people to identify with what I do in that way, asking for an autograph, or a picture with me, or just wanting to tell me they love the show, is still amazing, but in a positive way. Our job is public; we’re on cable TV and people have remote controls and can switch us off immediately if they choose. It’s the least I can do in exchange for their choosing our show: allow them to approach me, give me a kiss, or a hug, or just meet me.”

For an interviewer, the line between being a communicator and the message itself is often blurred, but The Power of Listening undoubtedly defines Cala as an opinion maker. How does he handle this? “I work for a public channel (CNN) that has to remain balanced: some people think of us as communists, others claim we’re imperialist agents. I have to cover both extremes, very carefully and responsibly. Although I interview politicians, I try to keep my personal opinions out of the interviews, and in the book I focus on issues of growth, leadership, and personal empowerment. This doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion, but I try to present it with the proper responsibility, without losing objectivity. The day I decide to adopt a given ideology while interviewing someone who thinks completely differently, my viewers are bound to think I’m judging that person and not listening. Of course, if someone says something outrageous, like justifying domestic violence, I’m forced to stop them and express my disagreement.”

Speaking of CNN, the channel for which Cala works, we should clarify that Ismael is also an independent entrepreneur. “I prefer that term, rather than impresario. Anyway, I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, even while living in Cuba. I realized I shouldn’t place my most valuable product, myself, at the mercy of others, because no one can ever do a better job of representing my best interests than I can do myself, or with a team of people who know me, my values, and where I want to go.” Ismael shared his ideas for projects with the directors of the channels where he hosted television programs and events. “I also chose my own team, and building a team is a lot like founding a company.” His current company is called Cala Enterprises, but it was preceded by Cala Productions, founded in Canada.

Ismael brands his companies with his name, which undeniably, has its own musicality, especially for marketing. “I discovered that the word has about eighteen meanings; the verb “calar”, for example, means to investigate, to dig deep,” he says. He was aware of this even in Cuba, where he used to wrap up his program with the phrase: “Soy Cala, cala, cala, cala, calando fuerte en su corazón” (“I’m Cala, digging, digging, digging deep into your heart”), a refrain people repeated when they saw him.

Having made a name for himself and created an image, and with several projects underway, it’s not surprising to see how Cala, the man, has become Cala, the brand. Some people may consider this a negative thing, but for the Cuban-American communicator it’s a simple truth. “I am a brand, which many people find difficult to understand. I think I understood it while developing the concept for my program at CNN with Cynthia Hudson, the station’s general manager, who announced that the show was to be called ‘Cala.’ I asked: ‘Just “Cala,” period? Shouldn’t it at least be “Cala Live” or something like that? ‘And she said no. In this world of social networking, like it or not, we’ve all become brands. Some brands host others, like CNN, the platform for ‘Cala.’ That’s how you achieve recognition; otherwise, there’s no interest or audience.”

Naturally, the value of a brand also depends on the truthfulness of the message. How does Cala keep the profit expectations of Cala, the brand, from polluting the value in the message espoused by Cala, the communicator? “I’ve been very careful with that. My brand can’t be associated with anything that isn’t related to my message. For example, I don’t do commercials. A few days ago, I got an offer to launch my own line of ties and watches and I said no, it wasn’t the right time, and that I didn’t know when that time might be. I’m interested in approaching people as a social communicator embarking on a new role as an inspirational writer, and any product will have to follow those lines. In addition to this book, we’re finishing up another. And we’re working on a radio show and complementary products like audio books and CDs with motivational messages.”

Our time together is almost up; other journalists are waiting to interview him. I ask one more question: you’ve already conquered much of the Latin American audience; what’s next? “Making the crossover to an English-speaking audience is one of the challenges still left in my life. Like it or not, it’s the universal language. I’m very happy to have gotten to know Latin America. Now, in English, I hope to take my message to the rest of the world. I see myself, in five years or so, more as a writer than a presenter. I hope to have published at least three books by then.” No doubt he’ll achieve all of this, but he may encounter at least one problem: finding an equally suggestive and forceful name-brand in English. 

I turn off my recorder, convinced he will achieve anything he puts his mind to.