Smart Talk

With a minimum of ego, radio jock Winston Barnes helps keep the Pan-Caribbean community on course

As Winston Barnes takes phone calls from listeners tuning into The Open Line, the midday program he hosts each weekday on WAVS-AM (1170), he flips through the pages of Tuesday's Miami Herald, looking for the hot topics of the day. Though based in a downtown Davie building that looks like it should be selling bridle bits and horse feed, The Open Line is a sounding board, discussion forum, and information outlet for the massive Caribbean population in South Florida.

The current caller is lamenting the Homeland Security headaches at airports -- a frequent tangent of the immigration issues that are a big part of The Open Line's tableau. The call begins the way nearly every one does this afternoon: "Hello, Mr. Barnes; how are you?"

"I'm good." Here's a man who wants to get right down to it. After letting the caller ramble a bit about the indignity of removing his shoes, Barnes issues a stern lecture directed at Those Who Do Not Listen.

Barnes holds court on The Open Line.
Colby Katz
Barnes holds court on The Open Line.

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"Some people still do not know the difference between immigration documents and travel documents," he says, his brow furrowing into a deep, V-shaped arrowhead, with an exhale of displeasure. "Take it out and read it, OK? A. Green. Card. Is. Not. A. Travel. Document. OK? It belongs to the government. Read your passport too. It is not yours! The government lends it to you for a fee. If you haven't traveled lately, be forewarned and forearmed."

After a moment's pause comes a moment of disconnect as his voice booms out of the monitor in the broadcast studio, but his lips aren't moving. "You think you can't afford your own home? Think again!"But Barnes -- the flesh-and-blood radio personality, if not the disembodied voice -- has already removed his earpiece and is on his way out of the studio.

Much of Barnes' appeal lies in his robust, stentorian voice. Imagine Geoffrey Holder from the old 7-Up commercials playing John Houseman in The Paper Chase. It's a stiff-starched, pinstriped voice that makes you want to stand up and salute. Authoritative and convincing, it's no wonder that at WAVS, where everyone multitasks, he's called upon to lend that smooth baritone to a variety of product pitches, station IDs, and public service announcements.

Despite the big voice, he's tall and thin, a rangy bantamweight. Back in his broom-closet-sized office down the hall, Barnes -- who has worked at WAVS since 1987 -- chats at his desk. Phones ring constantly.

There's nothing else on the dial with the flavor of The Open Line, and Barnes is proud of his role. "We've done some pioneering work. We provide a safety valve for people to vent, a safe haven, so that they feel something familiar even in a strange place."

As if to prove the station isn't Jamaica-centrist, on one wall hangs a map of Trinidad and another of Barbados. Perhaps most astonishing to seasoned American talk-show patrons is The Open Line's nondenominational, Pan-Caribbean focus. When people call WAVS a Jamaican station, Barnes is quick to correct them. Whereas most sports and political talk borders on xenophobic or at least appears uninterested in the affairs of the globe, Barnes' program is all about looking out at the world, trying to understand how it affects us at home -- whether that's Miramar or Montego Bay. This unique point of view offers listeners views on the war in Iraq or China's role as a world power, for instance, from a well-traveled perspective rarely encountered in mainstream American media.

Barnes lets his callers do most of the talking but always deploys a small arsenal of linguistic devices that gauge his level of interest in the discussion:

Something mundane: "Mmm-hmmm."

Something unexpected: "Uh-oh!"

Something fairly exciting: "Oh bwoy!"

Something rather surprising and incredible: "Ai-yi-yi!"

Something truly astonishing: A two-syllable "Woww-wwww."

It was the war of the wows when the globally informed "Mr. Caribbean Man" called in a few weeks ago and began, "I'm going to call you Dr. Barnes because you're so knowledgeable." The topic: petro-chemical dynamics of the Caribbean. True to form, Barnes displayed his able grasp of Alaska's Permanent Fund reserves, which delighted Mr. Caribbean Man, who then launched into a treatise on Surinamese politics and Venezuelan pipelines as well as the petroleum output of various Caribbean oil-producing states.

"Not a day that goes by that I don't learn an important new fact," Barnes says.

Barnes, 56, is aware that a segment of the community views him as stuffy and overeducated. He bristles recalling a cheap shot taken by a fellow media man, Rovan Locke, publisher of Caribbean American Commentary, who told the Miami Herald he considers Barnes "a highly British-cultured man. He's a bit elitist."

"Elitist?" he repeats. "No. Far from it. The closest you could come to calling me elitist is I demand people educate themselves. There are people who have that notion about me because they don't know my background. I come from Spanish Town roots; I grew up in Kingston 13."

Today, Locke admits he sometimes holds his friend to an impossibly high standard. "He's highly loved by the people who call him, and I respect him very much," he says. "He's a spokesman for every person in the Caribbean community in South Florida." Locke also feels that Barnes would be a perfect fit for the U.S. House of Representatives seat. "He has the intellect, and he knows the issues. And he knows the music!"

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