Cuban Radio Is Dying Because of Aging Hardliners and Miami's Changing Market

A square "on air" sign lights up inside the studio of La Poderosa 670 AM, located at SW Third Street and 27th Avenue in the heart of Little Havana. Clad in a tan guayabera and matching slacks, Jorge Rodríguez pushes a button on the phone next to his mic. It's just after 9 a.m., and a woman with a thick Cuban accent is ready to complain about Barack Obama.

"I want to say something about the president of the United States," she cackles in Spanish. "Everyone knows he is not going to do anything for Israel because he is a Muslim. If he gets re-elected, he will certainly open a dialogue with Raúl [Castro]. He hasn't done it yet because the Republicans have held him in check. Down with the president! He's a disgrace!"

A few minutes later, a man calls to ask why Rodríguez and his cohost, an Argentine named Aaron Glantz, didn't challenge her claims.

"Why didn't you tell her: 'No, ma'am, he isn't [a Muslim],' just like John McCain did in 2008?" he asks.

Rodríguez and Glantz glance at each other with incredulous expressions. "Read the president's history sir," Glantz retorts. "¡Sí!" Rodríguez adds matter-of-factly.

So it goes every weekday for an hour and a half as Rodríguez and Glantz open the lines to their right-wing, mostly elderly, overwhelmingly Cuban listeners, who vent about the Castro brothers' latest conspiracies, Obama's socialist agenda, and current political scandals engulfing Miami-Dade.

It's a uniquely Miami slice of conservative chest-beating, and — for better or worse — it's fading along with the older generation of Cubans who tune in.

La Poderosa, in fact, is the last independently owned Cuban talk-radio station in town, and a recent round of corporate rebranding raises questions whether the format can survive. Both of its longtime competitors — Radio Mambí (WAQI, 710 AM) and WQBA (1140 AM) — are owned by media giant Univision, which gutted WQBA in June and has recently imported more moderate, pan-Hispanic voices to Mambí. Smaller stations catering to the exile community have gone silent altogether, like Little Haiti's tiny WNMA (1210 AM), which was recently bought by ESPN Deportes.

There's no mystery why. In recent years, straight news stations such as Colombian-owned Radio Caracol and Venezuelan-tied Actualidad Miami have gained thousands of listeners at the expense of the old Cuban stations, which have lost a full percentage share of the market since 2006. That shift has followed the changing demographic in Miami, where non-Cubans — who were just 40 percent of the Hispanic population in 1997 — today represent close to half.

"It's unbelievable and incomprehensible," Rodríguez says of Univision's recent changes at WQBA. "They are not putting any consideration into what has been created here in Miami. Why change it?"

Some observers say a move toward more moderate Spanish-language radio would be healthy for a town too long obsessed with the lives of two strong-arm brothers on an island a few hundred miles away.

"On Cuban-American radio, you hear things that happened 50 years ago as if it was happening right now," says John De Leon, an ACLU attorney and Miami native. "It's highly nostalgic, but it is not conducive for change and progress in the community."

But anyone who appreciates Miami's unique history should feel a sting of regret if the kind of radio broadcast every day at La Poderosa fades to static; this is a format, after all, that El Exilio has used for 53 years to undermine Castro's revolution and amass political power in South Florida.

These frequencies have hailed alleged terrorists such as Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles as freedom fighters and condoned bombing cars and offices to defy El Exilio's enemies. They've fomented mob rule against those acquiescing to Fidel Castro, especially during the battle to keep Elián González in Miami. And thanks to pressure from the stations, Miami-Dade politicians have been forced to pander to listeners by banning Cuban musicians and ordering boycotts of Cuban-friendly businesses.

Those days might just be gone for good. "It is not like it used to be in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, when it was overwhelmingly Cuban-American," former Miami Mayor Joe Carollo says of the stations' influence. "It doesn't have the same impact anymore."

Emilio Milian stepped out of the WQBA studio and into the parking lot around sunset on April 30, 1976. The then-45-year-old host had just wrapped another show slamming his fellow exiles for condoning terrorism against moderate Cuban-Americans. Milian knew he was a marked man for his views.

He scanned the lot for suspicious characters and warily watched a woman walking his way. She'd found a lost little boy nearby. Milian told her to go into the station to call the police, and then he opened the door to his white Chevy station wagon and got behind the wheel.

When he turned the ignition, the world went white. Eight pounds of explosives wired to the battery blew up, billowing gray smoke and fire into the evening. The car's hood shot a hundred feet into the air. In an instant, Milian's legs were torn to shreds, and shrapnel blew a hole in his abdomen and peppered his face.

A Miami city commissioner, J.L. Plummer, happened to be driving nearby when he heard the blast and rushed to the scene. "His legs were bleeding profusely," Plummer recalls. "I used his belt and mine as tourniquets to slow the bleeding down. He paid one hell of a price for his outspokenness."

Milian's brutal attack was a horrific early flash point for a medium that, two decades after Castro's revolution, had become the face of Miami's Cuban struggle. The bombing cast into stark relief the battle between hardliners, who believe that El Comandante must be forced out by any means necessary, and more moderate voices — a struggle that continues on the air to this day.

"Radio provided a shield of protection to the people who were committing violence in our community," De Leon says. "Milian was part of a group of people who suffered a great deal because of the excesses of Cuban radio."

The birth of the medium, in some sense, can be traced to Milian's arrival in Miami in 1965. A radio journalist in Cuba who had spent four months writing for the Mexico City daily El Excelsior, Milian landed a gig as a part-time sports announcer at WMIE-AM, one of many stations where exiles had been buying airtime to voice their venom. Milian moved up the ladder and was overseeing news and programming when the station was sold to a group of Cuban-American investors who decided to devote the station full-time to such discussion. They renamed it WQBA — AKA "La Cubanisima" ("The Most Cuban").

Under Milian's leadership, La Cubanisima became one of the top Spanish-language stations in the nation thanks to its strong viewpoints.

"Radio was the first instrument of communication that Cubans in Miami used to fight Castro," says Max Lesnik, a leftist Cuban who's been criticizing extremism on the air for decades. "And they used it effectively."

First-generation Cuban-Americans throughout Miami in the '60s grew up to the sounds of shows such as Radio Reloj, WQBA's morning political show, on which exiles discussed the latest news from the island.

"That's how I knew it was time to get ready for school," De Leon says. "My mother and my grandmother would be in the kitchen listening to the latest conspiracy theories being hatched on the air. Every day, there were new updates on the latest alleged Castro agents in Miami."

From the early days, though, that conversation was tinged with extremism.

Milian found out the hard way. Between 1974 and 1976, WQBA's news director had used his hourlong program to denounce acts of violence that had ripped through Miami's Cuban-American community, killing five exile leaders in attacks allegedly led by groups such as Omega 7.

Even though Milian was a fervent anticastrista, the FBI warned him that fellow exiliados were targeting him. He received on-air death threats, and guards had to be stationed at the entrance of La Cubanisima.

It didn't help in the end. Milian miraculously survived the April 30 attack, though he lost both legs in the explosion.

Despite that violent outburst against WQBA's star host, Miami's Cuban radio scene continued growing quickly. First, in 1983, Milian was tapped as new director for Radio Martí, the brainchild of President Ronald Reagan and iconic exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa. The federally funded station was designed to broadcast news and propaganda in Cuba.

Then in 1985, Radio Mambí joined the AM dial. The station was created by Amancio Suarez, La Poderosa owner Rodríguez, and Armando Pérez Roura, who remains its flagship voice. Like La Cubanisima and Martí, the founders had idealistic goals.

"I got involved for my country and my people," Rodríguez explains. "I believed we could accomplish a lot by keeping our people in Miami and Cuba well-informed on the issues and deliver our message for a free Cuba."

From the earliest days, those stations — joined by then-competitors such as Cadena Azul and WCMQ — didn't just talk about the pressing Cuban issues of the day. They stoked the fires.

In 1982, for instance, Miami police and city officials accused La Cubanisima and another now-defunct station of inciting a riot when exiles clashed with cops during a demonstration in front of an immigration building.

The next year, the stations held on-air fundraising drives for the defense of Orlando Bosch, who was accused of masterminding the 1976 bombing of a Cubana Airlines jet in Venezuela, killing 74. The stations loudly proclaimed their support for a Miami City Commission resolution declaring March 25, 1983, as "Orlando Bosch Day."

The station's Cold War spirit hardly tempered with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The event that most defined modern Cuban radio, in fact, came in 2000: the rescue of Elián González, the 5-year-old who lost his mother at sea during a perilous 90-mile raft trip to Florida.

During the five-month saga, which culminated in federal agents storming the house of González's relatives, the four biggest stations waged a 24/7 campaign to keep the boy in Miami.

Radio Mambí raised thousands of dollars to pay for legal fees and used its 50,000 watts of power to mobilize hundreds of Cubans into the streets to block traffic in downtown Miami. Lourdes Montaner, a host at the station, christened Elián a messiah. "He is a chosen boy," she rapped with biblical zeal. "Dolphins escorted him to safety."

La Poderosa raised $60,000 in two months and bought billboards across the country denouncing then-Attorney General Janet Reno.

Meanwhile, De Leon received death threats because of the ACLU's position that González should be reunited with his father in Cuba. "I was called a Communist and all sorts of insults," he says. "You develop a thick skin because it is just a part of the way things are."

To hardliners, the episode showed the power of organizing through the airwaves. To moderates such as De Leon, it showed the dangers of mob mentalities.

"Whether it is Pérez-Roura or Rush Limbaugh, hate feeds on itself," De Leon says. "Radio is so powerful because you have thousands of people listening to it."

Jorge Rodríguez saunters into his office holding a sheet of paper with the latest ratings from Arbitron. A tall man with wispy brown hair flecked with gray at the top, he analyzes the sheet through a pair of tinted, gold-rimmed eyeglasses.

"In the 19 years I have owned this station, I've never seen numbers like this," he says in a deep Cuban accent. "It's incredible."

The numbers show that in May, June, and July, La Poderosa garnered listeners from rival stations Mambí and WQBA. Although Mambí remains the leading Spanish talk station in town, Rodríguez's station is gaining on them for a simple reason: For the first time in decades, neither competitor is exclusively spouting right-wing Cuban opinions like La Poderosa.

In June, Univision completely revamped WQBA to fit into a national radio network meant to appeal to a broad spectrum of Hispanics, called Univision America. Aside from a morning program hosted by longtime correspondent Bernadette Pardo, a majority of WQBA's programming is being imported from stations in Chicago, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Los Angeles.

The changes have filtered to Mambí as well, where popular Dominican-born voice Oscar Haza moved from WQBA to cohost En Caliente (In the Hot Seat) with Ninoska Pérez Castellón and Pérez Roura. Haza is considered a more moderate commentator, while his new studio mates are part of the old Exilio guard. Carlos Pérez, a fiery host at the station since 1985, recently fled to Poderosa.

Univision spokeswoman Veronica Potes declined to comment for this story — and turned down requests to speak to Pérez Roura — but experts say the company's strategy at WQBA and Mambí point to the fact that Spanish-language media is moving toward the middle, leaving less room for colorful Cuban chatter.

"By syndicating programming from more than one station, Univision can knock on more doors to get advertising dollars," says Joe Ferrer, a media consultant and former Spanish-language host. "You are no longer limited to an older Cuban-American audience."

One would think that shift might make Rodríguez happy, especially with his recent ratings jump. But the grizzled hardliner laments that Cuban-American radio is losing its heft.

Rodríguez is a true anticastrista. His two stations (he also owns Cadena Azul, which focuses on sports, religious, and other apolitical programming) operate under the same roof, located on the second floor of a seven-story Little Havana building. The walls are decorated with paintings by Posada Carriles, a 2001 poster commemorating the Cuban American National Foundation, an image of dissident Orlando Tamayo Zapata under the words "Assassinated by Castro," and other anti-Castro propaganda.

Owning a station has never been about money, he says. "The most important thing for me is freedom for my country," Rodríguez asserts. "I feel frustrated that it hasn't happened, but I don't feel defeated."

Born in the Santos Suarez neighborhood of Havana, Rodríguez fought against Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship when he was 16. As a young man, he believed in Fidel. But shortly after Castro took power in 1959, Rodríguez became disillusioned. One day, a year after the revolution, he recalls, he made the mistake of speaking out: "I said, 'The Communists have done nothing for the revolution, and now they want to take everything.' "

He was incarcerated and interrogated by Cuban police for three days. When he was released, Rodríguez decided to flee. In September 1961, he was granted political asylum in Miami.

The former revolutionary — who has three daughters from his first marriage and two sons with his current wife, Ana Vidal Rodríguez — joined an anti-Castro group called Movimiento Revolucionario del Pueblo. But after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Rodríguez abandoned El Exilio's CIA-sanctioned clandestine war effort. He went to work for TV-set-maker Curtis Mathes, where he became an industrial engineer and rose up the ranks to vice president.

In 1970, when Westinghouse purchased Mathes, Rodríguez left to start his own firm that made clocks, clock radios, and other electronics. The company, called Juliette, reached $70 million in sales in 1973, when Rodríguez sold his interest because of differences with his partner. He opened another electronics firm that went public in 1983.

Yet Rodríguez yearned for a way to bring freedom to his countrymen on the island. So in 1985, he used his business acumen to spark a Cuban resistance by investing in Miami's Cuban airwaves as a cofounder of Radio Mambí. Three years later, he sold his interest in Mambí to his partner Suarez after a disagreement.

Rodríguez didn't bow out of the communications game, though. In 1989, he founded Telemiami, a cable TV station that echoes his conservative agenda on the radio. He also bought Cadena Azul. Then, along with two investors, he purchased WWFE in 1993 from Milian for $2.7 million. Milian's company had been forced into bankruptcy and his station was on the verge of being shuttered. Rodríguez changed the name from Radio Fe to La Poderosa.

He says he made the move not to make money, but because his competitors had lost their revolutionary zeal. "Media outlets exist to educate the public," he says. "At the time, there was a lot of misinformation and lack of objectivity going on."

Ever since he dived into the world of Cuban radio, Rodríguez has lived firsthand the battle over how far to go on-air.

In 1998, for instance, radio host Tomás García-Fuste claimed Rodríguez canceled his morning show because he refused to promote a rally at the Orange Bowl against a proposed human rights ordinance for gays organized by a Christian church. Rodríguez, who was opposed to the measure, actually interrupted García-Fuste 's show to encourage listeners to attend the anti-gay event.

(Rodríguez, though, claims he dropped García-Fuste because he refused do his show inside La Poderosa's studio, preferring to air from Telemiami.)

Then, in 2001, Rodríguez kicked Alberto Milian, Emilio's son, off the WWFE program that his father started, called Habla el Pueblo (The Town Speaks). Alberto told the Miami Herald that Rodríguez silenced him because he was denouncing politicians such as then-County Commissioner Miriam Alonso and then-Miami City Commissioner Angel Gonzalez. Liz Balmaseda, then a Herald columnist, wrote that Rodríguez was "stuck in 1976" and that he helped fuel all the "political cliches of [a] Cuban exile Miami."

Rodríguez counters that Milian's cancellation was a programming decision not influenced by politics.

Three years later, though, Rodríguez was back in the news when journalist Roberto Rodríguez Tejera resigned as La Poderosa's programming director and general manager. On April 14, 2004, Rodríguez Tejera and a cohost criticized President George W. Bush following the release of the 9/11 investigative report. Rodríguez stormed into the studio to defend Dubya, Rodríguez Tejera says.

"He wouldn't let my cohost talk," he says. "He told us if we didn't like it, we could leave. When I tried to intervene, Jorge disrespected me as well."

La Poderosa's owner says Rodríguez Tejera left of his own accord and denies censoring his views.

Either way, it's clear that the kind of boisterous, opinionated management Rodríguez favors has fallen out of practice at his chief competitors, which began moving into corporate ownership in 2004.

That's when Univision bought Hispanic Broadcasting Corp., which owned both WQBA and Mambí. Soon after, the network began to change both stations. For example, Univision cut off the practice of commentators getting paid by political campaigns; accepting money from any candidate was prohibited and grounds for firing.

Radio and TV Martí, the U.S. government-funded stations that broadcast news exclusively to Cuba, have also been adrift recently. For the past decade, members of Congress have criticized it as a drain on taxpayers. Last year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report concluding that the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which runs Martí, had failed to provide sufficient information to Congress about its cost and audience in Cuba. Still, the station survived last year's budget with $30 million in appropriations.

Whatever the reasons, it's clear that both WQBA and Mambí have been losing listeners over the past decade.

In the fall 2001 Arbitron report, La Poderosa came in 28th, while Mambí was sixth out of 35 local stations. La Cubanisima was 22nd. According to Arbitron's June 2012 report, Mambí has dropped to 15th, while La Poderosa has risen to 25th. Between June and July, WQBA lost 23,900 weekly listeners in the wake of Univision's rebranding.

Rodríguez believes his station, whose numbers remained steady during that period, picked up many of the WQBA defectors. "Many listeners are upset over the changes," he says. "I believe people want a radio station that reflects the current reality of the community."

Inside a dusty back office of a storefront on West Flagler Street, Max Lesnik is preparing for his one-hour program on his website, Radio-Miami.com. The room is equipped with three desktop computers manned by a trio of radio engineers. The walls are the yang to the anti-Castro décor at La Poderosa: a photo of a beaming pre-cancer-stricken Hugo Chávez, a black-and-white image of Fidel, and a charcoal drawing of Che Guevara.

Lesnik walks into a closet that has been converted into a recording room. There is space only for a chair and a microphone. Until last year, he broadcast his one-hour show at a Little Haiti station called Union Radio. But when ESPN Deportes bought its signal, Lesnik decided the best way to reach his audience was to upload his broadcast online.

"I don't know what ratings we are getting because I don't have the money to pay to keep track of it," Lesnik says.

The aging lefty activist is not the only radio voice who's turned to the internet as Spanish radio becomes increasingly moderate and professional. Firebrands from both sides of the debate over Castro have turned to the web in recent years in search of their lost listeners.

Take for instance activist Dionisio de la Torre, who posts interviews to YouTube that he conducts with other anti-Castro experts and former political prisoners from the living room of his spacious two-story home in West Miami-Dade. He also burns CDs of his one-on-one interviews that he mails to dissidents back on the island.

Even online crusaders such as de la Torre and Lesnik admit that without outlets like La Poderosa keeping the flames of El Exilio sentiment hot, Miami's political scene wouldn't be the same.

"What is going to happen when the people of Radio Mambí retire or pass away?" de la Torre asks. "Will it continue the same way? I don't think so. The market has changed too much."

Rodríguez, at least, remains a true believer. There will always be a place for right-wing Cuban radio in the Magic City, he says.

Part of his optimism comes from his family: His 26-year-old son, Jorge Jr., joined La Poderosa in 2008 as the station's vice president and pledges to keep the fight for a new generation. With his floppy brown hair and disheveled T-shirt and jeans, Junior looks more like a gamer than a radio exec. But he's been learning the business since he was a teenager and plans to continue railing against Castro.

"When I was 13, I spent the summer transferring thousands of CDs into a digital archive," he says. In 2001, when he was 15, he covered exiles protesting the second Miami appearance of Los Van Van at the Latin Grammys show. "I remember watching a group of people chase some guy up a pole. He had yelled something like, 'Viva Fidel.' "

Four years ago, he graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in political science and went to work at his father's stations, where he has modernized production systems and websites. Recently, he and his dad tweaked La Poderosa's afternoon programming to include news from the station's correspondents in countries including Venezuela, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Colombia.

Rodríguez Jr. believes Cuban radio still has the power to galvanize the community. For instance, La Poderosa rallied people to protest at the Marlins' new ballpark shortly after the team's manager, Ozzie Guillen, made comments praising Fidel.

"What works in Houston is not going to work in Miami," Junior reasons. "In this city, people like to call in and voice their opinion. Listener participation is a big deal."

He is also quick to point out that many experts in local radio didn't think his father could survive after losing commentators such as García-Fuste, Milian, and Rodríguez Tejera after taking over the station in the '90s. La Poderosa — and all the GOP-loving, Castro-hating rhetoric it embodies — won't disappear anytime soon, he promises.

"The only place you're going to hear that from now on is here," he says. "It's not just about the ratings [for us]. It's about sentiment."

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.