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."