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

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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.' "

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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.