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

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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.