Creole of Fortune

WMBM makes a play for the Haitian audience, widening the rift between American blacks and the residents of Little Haiti

Edward Margolis was raised on the AM radio wars of the 1960s. Back when Margolis was knee-high to a soundboard, his father Allan bought WMBM-AM (1490), a nearly bankrupt radio station on Miami Beach. The senior Margolis, a Wall Street dropout with a passion for rhythm and blues, leaped into battle against rock-and-roll rivals WFUN and WQAM.

Three decades later a grown-up Eddie Margolis has taken over WMBM and followed in the old man's footsteps by launching an underdog bid for South Florida's fastest-growing radio market: Haitians. On February 24 his 1000-watt station kicked off its new format, which features Creole music and news from 3:00 p.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday, in a live broadcast from the Caribbean Marketplace in Little Haiti. "We call ourselves the first Haitian station in the nation," says the 37-year-old Margolis, a stubby, anxious-looking man.

To the handful of AM stations already airing Creole programs, however, the slogan rings a bit hollow. "I don't see how they can claim that," says Arnie Premer, general manager of WKAT-AM (1360). "We have Haitian shows all through the night, every night. And we feature the cream of the crop in announcers."

But WKAT and other competitors merely rent air time to independent Haitian broadcasters. "Those stations are warehouses," says Margolis. "If you have the money, you can do what you want. There's no visible commitment to the community," he asserts. "We've gone out and hired a full staff of Haitians - a general manager, announcers, ad salesmen. We want to be the voice of Haitian Miami."

Claiming that title among Dade's more than 100,000 Haitians will be a daunting task for tiny WMBM, whose signal, transmitted from a studio on the southern tip of Miami Beach, barely grazes the county's northern cusp. While WMBM aired a few Creole programs back in the early Seventies, the explosion in the refugee population over the past decade, teamed with the rise of rent-by-the-hour AM radio stations, has clogged the airwaves with percussive compas rhythms and Creole rhetoric.

The first station to sell major blocks of time to Haitian announcers was WVCG-AM (1080), in 1984, followed by WLQY-AM (1320) and WKAT. "With the popularity of FM radio, not to mention TV, all the AMs have been forced to sell time to DJs who can target a specific audience," explains WLQY general manager Rich Santos. "The difference now is that Haitians are the mainstay." At WLQY, all but two hours of weekly programming are in Creole and Santos has a waiting list of 30 announcers willing to pay to hit the airwaves.

"Without a doubt radio is the first source of news for Haitians," observes Hallan Daphnis, WMBM's general manager, who settled in Boston after leaving Haiti in 1969 and relocated to Miami ten years ago. "It's free. It's something you can get anywhere and without having to read. Especially now with the reports from Haiti, people have the radio on all the time." Daphnis likens the medium's volatile role among Haitians to its sway in the exile Cuban community, a comparison underscored last year when two controversial Haitian radio personalities were murdered, apparently for their outspoken support of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Likewise, Daphnis says, the emergence of a full-service radio station marks a liminal point in the evolution of Dade's Haitian population: "I remember when radio stations wouldn't rent us time. Now we have so many voices they can't ignore us. Just as with the Cubans, we've shown the economic clout to deserve our own stations. Not just to be a tenant."

Depending on the fate of the new format, Margolis says he may relocate WMBM's studio from 814 First Street to Little Haiti. In fact, the station owner is already fretting that success could spur his larger competitors, such as WLQY and WKAT, to go all-Haitian. But while his AM colleagues vow to keep an eye on WMBM's progress, they insist they have no such plans. "Hey, WMBM's made a great move," says WLQY's Santos. "I wish them luck. But we feel there's enough of a market for everyone."

Ironically, the shift seems to have caused the most visible effect on long-time WMBM listeners, who had come to rely on the station for around-the-clock gospel. The operation still runs gospel daily from midnight to 3:00 p.m. and all day Sunday. But in the black community - where rumors of a "Haitian buyout" have swirled - some listeners view the format swap as yet another gauge of local Haitians' economic ascendance. "Callers tell me the feeling isn't the same since we went to Creole," reports morning drive man Michael Turner. "Some get real mad, because this whole thing hits at the heart of an old rivalry between American and Haitian blacks."

Margolis, who contemplated the move for months as his station's finances slumped, admits he also has received his share of irate calls. "There's a sense of loss," he concedes. "And a lot of our listeners are taking it personally." In consoling them, Margolis generally avoids noting his plans to up the hours of Creole programming if and when the format takes off.

 
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