Jammin' In Havana

How did two Miami radio stations end up broadcasting Radio Marti programs to listeners in Cuba? Hint: It's curious, but it's classified.

That the two Miami stations chosen for Radio Marti broadcasts are widely known to be strongly supportive of Mas and the Foundation has raised suspicions and prompted complaints from those in the exile community who are not in Mas's camp. "It is our opinion that this is a mechanism to channel funds to local radio stations for the purpose of establishing a circuit of political protection," says Ramon Cernuda, the Miami-based representative of three dissident political organizations within Cuba. "In a way, Radio Marti, by paying these stations for time, is buying political insurance in the community and at the same time reinforcing its political objectives in Washington."

The Reagan administration's Cold War warriors who created Radio Marti and showered it with resources (the current annual budget is $19 million) expected Castro would do his best to block the U.S. signal. He did. Powerful electronic interference started immediately after the station began broadcasting on May 20, 1985. Then in 1990, when TV Marti went on the air, Cuba succeeded in obliterating Radio Marti's signal in many areas of the island by broadcasting its own programming on Radio Taino, directly over Marti's 1180-AM frequency. Even though Radio Marti continued to reach the island via shortwave broadcasts, the more reliable AM reception had been greatly diminished, according to officials.

In late fall of 1990, in response to this greatly increased jamming, the advisory board recommended Radio Marti lease commercial air time, executive director Skinner says. First, though, the FCC had to issue a formal determination that Cuba's jamming had reached the threshold level stipulated by the 1983 law. So in March 1991, Radio Marti requested such a ruling. The FCC complied. According to the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, the details of that determination are classified.

Soon thereafter, according to Voice of America spokesman Joe O'Connell, the Radio Marti staff proposed a 60-day test to explore broadcasting to Cuba via commercial stations on the mainland. An interagency policy coordinating committee chaired by the State Department agreed, provided "credible evidence could be obtained to show the stations we chose could be heard there."

O'Connell says the U.S. Information Agency, parent agency of VOA, then asked the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to monitor several AM radio frequencies that an earlier Radio Marti study indicated were being received in Cuba. Office of Cuba Broadcasting director Antonio Navarro says the Interests Section, the FCC, and two private consulting firms participated in evaluations of reception in Cuba of ten mainland stations.

Besides WAQI and WQBA, according to Navarro, the candidate stations included Miami's WWFE, WINZ, WVCG, and WCMQ, as well as WKWF in Key West, WNOG in Naples, WTKN in Pinellas Park, and clear-channel station WLAC in Nashville. (Clear-channel stations operate at the maximum 50,000 watts of power 24 hours per day, while most other AM stations are required by the FCC to either cut power at night -- when atmospheric conditions enable signals to travel greater distances -- or change the direction of their signal to avoid interfering with other stations at the same frequency.)

The results of the 1991 monitoring effort in Havana apparently weren't encouraging. According to the VOA's O'Connell, none of the stations came through very well. Again, however, details of that tehcnical information remain classified, says Antonio Navarro. Engineers at the two Washington consulting firms engaged by the government -- DuTreil Lundin and Rackley, and Cohen Dippel and Everist -- refuse to comment about their studies.

In the face of this disappointing data, another test was undertaken. In March of this year, a team of Radio Marti and FCC engineers guided a boat around the island to monitor reception of the various U.S. stations in different areas of Cuba. "Neither the monitoring by the Interests Section nor by the joint FCC effort showed adequate reception," O'Connell recalls. Once again, results of the joint FCC testing, Navarro says, are classified.

"The next step," continues O'Connell, "was the advisory board for Cuba Broadcasting wanted to exhaust all possibilities on this leasing business, to keep it alive, and they in one of their meetings or reports made reference to the Radio Marti department of audience research study showing WQBA and WAQI, respectively, had 21 and 9 percent listenership in Cuba. So broadcast leasing continued to be pursued, and Radio Marti proceeded accordingly, asking the consulting firm of Cohen Dippel and Everist to analyze the signal strength of WQBA and WAQI throughout Cuba. The results of that analysis did not rule out using either one."

Based on the consultants' new analysis, the advisory board decided it was worth trying broadcasts from commercial U.S. stations. "We kicked it around for a long time," remembers board member Joseph Glennon, a former Radio Free Europe official who lives in Boynton Beach. "The technical surveys were saying these Miami stations weren't heard too much around Cuba, but then we were getting something different from reports interviewing people coming over here. But the technicians were saying, `No, it's not getting in there.' So finally a couple more surveys were made, I guess, and we decided to go with it on a trial basis."

While decision-making deliberations of the advisory board are held behind closed doors and meeting minutes are classified, several board members now say they agreed to recommend leasing commercial air time but they made no decision about which stations to use. "We rely on the local people on the staff to give us advice," says Clair Burgener, the board member from California. "Their recommendation was for two stations. The only stations we as a board considered were those two [WQBA and WAQI]. We were satisfied these were reasonable purchases."

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