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.

Ramon Cernuda and others who question the purchases dispute Radio Marti's surveys that show WQBA and WAQI as having the highest Cuban listenership of any U.S. station. "These are manipulated surveys they do for their own intents and purposes, and everyone knows it," Cernuda says flatly. The numbers are based on interviews with Cubans arriving at Miami International Airport. The General Accounting Office roundly criticized two previous Radio Marti audience-research reports two years ago, finding that similar airport interviews regarding TV Marti produced greatly exaggerated viewership estimates.

Navarro acknowledges the studies his office conducts aren't based on exact science, but he says they're the best information possible coming from a closed society. "It was worth a try," he says of the radio-leasing option. "We were under a recommendation from the advisory board to do it, we were able to do it by law, and we had some information. We'll try anything to get the signal over there."

Back in Miami, Radio Marti officials approached the managers of the two chosen stations, who agreed to sell an hour of air time five days a week for 35 days. Total cost to Radio Marti for both buys -- at $700 per hour -- would be $35,000. "It's been several months ago that they approached us," recalls WQBA general manager Herb Levin. "It was a negotiated price; it's really lower than we would charge. But I feel there's some advantage as with the public service aspect to be working together with Radio Marti. We think the programming of Radio Marti is of great interest to Spanish-speaking Cubans who normally can't hear the Marti signal here."

Enrique Baloyra, professor of political science at University of Miami and former participant in Radio Marti round-table discussions, sees more than a public-service advantage for the stations. "This is paid for by taxpayers," says Baloyra, who frequently criticizes the Cuban American National Foundation. "Private stations are not in the `business' of patriotism, or should not be. Chances are there could be the potential for abuse, in the sense of saying, `This is the official line. We're even broadcasting for VOA. That makes it official.'"

Besides, Baloyra adds, he's been told by Arnaldo Coro, a Cuban government engineer and a well-known authority on jamming, that WQBA and WAQI are the commercial U.S. stations Cuban authorities jam most heavily. (Attempts to reach Coro in Havana were unsuccessful.) Baloyra and others claim different Miami stations get through to the island better than WQBA and WAQI, particularly WRHC (Cadena Azul). But WRHC is known to be generally ideologically independent and adversarial toward the Cuban American National Foundation's hard line.

"It is a curious note," says Antonio Calatayud, Sr., executive vice president and director of WRHC, "that the two stations that have been attached to the politics of the Cuban American National Foundation are the ones that receive this kind of grant. In my opinion, it's also like a gift or payment for service rendered, and that's the truth."

"That's bullshit," counters Levin of WQBA. "There was no political decision-making at all. Marti wants to broaden their reach and this is a cheap way to do it effectively. I think Jorge Mas is a nice target, an easy hit, but he had nothing to do with this." Navarro adds that Radio Marti could go to other stations if current monitoring -- interviews with Cubans arriving at MIA -- shows WQBA and WAQI didn't do the job. "We have no interest," Navarro says, "in favoring one or the other or any of them."

But can any of Miami's Spanish-language stations do the job? Most say they can; they get letters from Cuban listeners, and newly arrived refugees tell them they hear American stations. Whether a Miami station is heard in Cuba depends on several variable factors, such as weather and time of day. Charles W. Bostian, a professor of electrical engineering at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg and an expert on jamming, says in any case a clear-channel station would most reliably reach Cuba. Some observers have suggested Radio Marti lease time on Caribbean stations closer to the island and less politically controversial. But with the Cuban government's sophisticated, often mobile, jamming devices, it's virtually impossible to predict how well any signal will get through.

"If you're going to go out and spend government money leasing time on stations that are simulcast in the Miami area, you have to be pretty sure of what you're doing," says Jim Skinner, executive director of the President's Advisory Board on Cuba Broadcasting. "The fact is, when you do exhaustive studies over at least twelve months, you come to the conclusion you don't know with any great degree of certainty how well any of these stations are received, because there's a tremendous amount of conflicting information."

Regardless of the outcome of the recent test period, Calatayud of WRHC says he intends to donate time to Radio Marti. One of his station's broadcasting towers was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew and its signal currently is less than its usual 50,000 watts. But as soon as the tower is fixed, Calatayud vows, he'll write to Radio Marti offering free time on Cadena Azul. "We are all in the crusade for liberation, for democracy in Cuba," he says. "And we're supposed to give something for it, no?

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