The Man and the Microphone

In the turbulent and often virulent world of Spanish-language radio, two things are certain: Fidel will be the debate, and Tomas Garcia Fuste will prevail

In the aftermath of the Fidel-is-dead flareup, some reporters might have feared damage to their reputation or credibility. Not Fuste. "Well, maybe, maybe it hurts my credibility a little bit," he admits. "But you see, we are dealing with the news from a communist country, where nobody knows what is happening. Nobody even knows where Castro lives.

"We had all these indications -- with Raul, and Fidel not being seen. And then the reports that he is in the hospital. I called the hospital myself five times, and I couldn't get through. Then I called my reporter in Spain, and he called, and he asked if Castro is there. And you know what they tell him? They don't know because they don't have a patient list!"

On this story, could Fuste's journalistic compass have been scrambled by his own deep desire to see Castro gone? He doesn't think so. He hopes not. No, he says. Then Fuste adds: "Did you see the tape? Castro doesn't look healthy to me. He is only four years older than I, and I look more healthy than that. No, he had some trouble. I got information from the hospital that he was there."

It was a year ago this month that Fuste surprised much of Cuban Miami by suddenly bolting WQBA-La Cubanisima, where he had held forth for the previous twelve years, and moving to WCMQ, a station with half WQBA's 50,000 watts of power and a fraction of the listening audience. Fuste's association with WQBA had profited both. WQBA's claim to be the "most Cuban" of more than a half-dozen Spanish-language AM stations gained credibility when general manager Herb Levin brought the best-known Cuban broadcaster back to Miami from New York in 1981. And after five years at New York's WBNX Fuste seemed to thrive back in Miami as well. "These are my people," he likes to say, meaning all of Miami's Cubans. "I listen, I take on their troubles for a while, identify with them. I see myself offering a service through the radio."

The parting of Fuste from WQBA last May was not amicable. Levin asserts that Fuste left simply because of money, and it is clear that he is bitter. "I respect him for his talent, but I have less respect for his judgment," Levin says. "He ended up making a dumb personal move." He adds: "I would think that loyalty would mean something."

Fuste took his fans with him. The Arbitron numbers last summer showed Fuste "cost us about 35 percent of our listenership," Levin admits. The latest numbers show that WQBA is still being hurt. According to Arbitron, from December 1993 through February 1994 Fuste had an average listening audience of 14,700 each weekday morning, up 35 percent over the previous three-month period. During the same time WQBA pulled an average of 11,900 listeners, a drop of 21 percent. Only WAQI-Radio Mambi did better, with an estimated audience of 42,600. But its gain over the previous ratings period was only three percent.

Levin of WQBA admits that "this station lost him, and it was a loss. I wish I had him back." Still, he adds, "Maybe at this station he felt he was the top star. Well, I have other stars here."

In addition to money, ego was a factor. "This is a business, and what I merchandise is myself," says Fuste, now WCMQ's news director and vice president for programming. Neither Fuste nor Levin will say exactly what WQBA's final offer was, but the numbers here are not hard to figure. Along with a car and a generous expense account, Fuste's salary at WCMQ is about $200,000 a year, which he says is $70,000 more than he was making at WQBA.

For Raul Alarc centsn, president and board chairman of Spanish Broadcasting System, which owns WCMQ as well as stations in New York, Los Angeles, and Key West, signing Fuste was a coup. This is a transitional time for Spanish-language radio, when advertisers are discovering the market potential, and the medium itself is becoming more professional and more diverse in programming. Alarc centsn says he is positioning WCMQ to challenge WQBA and WAQI for market supremacy. The Federal Communications Commission has approved WCMQ's application to double its power to 50,000 watts, and the station already has the rights to carry the Spanish-language broadcasts of Florida Marlins and Panthers games. With Fuste, Alarc centsn says, "We have the strongest, most-respected personality in Miami radio, and a community leader. Besides, over there he had people telling him what to do. Here he has plenty of freedom to operate."

Freedom to operate. That, says Fuste, was the major reason for switching stations. At WQBA Levin did not dictate the topics Fuste would discuss or the guests he would bring to his "micr centsfono abierto" (open microphone) each morning, but he sent him little notes that annoyed. Says Levin: "I would counsel him. Fuste has kind of a one-song repertoire. He's very into dealing with the issue of rafters. It's a good subject. But is it worth 75 percent of his time? There's a little boredom there."

Over time Fuste has gained a reputation as a conservative voice of reason in a medium which is often shrill and overheated to the point of being unlistenable. A member of the first wave of voluntary exiles from the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro, Fuste arrived in Miami in 1960 with a modest renown and a vast ambition, and 34 years later he rides the Spanish-language airwaves as the most enduringly popular personality in radio.

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