By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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The Milians never were able to track down Patricia Franco. The four local phone numbers she gave them are now either disconnected or answered by parties who have no knowledge of her whatsoever.
"I like to do everything in radio: to be an announcer, to write, everything."
Even when he was a medical student at the University of Havana, Emilio Milian wanted to own a radio station. After three years working nights at a station, he made radio his day job, leaving school to work full-time in his hometown of Sagua la Grande. In 1958 he married Emma Maria Mirtha Cotarelo; the next year, shortly after Fidel Castro came to power, Emilio III was born, followed in 1960 by Albert and in 1965 by Mirtha. By the time Mirtha came along, the Milians had secured visas to Mexico. For four months Milian wrote for the Mexico City daily El Excelsior, and then he brought his family to Miami, where other relatives had settled.
Milian's credentials got him a job as a part-time sports announcer at WMIE-AM, which two years later was sold and renamed WQBA. "Emilio was an announcer at that time," remembers then-general manager Herb Levin, who is now an independent consultant. "I saw in him a person of great integrity and wonderful on-air talent. He worked himself up from just staff announcer to news director." In the succeeding years, with Milian overseeing news and programming, WQBA became one of the top Spanish stations in the nation.
"Emilio was one of the first of the Latin broadcasters who came here with credentials out of Cuba who was a radio journalist," says Sidney Levin (no relation to Herb). Levin would go on to serve as the Florida Secretary of Commerce and as a Dade County commissioner; back then he managed the English-language station WKAT-AM. "We were involved at one time in the creation of what has become the South Florida Radio Broadcasters Association," he remembers. "We worked on a few community activities through the association. I liked him. We built a very nice relationship. And then there was that terrible event."
Just before sundown on April 30, 1976, Milian started his company-supplied Chevy station wagon in the WQBA parking lot, detonating eight pounds of high explosives that had been wired to the car's battery. The blast cost him both legs below the knee (he now wears prostheses), blew a hole in his abdomen, and propelled pieces of metal into his head and body. It was a time of frequent terrorist attacks by radical anti-Castro groups; five exile leaders were slain in bomb attacks between 1974 and 1976. Milian, who had continually castigated terrorists on the air, had been warned by FBI agents that he was a target. Callers made on-air death threats, and armed guards were stationed at WQBA's entrances.
To people like Sidney Levin who spoke only English and had felt a safe distance from the previous bombings, this bombing was incomprehensible. "I never thought about [Milian's] politics. Then suddenly there was an ugly side to all this," Levin recalls. "Somebody told me he was saying things on the radio that somebody didn't want to hear. I mean, wow. Several of us went to Washington, we met with Carter's attorney general. We asked them to look into this. Truthfully, we felt this affected the First Amendment rights of everyone of the press."
Though no one was ever arrested for the crime, Milian is convinced law enforcement agents knew who the perpetrators were and were unwilling and/or unable to make a case against them.
Among his supporters in those days -- and a putative terrorist target himself -- was businessman Jorge Mas Canosa. After the bombing, Mas bought an armored Mercedes. He and Milian went into business together, as officers of Florida Security Agency (incorporated in 1977), and of Fabulosa Land Company (formed in 1979). The friendship soured after about five years, Milian says, because Mas was unwilling to compromise and acted dictatorially. In 1981 he founded CANF, after which WQBA and Radio Mambi became virtual soapboxes for the self-made millionaire, who delivered regular harangues and detailed his plans for a free Cuba -- which some speculated would include a Mas presidency. (Mas was out of town and could not be reached for comment for this story.)
About a year after the bombing, when Milian went back to work at WQBA, general manager Herb Levin was leery of a return to the inflammatory on-air exchanges that had been Milian's trademark. There would be no direct, live contact with listeners, Levin declared. Milian refused to comply, and Levin fired him. "He called it censorship and I called it responsibility," Levin says now. "I had a station to run, and I was concerned about his well-being and that of my 50 employees. He was very popular and was held as a hero and a martyr, and frankly I can understand his position, that he wanted to continue to be confrontational. I don't think he understood my position as a licensee, a parent, and an employer to let him go on the air and blast these terrorists."
In 1977 Milian tried to buy a broadcast license, but at the last minute the Federal Communications Commission awarded it to other investors. Seven years later, he was courted by the Voice of America to assume the directorship of newly created Radio Marti. But he resigned after less than a year, telling the press that he didn't want to move to Washington, D.C. The real reason, he says now, was his disgust over what he saw as Jorge Mas's near-total control of everything having to do with the station -- Mas's brainchild in the first place -- and the profligate spending of the millions Congress had appropriated for Radio Marti. Also in 1984 he re-applied for a broadcast license, and this time the application was granted. With wife Emma and all three children as officers, Milian's New Continental Broadcasting Corporation had its own station, WWFE-AM. Friends and other family members invested thousands of dollars in the enterprise. Emilio III, a sales manager for a pharmaceutical company with a degree in business administration from FIU, was named vice president of sales.