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
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Every weekday evening just before six o'clock, Emilio Milian, Jr., slowly sits down in front of a microphone in the studio of WWFE-AM (670). His neat mustache and wavy gray hair combed back from a deep V hairline are streaked with white. Invariably he is dressed in a conservative suit, his tasseled slip-on shoes brightly shined. He places the Miami Herald in front of him, takes a pair of wire-rimmed glasses out of a brown leather case, and reads as he waits for the woman at the control board on the other side of the window to slip in a prerecorded cassette announcing the start of Habla el Pueblo (The People Speak). Milian introduced this call-in program in 1971 at another station, when he was 40 years old and among the top announcers in Miami's still-fledgling Spanish-language radio market.
Eighteen years later he founded WWFE, having recovered from a 1976 car bombing that tore off his legs and made him a hero. Politically conservative and staunchly anti-Castro, Milian shared the passionate desire of his attackers (who were thought to be fellow exiles, though no one was ever arrested for the bombing) to liberate Cuba. He was assaulted for what he said on the air, condemnations and tauntings of the small bands of right-wing extremists who used terrorist tactics against anyone who defied them. Milian thus came to stand for tolerance, democracy, and freedom of speech during a time when the only cause in Cuban Miami was la causa: the overthrow of Fidel Castro, by whatever means possible.
When he returned to the airwaves, he dubbed his station Radio Fe, wishing to tell the world that his faith in God had been rewarded. He prided himself on eschewing the established political line taken by the major Cuban stations; Radio Fe's slogan, repeated during each station break, identified it as la voz independiente. One local political activist told the Miami Herald that Milian had succeeded in "bringing democracy to Cuban radio."
But in only a few years, Milian was brought down again, this time financially. In early 1993 he was forced to sell WWFE, and today he is an employee of the station he started, a station again in financial straits. For the loss of WWFE he bitterly blames Cuban exile politics and a moneyed, tight-knit elite that wields tremendous power, both overtly and subtly, within el exilio. "I have a lot of enemies," Milian says, his round, almost childlike eyes fixed darkly inward. "They want to silence me."
Few sounds escape from behind the closed office and studio doors on the second floor of this seven-story building on SW 27th Avenue just south of Flagler Street, which WWFE shares with another Spanish-language station. After Habla el Pueblo's theme music and introduction fade, Milian welcomes his audience and immediately takes a call. The woman operating the board leaves the control booth and resumes a conversation with a friend in the hall. A square "On Air" sign on the wall is lit; a small digital clock marks the minutes. Milian is alone with the microphone and the blinking phone.
As usual, a large number of the callers this night are older Cuban exiles. The vast majority want to talk about the proposed federal cuts in Medicare, the theme of the day's three-minute editorial spot by Milian. Also on the agenda: the obligatory denunciations of Fidel Castro and discussions of Castro's latest invitation to have some exile groups visit him. Milian's resonant voice rises and his long arms gesture sharply as he denounces the communist regime for destroying the island's economy. He argues heatedly with a man who has called to opine that the U.S. embargo is responsible for much of the suffering in Cuba.
Milian is a conservative anticastrista, disinclined to see any benefit that might be gained from dialogue with Castro. His pronouncements, while lacking the invective that characterizes some of his competitors' rhetoric, aren't all that different from the opinions heard from Miami's AM power triad: Radio Mambi (WAQI-AM 710), La Cubanisima (WQBA-AM 1140), and WCMQ-AM (1210). And while the idea of tolerating opposing viewpoints has in recent years made inroads in the local market -- even La Cubanisima, usually a harsh purveyor of hard-line views, recently added La Primera Plana (The Front Page), a news/talk show featuring younger journalists who have shed the advocacy approach favored by their predecessors -- Milian seems to have become uncomfortable with what he sees as an accommodation of pro-Castro elements. "I think they're allowing leftists on the air," he says, "where either you believe what they say or that's it."
Despite the limited influence Milian now exerts on the AM airwaves, to the outside world his name still connotes courage and integrity. He has probably received more mainstream press coverage than all the other stars on Miami's Spanish-language radio combined. His position within el exilio, however, is more complicated. He is not universally revered, as respectful English-language news accounts might imply. The fraternal ties that helped foster Radio Fe are the same ones Milian and others now accuse of ultimately strangling the station, and with it Milian's lifelong dream. Because he wouldn't make his station a tool of the powerful Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) and its allies, he asserts, they conspired to drive him out of business. Yet there are many within el exilio who place the blame for Radio Fe's decline squarely on the shoulders of its creator, who they say did not have the expertise to operate a station in the first place, and who alienated the very people who could have helped him succeed.
Undeniably, the story of Radio Fe's demise involves a labyrinth of strange misfortunes that weaves inextricably through the Cuban exile community. To Milian and his family, though, there are no ambiguities: They don't hesitate to speak out about the injustices they believe they have suffered, and they are bitter to this day.
Early December 1992: As hard as it was to believe, everything was unravelling again. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Sidney Weaver had called an emergency hearing in the Radio Fe case. Emilio Milian had been fighting for more than a year to keep his 50,000-watt station on the air. He had filed for Chapter 11 protection in August 1991, after failing to meet Barnett Bank's deadline for paying off a $500,000 line of credit. The judge had already granted several extensions to allow Milian to find investors to keep the station out of Chapter 7, which would have meant liquidation of all assets. But the search for financing had finally looked promising a few weeks earlier, when a man named Fausto Losana Pelaez had handed Milian a check for three million dollars.
Losana Pelaez, a kindly looking, slightly jowly man who said he was a physician from Argentina but who was not licensed to practice medicine in Florida, had a morning show on WWFE, the main purpose of which was to inform the public about the healing powers of a healthy diet and various substances produced by honeybees. He offered the latter for sale, having ostensibly obtained them from his apiary in the Dominican Republic.
One Monday when the bee show was over, Milian recalls, he and son Emilio III, the station's vice president of sales, invited Losana Pelaez into his office. "We asked him if he knew people to invest," Milian recalls. "He said, 'I have money. I'll be your investor.' I asked him if he knew anyone else who could invest. He said, 'No, no no, you and me only. I have three million dollars.' Immediately he wrote a check for three million dollars." All that remained to close the deal, Losana Pelaez said, was for him to liquidate some certificates of deposit in Swiss banks.
Then unsettling things began to happen, and the Milians began to wonder whether the Argentinian was being pressured because he had agreed to help them. Losana Pelaez claimed his office had been vandalized and that his mother had received threatening phone calls. And he testified during a court hearing that he'd received a late-night call from his lawyer informing him that the Swiss funds had been "frozen by the Justice Department." He needed more time to produce the money, said Losana Pelaez. Soon afterward, he became impossible to locate. Radio Fe aired taped shows during his morning time slot. The Milians heard he was in Europe, then he was rumored to be in Mexico. At the emergency hearing in early December, his attorney, obviously perplexed, arose. "I don't know where my client is right now, but the last time I spoke with him, he told me he was still totally committed to buying the station," the lawyer announced, adding helpfully, "He's already spent thousands of dollars in legal fees."
That was the last the court heard about Losana Pelaez's bid to buy WWFE. But at that same hearing, another would-be investor appeared. Saying she had read about the plight of Radio Fe and wanted to preserve free expression, Patricia Franco, a woman of middle age given to expensive outfits, produced a check for $2.7 million and a letter from Citibank advising that the money was being wired from Costa Rica to New York, and thence to the bank's Miami branch.
Milian and his son showed up at the downtown Miami offices of a Citibank branch at eight o'clock the following morning. "The bank wrote a letter telling us the money was on its way, and once it cleared they would issue us a cashier's check," Emilio Milian III recounts. "They had an office we were using while we were there. We had coffee; calls were patched in. We'd wait for several hours, the money wouldn't arrive, and we'd come back the next morning. Every time we went, we got the red-carpet treatment. A bank of that reputation telling you something -- you're going to believe it. I don't think they ever told us the money was not coming through. It just never came. Patricia Franco pretended to be mystified as to why the funds weren't cleared."
He pauses, grimaces, then adds, "Every time I tell somebody this, there's a voice in the back of my head saying, 'You're paranoid.'"
Then Franco, too, became unreachable.
"You ask me were they just two flakes walking in off the street?" wonders Robert Hewitt, an attorney involved in the case. "Were they intimidated? Why would they go to the trouble to say they were going to do something and then disappear? It's a mystery. They should send Columbo in. Those were two of the most amazing things I ever saw."
In July 1993 Losana Pelaez turned up on the CBS news show Eye to Eye with Connie Chung, on a hidden video that showed him at his office in Little Havana, reading chest X-rays upside-down and prescribing bee products for what he diagnosed as tuberculosis. (The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation has no record of either a medical license for Losana Pelaez or of any complaints lodged against him.) Now he's back on the radio, this time on WVCG-AM (1080). Of his abortive bid to purchase Radio Fe, he explains, "It wasn't a business. My accountants and lawyers advised me not to buy." What of the frozen Swiss bank accounts, the threats and vandalism? He shakes his head and purses his lips. "That's all I have to say. Accept what I tell you."
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.
The 50,000-watt Radio Fe made its debut on June 8, 1989. "Welcome back, Emilio Milian. It's good that you kept the fe," concluded a June 12 Miami Herald editorial dubbing Milian "Cuban Miami's courageous voice of reason."
Radio Fe, headquartered in a renovated two-story house on Flagler Street and SW 23rd Avenue, was short of cash from the beginning. Milian couldn't afford the sorts of promotions staged by the top stations. Problems arose with contractors. In 1990 Milian obtained a two-million-dollar judgment against Broadcast Leasing, Inc., the company that had been hired to construct six broadcast towers, on the grounds that the firm had overcharged and refused to complete the work. Broadcast Leasing went bankrupt soon after, and the Milians never collected anything. Then the firm that renovated Radio Fe's headquarters sued Milian for nonpayment and won a $14,000 judgment.
In late 1989, meanwhile, ubiquitous community leader Carlos Arboleya, vice chairman of Barnett Bank, approached WWFE with the offer of a one-million-dollar loan. "We were undercapitalized," acknowledges Emilio III. "The loan gave us working capital." In December 1989 Barnett granted a $500,000 term loan and a $500,000 credit line, for which most of Radio Fe's assets were put up as collateral.
Though Radio Fe's ratings were near the bottom of the Spanish-language rankings, they did begin to improve in mid-1991, in part owing to the addition of a show entitled La Mogolla (The Mess). Written and directed by Alberto Gonzalez, La Mogolla featured biting satires of local exile leaders -- including elected officials, Arboleya, and Mas.
Then in early 1991, say Milian and his son, Barnett officials paid a visit to the station -- to tell them La Mogolla was "unacceptable" to Arboleya, who was also a CANF member. Milian says he "told them to go to hell."
A few weeks after the alleged visit, the younger Milian says, he got a call from IAC Advertising Group, Barnett's ad agency, which had been running about $1500 worth of spots per month on WWFE. "He said their client Barnett Bank had to be off the air today," Milian III recounts. "We complied. I remember thinking, How small-minded."
On April 9 came what the Milians refer to as "the second bomb": a letter from Barnett giving them 21 days to pay off the $500,000 credit line. The Milians assert they had been making their payments on time; as proof they submit a statement showing regular principal and interest payments Barnett withdrew from their account. In any event, under the terms of the loan, the bank was not obligated to give a reason for calling in the line of credit. Worse for the Milians, a default on paying off the balance would cause a default on the term loan as well.
"The ironic thing is we were just starting to break even and our ratings were going up," says Emilio III.
Arbitron surveys indicate the station steadily improved in ratings from late 1990 until reaching a peak audience share in late 1991, after the bankruptcy. But no Arbitron numbers appear for WWFE in the service's ratings for the first quarter of 1991. That was when Arbitron "delisted" WWFE -- deleting the targeted station from its ratings report for that quarter -- an extreme step the service hadn't taken in twenty years. The reason: The ratings service determined that Radio Fe had engaged in "rating distortion" by instructing listeners to load up any radio surveys they received with WWFE entries. The Milians say they were merely trying to respond to other stations' ratings-boosting practices of awarding prizes, which they couldn't afford.
WWFE tried to negotiate a 90-day extension to come up with the $500,000, but Barnett wouldn't budge, and in May 1991 the bank sued to foreclose. Milian filed for Chapter 11 protection in August. Still trying to put together enough money to stave off Chapter 7, he requested and received several extensions from Judge Weaver.
The station's financial woes affected all its dealings: Some original investors filed suit to recoup their money; the owner of the land where the broadcast towers stood sought a $276,000 mortgage payment; the contractors who had won the $14,000 judgment went back to court accusing station management of withholding payments. Days before the Milians filed for Chapter 11, Dade Circuit Judge Eugene Fierro ordered WWFE to pay $5000 to a local food bank as punitive damages in the case and to pay an additional $6300 to the construction company. Meanwhile, Barnett made sure Weaver ordered "adequate protection" while WWFE was in Chapter 11 A meaning the bank continued to withdraw interest payments from the station's funds.
"The bank always holds all the cards technically," says attorney Robert Hewitt. "You get to the point where you ask, Is it nice for the bank to do this? But anybody who thinks banks are nice these days is crazy. If this is a horror story, I could give you a lot of other horror stories where all of a sudden something like this happens."
In April 1992 Judge Weaver appointed a trustee, Jeanette Tavormina, to run the business and to speed up the reorganization process. Recalls Hewitt, who represented Tavormina: "I walk into the case not knowing a damn thing about it and we wind up in the middle of the Cuban revolution. Here we are going to courtrooms all crowded with passionate people, and I'm saying, Get me outta this. As far as who's right or wrong, I wouldn't touch that with a ten-foot pole."
Over Barnett's protests, the judge continued to grant extensions so the Milians could try to come up with the money to pay off creditors. "I've never seen a bank fight so hard to avoid being paid off," WWFE's bankruptcy attorney Chad Pugatch said in court. That summer Milian spoke of taking Radio Fe public and asked listeners to contribute money. Milian now says a total of $411,000 was raised, which he later returned to the donors.
Tavormina received at least half a dozen unsolicited offers to buy Radio Fe. The owners of both Radio Mambi and WQBA made written proposals. The Catholic Archdiocese wanted to buy. The lawyer for a corporation called Metrovision Broadcasting made an offer A and submitted a contract along with it. One reason for all the attention: A recent change in FCC regulations had made it permissible for a single entity to own up to two AM and two FM stations in a single market.
But Metrovision wasn't taking advantage of any new FCC rules, a fact that became abundantly clear to Milian when he discovered who was behind the company: Two of its three major partners were CANF members. He went on the air to accuse the foundation of trying to buy his silence, and he called a press conference to denounce "the Cuban Mafia's" designs on free speech.
So persistent was Milian's on-air raging about CANF that the foundation's attorney wrote to Tavormina charging that WWFE was in violation of FCC rules regarding the airing of personal attacks. Hewitt recalls that after Barnett's lawyer called him, he suggested to Milian that it might be a good idea to limit his criticisms of the station's principal creditor. "I believe [Milian] did tone down his rhetoric after that," Hewitt adds. (Milian says he had offered Mas and others equal time to present their point of view, as required by the FCC, but that no one took him up on the offer.) Today CANF spokesman Fernando Rojas echoes past assertions that the foundation had nothing to do with Radio Fe's difficulties. "I can tell you categorically those accusations are patently false," says Rojas. "And it's very sad if he continues to bring them up."
WWFE was slated for Chapter 7 on December 3. Unless a sale could be closed, Radio Fe would have to be auctioned off. But to the surprise of the principal players, Judge Weaver set a minimum price for the station: $2.7 million, nearly a million dollars more than anyone had offered to pay. (The judge said the figure represented the amount required to satisfy WWFE's debts.)
"That was the only time in 37 years I've seen a judge set a price in Chapter 7," Hewitt observes.
Barnett attempted to persuade Weaver to lower the asking price, noting that Metrovision was willing to pay no more than $1.9 million. "Why would Barnett go out of its way to make things easier for this 'potential bidder' when it has refused to budge an inch to accommodate Milian?" wrote Miami Herald columnist Liz Balmaseda at the time. "It isn't IBM trying to buy Radio Fe. It's a group of guys from the foundation. Now, could things get more obvious?" A fall 1992 60 Minutes profile of Mas Canosa, and a March 1993 article in the New York Times, added credence to the CANF vs. WWFE scenario.
Although the Metrovision directors protested they were only interested in buying the station as a business investment, some saw the protest as hollow. "The right wing elements in this community are merciless -- if you don't play along, they destroy you," asserts Eddie Levy, founder of the Cuban American Defense League, a group that monitors Cuban radio in Miami and forwards to federal officials transcripts of broadcasts it considers defamatory, inflammatory, or in violation of civil rights or communications laws. Levy believes WWFE was run out of business because Milian wouldn't cater to the establishment. "Milian was not the victim of terrorists for being a leftist. He was not an open-minded person," Levy says. "He was one of them. On the air, he was really pretty tough with everybody who used to call who didn't think like him."
Others call the conspiracy theory nonsense and blame Milian's downfall on capitalism, pure and simple. "It's not complicated what happened to him. He didn't take in enough money to pay his bills," says Herb Levin. "He couldn't accept that. He wanted to be a martyred guy. Emilio failed not because of any conspiracy, he failed because of his inability to market his station competitively in a very competitive market."
Levin says that when he was part-owner of a different station, he aired a program that many in the community found offensive -- including Jorge Mas Canosa, who was the frequent victim of what Levin calls "stupid" insults. "[Mas] never called me and said 'Get him off,'" Levin says. He does, though, concede the simple power of social ties: "If Emilio came to anyone who was a friend of Jorge and asked him for a loan, or to advertise on his station -- any friend of Jorge who wanted to keep a relationship with Jorge -- that friend would think twice about it. Emilio wasn't being civil, playing the game of being nice to people like Arboleya and Mas. To get by, you either have to pay your bills or have friends. He didn't do either."
From the bank's headquarters in Jacksonville, a spokeswoman for Barnett refuses to comment at all about the subject of WWFE. Repeated calls requesting comment from Ruben Bacelis, Barnett's account executive at the IAC Advertising Group, were not returned. Carlos Arboleya, who has since retired, says he never told anyone he found La Mogolla unacceptable, nor did anyone from Barnett. "When you're in a public position, you have to expect to have people say things about you," Arboleya explains. "Some people thought [La Mogolla] bothered me tremendously. But sometimes I laughed at what they said."
As for Barnett's motivation for calling in the loan, says WWFE had fallen behind in its payments, though he won't comment about the statements the Milians' offer as documentation. "If they had paid on time, would the bank need to make anything out of it?" he asks. "If you make your payments, can I sue you?"
Maintaining the $2.7 million minimum figure, Judge Weaver set March 4, 1993 as the date for Radio Fe to be auctioned. After the prospective buyers dropped out and Fausto Losana Pelaez and Patricia Franco made their appearances and disappearances, Milian had quietly secured commitments from his friends Jorge Rodriguez and Carlos G. Carreras. (Months earlier, along with Rodriguez's wife Ana Vidal Rodriguez, both men had bought another AM station out of bankruptcy). Milian was to remain on the air and would serve as general director of Radio Fe. He was also given the option to purchase 25 percent of the ownership under a company called Fenix Broadcasting, an option he has not exercised.
Rodriguez had big plans for the powerful station, whose signal is by most estimates heard more widely in Cuba than any other Miami station. "I'll sleep peacefully tonight for the first time in a long time," Milian told El Nuevo Herald at the time.
But a good night's sleep was a long time in coming. The $2.7 million sale didn't close until nearly a year later, because the three investors refused to go through with the deal until a few hundred thousand dollars' worth of unanticipated improvements were made in the station's facilities. Finally, in February 1994, WWFE moved out of its offices on Flagler and into the 27th Avenue office building already occupied by WRHC-AM (1550).
Judge Weaver has retired. Carlos Carreras died this past May (his estate still owns 33 percent of Fenix Broadcasting). And Emilio Milian III, who had been hired as sales manager for both WWFE and WRHC, resigned, citing "problems with the original agreement" to pay him two percent of both stations' total sales. "I think this is the time to secure my future," he wrote in his resignation letter, "and I can't do that here."
Numerous other staffers have left the stations, too. Former and current employees say paychecks are frequently late. Some allege that the station owes them money. "I left because they stopped paying me," says Willie Leiva, a producer of Univisi centsn's Cristina TV show. Until early this year, Leyva had also been writing and producing El Destino Esta en Tus Manos, a popular WWFE advice show that originally began in Cuba. "Everyone knows there are problems with cash liquidity," says another ex-staffer. "At least I have a job," sighs a current employee who complains about being paid three or four weeks late.
Milian didn't want to comment about the economic situation at WWFE.
Jorge Rodriguez, who co-founded Radio Mambi in 1985, denies allegations that WWFE employees aren't paid. But he acknowledges, "We're not making any money." That's partly, Rodriguez asserts, because some advertisers are steering clear of his association with "leftist" programs such as Alvaro Sanchez Cifuentes's.
During the past several months, Rodriguez has made some big changes at both his stations, instituting new nonpolitical shows featuring popular personalities. "Much-needed reconstructive surgery," Exito radio columnist Sandra Marina wrote of the alterations, adding that the stations "have been sounding ragged, and [their] economic vicissitudes are a secret to no one."
Some question whether programming changes will allow Rodriguez to survive in an increasingly competitive AM market, especially given the recent purchase of WQBA and Radio Mambi, along with their FM counterparts, by Spanish-language media giant Heftel Broadcasting Corp. "It may not be a wise choice to run and operate one more AM radio station at this time, particularly when FM currently is getting 70 percent of all advertising dollars," opines Herb Levin. (Levin, who had left WQBA for a time, was one of the owners of the station when Heftel purchased it. He stayed on briefly, then departed, having signed an agreement not to discuss anything relating to Heftel for the next several years.)
Emilio Milian III believes he has plenty of evidence that Barnett capriciously and vindictively drove Radio Fe into bankruptcy. He can't take the matter to civil court, however, until after the bankruptcy case is completed. Most recently, he went to Fort Lauderdale to plead with U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Paul Hyman, Jr., to reduce the amount -- totalling $205,000 -- Tavormina and Hewitt have charged in fees. The judge refused to lower the amount. Barnett's part of the case, at least, is closed: According to court documents, the bank collected $1.1 million, including attorneys' fees and other costs.
The elder Milian says he's got another comeback in him. "I did it before and I will do it again," he asserts. "I have confidence in my ability to run my own radio station. But in the present situation, not everything is in my hands.