Hot Air Waves

The head honcho thinks The Alex and Miriam Show would be totally cool, but internal strife is boiling over at Radio and TV Marti

Shortwave radios all over Cuba may soon be picking up some unusual transmissions: direct from Radio Marti studios in Miami, Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and County Commissioner Miriam Alonso, together on their very own show, discussing the democratic process as practiced in the United States. One of the more innovative programming changes recently proposed at the station Congress created in 1985 to broadcast the truth to Cuba's censorship-plagued society, it would mark the first time elected officials had their own show on a government station.

So far, the concept hasn't moved beyond a brief preliminary chat between the Radio Marti programming director and the two chosen politicos. But the Penelas/Alonso program and others are outlined and spurred forward in a programming department memo. They're the brainchild of Herminio San Roman, who since March has headed the Miami-based Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), the agency that oversees Radio Marti and TV Marti. Controversial in themselves, the proposals have arisen amid a flurry of employee complaints and grievances -- unprecedented in number, according to several long-time OCB bureaucrats -- filed against San Roman. In commenting for this story, several of the office's 200-plus staffers have expressed the belief that their phones are tapped, and two claim to have been warned not to cooperate with New Times. Some senior employees say they're looking for other jobs and that morale is the lowest it has been in years. "It's never been this bad," frets one veteran. "Something needs to happen or we'll implode."

A prominent Florida Democratic Party activist and a former partner in the law firm Adorno & Zeder, San Roman declined through his assistant Marisol Rodriguez to comment for this story. But he has publicly pledged to earn his $119,000 paycheck by using his "hands-on" management style to make the office's operations less bureaucratic, more businesslike, more eager to take risks, and open to new ideas and new faces.

Some of those new faces, though, are extremely familiar to San Roman, and to Dade residents. San Roman's wife Irma has been a county bureaucrat for ten years. San Roman himself campaigned for Alonso -- despite her Republican affiliation -- in her unsuccessful 1993 Miami mayoral campaign against Steve Clark. Julio Estorino, a popular personality at La Cubanisima (WQBA-AM 1140) and a vocal Clinton supporter during last year's presidential race, has been tapped by San Roman to deliver a daily commentary on Radio Marti, even though his features on the commercial station WQBA already reach a Cuban audience. San Roman also wants to hire Republican U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart's father Rafael to host a show about Cuban history.

In the past, shows proposed for Radio or TV Marti would be made into pilots and tested on focus groups of newly arrived Cuban immigrants or visitors and evaluated by an "external review panel" of journalists, business people, and others with expertise on Cuban matters. According to Marti staffers, none of that has happened with the current batch of proposed shows. The employee who used to arrange interviews and screenings has left the OCB and hasn't been replaced. Programming director Oscar Barceló says it's his understanding that focus groups are a thing of the past.

"I would be concerned if I were told, 'No, there's not going to be audience research.' How are we going to know anything about our Cuban audience?" wonders Margarita Rojo, an international radio broadcaster. "I would raise concerns if the external review panels were to be eliminated too. That's like our peers to keep us in check; we don't have ratings like networks. This is what I told Mr. San Roman, and I'm optimistic."

Some of Rojo's colleagues see San Roman's plans as a movement away from an emphasis on news and information. By way of example they point to the recent addition of a second soap opera. "We oppose that," comments Antonio Rivera, the station's field research director, "because that's not what the people in Cuba want -- our studies have shown they want news." (The theory behind the soaps is that they pull in listeners, who stay tuned for the news programming that follows.)

Meanwhile, several employees of the Martis, as the twin broadcasting entities are commonly referred to, don't have time to debate the philosophy of programming. They're too busy worrying about keeping their jobs under a boss they characterize as dictatorial and vindictive. At least eight formal complaints or grievances have been or will soon be lodged with various oversight or investigative offices, including the State Department's Office of the Inspector General, the United States Information Agency (USIA), and the Advisory Board for Radio Broadcasting to Cuba.

"His intimidation, such as I have never witnessed in my entire career, is clearly counterproductive in establishing the mutual respect which is fundamental to develop professional relationships," wrote Noreen Kinnavy, an executive assistant and ten-year OCB employee, in a formal grievance filed with a division of the USIA. "[I]n reality he has excluded me from my day-to-day responsibilities ... and ... the entire previous support staff at OCB has effectively been 'warehoused.'... I find it highly improper that Mr. San Roman has assigned his new assistant ... with nothing more than a political background, authority over me, a [higher-ranking government employee] with significantly greater experience."

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