Radio Free Miami

Welcome to the new Radio Marti, dragged into the swirl of local exile politics, more quarrelsome than ever, and growing increasingly irrelevant

For his part, Herminio San Roman, a 40-year-old Cuban American who, before his presidential appointment to the OCB in 1997, was an attorney with the Miami law firm Adorno & Zeder and a player in Democratic politics, sticks to a party line about changes at Radio Marti. He disputes comparisons to Miami exile stations, saying that the only similarity with AM radio is "direct contact with our audience." He says he has no personal or political reason to tamper with the station's agenda: "I'm not a politician; I don't ever intend to run for office. I accepted this job first because it's an honor to serve this country that has adopted me, and at the same time to provide a service to the Cuban people."

San Roman insists that the station's programming changes are stylistic, not substantive, and are a response to new telecommunications technology. Even if that's true, the new style is disagreeable to Cubans: Listenership on the island appears to be drastically down. A department within the USIA recently conducted a survey but would not release the results to New Times. Three separate sources within the OCB, however, provided New Times with identical statistics from the survey: 26 percent of Radio Marti's Cuban audience now listens at least once a week, compared to 70 to 75 percent in past periodic surveys.

Despite San Roman's contentions, it is hard to accept that the majority of perceptible changes at Radio Marti are merely stylistic:

*A large new contingent of former or current employees of Miami Spanish-language AM stations has joined Radio Marti's staff, sometimes displacing veteran OCB workers. Some of the most ravening rightist personalities in South Florida now have their own federally funded shows, including a roundtable hosted by Miami's most popular (according to a local poll) exile media personality: Armando Perez Roura, who has lifted anti-Castro rhetoric to new heights in a manner that could be described as rococo bombast. Some listeners in Cuba complain there's less diversity in political or social views between participants in debate or discussion programs.

*Most of the rest of the news programming has converted to the live discussion and call-in format favored on exile stations. Thoroughly researched news analysis and more in-depth reporting is heard less; instead the watchword is immediacy.

*Listeners are being subjected for the first time on Radio Marti to the harsh and insistent language for which Miami exile stations are well-known. Miami's Spanish-language news announcers commonly employ a unique vocabulary in routine stories: Fidel Castro may be identified as "the tyrant" or sarcastically as the "maximum leader"; glib references will be made to "the abused Cuban people" or "the brutal regime." Despite Voice of America editorial guidelines that forbid "sweeping generalizations and evaluations" and "slander or attacks," such language, quieter but with the same vehement tone, is now emanating from Radio Marti.

*Of the two departments charged with assessing the effectiveness of Radio Marti programs, San Roman has eliminated one and cut back the other; station director Rodriguez-Tejera downsized the program review committee from nine people to four. Although there was always something numbingly bureaucratic in these processes, critics argue that with less listener and internal editorial input, San Roman and the new director now control the station.

*The fathers of Miami's two Cuban-American congressional representatives are now heard weekly on Radio Marti, leading some observers to suspect political self-interest on the part of San Roman.

*Some employees are angry about alleged threats and intimidation by San Roman. Early in his tenure, which began in March 1997, he removed the doors to some employees' offices and, according to several workers, isolated those not in his favor by moving them to distant offices or stripping them of responsibilities. San Roman says the door policy simply fostered better communication, and he "dares" his workers to prove that any of his actions amount to bullying.

Staffers are trying to take him up on his offer: Several have filed complaints against San Roman with the State Department, which is investigating the OCB.

The list of complaints -- formal and informal -- is long, but San Roman and Rodriguez-Tejera make short shrift of it. The new contributors from AM radio are experienced professionals, they say, which makes them better at their jobs. They contend that Perez Roura has as much right to be heard on Radio Marti as any other broadcaster.

Their rebuttals, however, cannot erase the fact that today's Radio Marti, for better or worse, is not the Radio Marti of the past.

Two months ago, in a small sunlit meeting room at a public relations office near the airport, a half-dozen reporters and photographers in jeans and shirts clustered at one end of a long conference table. They aimed their cameras and microphones at the four men seated at the table's other end, most of them in suits, their heads providing a foreground for bookshelves against a wall.

It was practically a tableau: Nothing appeared to be happening at this meeting, and no one seemed to be saying much, which in the surreal world of Cuban exile politics means that a great deal was happening if one could only decode it.

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