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

Rodriguez-Tejera's desire for more immediate contact with Cubans is positive in itself, but the new emphasis is not without genuine weaknesses.

A concern expressed by the exile community involves the dangers of live broadcasts to Cuba: Many Miami exiles are convinced that some supposedly normal Cuban citizens calling in are really government agents in masquerade. "Don't you think that is dangerous, to have Castro's people talking to you?" Salvador Lew asked Rodriguez-Tejera during a meeting this past February of the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting.

"How do I know they are Castro's people?" replied Rodriguez-Tejera. "I am not a policeman. I cannot tell by the telephone who is a Cuban agent and who is not. Do you want me to censor the calls? We should be isolated from the people in Cuba?"

Lew's suspicion may be more than exile community paranoia. Calls by government plants are indeed possible, if not probable. Still, in seeking more participation by the island's apparently growing number of independent journalists, Radio Marti is joining television, radio, and Internet media from all over the world in strengthening their ties with voices inside Cuba.

The problems related to Marti's new talk-radio format are compounded by the lack of in-depth news reporting that now characterizes the station's programming and that is pandemic on AM radio, whose approach to news is live talk and whose audience is mostly Miami exiles instead of Cubans on the island.

Marti's radio news used to consist of substantial coverage along the lines of Nightline or National Public Radio programs: first a taped background report or interview, then on to a panel of experts who would discuss the issue. "There's no background, no investigative reporting any more," says a staffer who requested anonymity. "All the shows are the same. It's like Larry King for 24 hours."

Maybe so, but the shift is hardly surprising. Although Rodriguez-Tejera has a sound reputation as a journalist, and although his effort to reach into Cuba for new programming is astute, he is also a product of the exile community's one-note version of news reporting. When he resigned at WQBA, he accused management of "de-Cubanizing" its format by canceling certain shows and adding others whose contents were less Cuba-specific. He was named director of Radio Marti immediately after his resignation, and within weeks a dozen new reporters and announcers came to the station directly from exile radio or TV stations, some as permanent salaried employees and others on contract. Although it's hardly unusual for any new ship captain to surround himself with sailors he knows and trusts, Rodriguez-Tejera's pool of cronies was very different from anything ever seen in Washington.

Some new programs have attracted attention not because of their content but because of their personnel. Armando Perez Roura, still a popular host for Radio Mambi (WAQI-710 AM), now provides Radio Marti with a one-hour roundtable, Patriots' Forum, that is a pared-down version of his two-hour AM radio show.

Julio Estorino's commentary, Frank Talk, bears a name nearly identical name to that of his former show, Speaking Frankly, on WQBA, where he was a close associate of Rodriguez-Tejera. He was best known at his former station for his long-running anti-Castro diatribes and humorous segments in which he made fun of Castro and company.

One program is hosted by Enrique Ros, an accomplished history scholar who also happens to be the father of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, one of Dade County's two Cuban representatives to Congress. Rafael Diaz-Balart, father of Lincoln Diaz-Balart -- Dade's other Cuban U.S. representative -- is a regular guest on another Radio Marti show.

For each of these hires and contracts, San Roman has the same defense: Each person is simply the most qualified for the job. And as for any appearance of a conflict of interest, such as airtime for the fathers of local politicians, San Roman says it isn't a problem, since many of the new contracts do not involve a salary. "They're extremely respected professionals in the community, and they're not charging us a penny," he says. "I don't think it's fair for us to censor highly capable, intelligent individuals."

San Roman's Washington overseers have no problem with Miami heavyweights shaping the content of the Marti stations. "Both Mr. Ros and Mr. Diaz-Balart have extensive backgrounds in issues relating to Cuba and were respected authorities long before their children reached Congress," says Voice of America spokesman Joseph O'Connell. He adds that, because Ros, Diaz-Balart, and some other well-known radio personalities are not being paid, they "can't be considered in the employ of the United States government."

Plenty of knowledgeable observers think that's nonsense. "The smell is that these people are being given federal jobs. They're performing a federal function," says the Washington source familiar with OCB operations and allied with the late Jorge Mas Canosa. "My view is that this pattern of hiring is a possibly unlawful activity, with the common denominator being that it seems to benefit San Roman personally. It's an abomination and a violation of the most important principals upon which Radio Marti is based to put Perez Roura on the air."

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