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

That there are so many eager volunteers is hardly surprising. They see more than the opportunity to help further the mission of Radio Marti and exile volunteers' own dreams of bringing democracy to Cuba. Every Cuban knows that radio is the best and virtually the only medium by which anyone in the United States can become personally known to the Cuban population, a status coveted by many who for years have been readying themselves to establish business and/or political ties with the island after Castro's demise.

Although the ambitious volunteers are not novel, Radio Marti's sudden enthusiasm for them may constitute a policy change. According to one high government source, many people have always volunteered to appear on Radio Marti for free. Their offers were declined, the source says, to preclude the appearance of favoritism by making special volunteer arrangements for some and not others.

There is one more flaw in Radio Marti coverage, according to many observers: the decrease in oversight.

Before San Roman came to the OCB, ideas for new programs were discussed by an editorial committee and, if they made it past that stage, programs were usually given a trial run or the ideas for them were tested on focus groups. A field research department conducted interviews with recent arrivals and visitors from Cuba. Although programming by committee is cumbersome and inexact, the process was a sincere attempt to test ideas for their suitability to Radio Marti's mission.

Today there is no editorial committee. Pilot programs usually consist of written proposals, and the last focus groups were convened in September of last year. The result is that San Roman and Rodriguez-Tejera are free to program the station at will, although San Roman says that arbitrary authority is not the reason for the revisions. He doesn't have the budget for all that testing, he says, and anyway, they are unnecessary with experienced personnel onboard. "You do a pilot show when you have a person without experience," he argues. "Why do you need to spend time on pilots with a well-known personality? Do you think I need a pilot to bring in Willy Chirino or Gloria Estefan?"

Certainly San Roman and Rodriguez-Tejera are still experimenting; perhaps there's hope that the station will move closer to its stated mission. As for whether government investigations will result in change, many onlookers are not hopeful. "Radio Marti is a mess," says Wayne Smith of Johns Hopkins. "There is an Office of the Inspector General investigation going on now, but no one thinks it will make the slightest bit of difference because whatever they come up with, [VOA director] Duffey is not exactly Mr. Courageous, and the administration won't do anything."

There is one more thing to consider: If the station holds to its present course, how significant will the consequences be?

Many Cubans and Americans have the sense it may not matter as much as those embroiled in the debate believe. "You know, the new generation isn't interested in Radio Marti anyway. They want to wear jeans and new shoes," says long-time Havana journalist Nestor Valles. "They're not political. They don't care who's in the government. They just want to dance in the discos."

Pennsylvania State University professor John Nichols suggests such sentiments are predictable. "It's fairly common in communist regimes in the eleventh hour that a significant percentage of people become depoliticized, like a waterlogged sponge," he says.

But he adds that the Marti stations are losing relevance for other reasons as well: Washington bureaucrats are content for the OCB to go south and handle its own affairs. "It's partly the last gasp of a bipolar foreign policy," he says of this laissez-faire attitude. "As institutional control of the Martis moves to Miami, the USIA and the President's Advisory Board can't rein it in, so the content gets more and more political, more and more shrill, more the voice of the exile community. And, as it happens, heard less by the average Cuban.

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