By Michael E. Miller
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By Luther Campbell
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This past September Florida International University's International Media Center issued a rather critical evaluation of the programming at Radio Marti. A panel of five journalists associated with the center listened to about twenty hours of taped programs. Two weeks ago New Times published the FIU summary report; it describes widespread deficiencies in balance, objectivity, and sourcing at the government-funded station, which beams its signal to Cuba.
The report doesn't name many names, either those worthy of praise or those deserving criticism. But it does name specific programs, which makes it relatively simple to determine the commentators who suffered the most severe judgment. Chief among them was former AM talk show host Julio Estorino, with psychologist Roberto Avalos and veteran Marti moderator Maria Marquez coming in for relatively sparse but scathing comments.
Estorino is an important person at Radio Marti and in Miami's exile community, and he hosted two of the monitored broadcasts. He came to Radio Marti along with current director Roberto Rodriguez Tejera late last year. They cohosted a show at WQBA-AM (1140) until resigning in protest of what they termed the "de-Cubanization" of the station, which was formerly known as La Cubanisima. After Rodriguez Tejera took over Radio Marti, Estorino garnered a remarkable amount of airtime considering that he was a contract employee; he hosted, cohosted, and provided commentaries for a shifting lineup of several programs over several months.
At WQBA and other AM stations where he worked before Radio Marti, Estorino pleased his exile audience with humorous and scathing anti-Castro commentaries. Judging by the written evaluations from the panel of journalists, Estorino hasn't translated that experience into professionally produced segments that comply with federal standards of objectivity.
"I must say that I found most of this program quite pointless," noted former New York Times, CBS, and Los Angeles Times reporter Juan Vasquez about Cantando Claro (Frank Talk), an Estorino-hosted talk show that was recently canceled. Mario Diament, another panelist and coordinator of FIU's master's program in Spanish-language journalism, agreed: "The level of discussion was considerably poor. There was not much depth in the analysis, nor any effort to bring opposite views."
Diament also questioned why issues related to the Catholic Church popped up so often on a federally funded station. "I noticed an emphasis on presenting the Catholic Church as the one and only source of truth," he wrote. "Other creeds are not mentioned or given any relevance." A possible explanation: Estorino has been involved in Catholic affairs for decades. He also has a daily program on Radio Paz (WACC-AM 830), which is owned by the Archdiocese of Miami.
Panelists had an even lower opinion of Estorino's three-hour early-morning program Tempranito y de Manana (Early Morning Show). "Unbalanced report about cattle sales.... Unbalanced report on embargo ... poorly sourced...," noted Charles Green, director of FIU's International Media Center. Among the flaws cited by other evaluators: a bellicose tone, biased language, and lack of balance in many of the segments. (Estorino could not be reached for comment despite a faxed letter and several phone calls.)
Roberto Avalos, the popular and personable host of a morning call-in show on WQBA, moderates a program on Radio Marti called El Arte de Vivir (The Art of Living). "B.S." is how Green described it. "Sounds like an infomercial. Did this guy Avalos buy time on Radio Marti to promote his junky ideas? I can't think of any good commercial station that would let this guy on the air for free." Added Bryna Brennan, a former Latin America correspondent for the Associated Press: "It was hard to figure out the purpose of the show, which clearly would put listeners to sleep." But Sergio Bustos, an editor at Latin Trade magazine and a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, thought Avalos provided at least one positive service: announcing locations of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Cuba.
Avalos believes his listeners are the best critics. "I don't really think [the report] means that much," he demurs. "This show has been on the air since Radio Marti started [in 1985], and it's always received high ratings in focus groups. In the beginning, when I was first starting the show, a team of experts said it was doomed to fail, and it's outlasted just about everyone at Radio Marti."
Maria Marquez's program, Encuentros y Comentarios (Encounters and Commentaries), features gossipy phone conversations with women calling from Cuba. Some of the panelists weren't thrilled to hear talk about nail polish, miniskirts, and platform shoes. "Nothing relevant was said during the half-hour of broadcast," Diament commented. Stated Vasquez: "If the government of Fidel Castro were to replay this broadcast on Radio Havana and tell the world that this is what American taxpayers are spending their money on, I suggest there might be some red faces in Washington."
Marquez says she isn't authorized as a government employee to comment on the FIU report, which she says she hasn't seen. But she is proud to "help women who are very depressed to appreciate life, to help give them the desire to live." Also, Marquez cautions, you never know what agendas may be behind the FIU report. "[A panelist] could be a friend of Fidel Castro," she points out.
Herminio San Roman, director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (which operates Radio and TV Marti), says he can't talk publicly about the report until it has been distributed to all relevant congressional offices. Soon, however, there may be some action. San Roman has invited the FIU panelists to work with some employees. "They've asked us to come up with suggestions for improvement," confirms Green. "I suspect [we will provide them] within the next three or four weeks.