By Trevor Bach
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It was just a few weeks ago that the Clinton administration nominated a new chairman for the board that oversees Radio Marti. The president also announced increased efforts to make the shortwave U.S. government station more widely heard.
But the news is not all good. New Times has obtained a document that seems to indicate listenership is at or near the lowest point since broadcasts began in 1985.
Interviews in four Cuban cities this past September revealed nine percent of the population tuned in regularly to Radio Marti. U.S. government analysts, comparing that figure with findings from a similar survey conducted in November 1994 that showed sixteen percent listenership, conclude Radio Marti's audience is dwindling.
Possible reasons for the decline include an increase in Cuban government jamming, deteriorating quality of programming, and increased competition from other foreign stations.
Several people familiar with the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) say the number of listeners has dropped by far more than seven percentage points. They argue the survey was taken during the 1994 balsero crisis, when civil unrest was high and citizens were allegedly being punished for speaking with foreigners.
Despite repeated calls over four days to the offices of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), which oversees all of the government's foreign broadcast operations, officials couldn't provide comment or interpretation of the survey results. OCB director Herminio San Roman insists the study is not credible: "The methodology is flawed. Do you think if you stop Cubans on the street and ask them if they listen to Radio Marti they're going to openly say yes when it's against the law?"
Then San Roman retreats slightly: "But even if the numbers were right, nine percent is more than a million Cubans."
Nevertheless the nine percent figure disturbs some observers. "It was a universal belief that Radio Marti had somewhere around 50 percent listenership," says one knowledgeable source who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Of course there was some decline after the initial debut stage. I'm not so certain [the September 1998 survey] represents full listenership, but however you cut it, it does represent what is, in the view of most people, a shockingly low figure."
Despite the apparently declining audience, the U.S. Congress has allocated $12.7 million to operate Radio Marti this year, and $9.4 million for TV Marti, which in the same September study was found to have a miniscule audience nationwide and "no regular viewers" in Havana.
In addition, on January 5 the president promised to seek more funding for Radio and TV Marti. The same day he appointed Cuban-American labor leader Jose "Pepe" Collado to fill the post of chairman of the President's Advisory Board for Cuban Broadcasting (PAB), which monitors the content and technical quality of the Martis' broadcasts. That spot has been empty since exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa died in November 1997.
Most details of the survey are secret. The government won't even name the firm that did the work except to say it is a European media consultancy. Officials confirm the inquiry was conducted in Havana, Santa Clara, Holguin, and Santiago de Cuba as part of a larger, unrelated study. All data pertaining to the Martis were gathered without the Cuban government's knowledge. One reason the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), a division of the USIA, won't reveal more: It wants to keep open the possibility of doing future surveys.
Critics of Radio Marti management blame numerous recent programming and personnel changes for the survey results. Those changes were detailed in a June 4, 1998 New Times feature story, "Radio Free Miami." Clinton appointed San Roman, a Miami lawyer, to lead the station in 1997. Many listeners contend the moves have had a deleterious effect; a study last year by journalists associated with Florida International University found an overall lack of professionalism and objectivity in the Radio Marti news operation.
San Roman has asked the FIU panel members to visit Radio Marti studios and coach employees in "professional development," according to Charles Green, the school's International Media Center director. (Green praises Radio Marti's recent efforts to include more reports from independent journalists inside Cuba.) By mid-February panelists will decide how they want to proceed.
The State Department Office of the Inspector General is also conducting an investigation of the OCB's management and operations. In addition the advisory board wrote a letter to President Clinton this past September calling for San Roman's dismissal. San Roman continued to receive the unqualified support of his boss, USIA director Joseph Duffey. But on January 20, Duffey announced his resignation.
A government memorandum summarizing the survey results ties the lower Radio Marti audience figures to stepped-up jamming by the Castro government, especially in Havana. "People here don't listen as much to Radio Marti now because it's very hard to pick up," agrees dissident Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, a Havana resident. "You can hear it in other provinces, like Las Villas."
But many scholars and observers in Cuba have noted what they think is a longer-term decline in Radio Marti's audience. (No one disputes that TV Marti is successfully jammed by the Castro government and is virtually never seen.) "The young people don't listen to Radio Marti at all, and no one tunes in during the novelas [hugely popular TV soap operas that air weeknights on the two Cuban government-run stations]," says University of New Mexico sociology professor Nelson Valdes, who spends large parts of each year in Havana. "The regulars are mainly women over 50."
The September survey wasn't all bad news. Researchers reported that Radio Marti remained the most popular foreign station in Cuba. The BBC, Radio Exterior de Espana, Radio Canada International, Radio France International, Radio Netherlands, and the Voice of America all had audiences of one or two percent. And 45 percent of those interviewed were aware of Radio Marti, even if they didn't listen.
John Nichols, associate professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University and an expert on international broadcasting, is willing to believe that Radio Marti listenership in Cuba is declining, but he says that's almost irrelevant to the politicians who fund the operations. "Radio Marti was offered up as a mechanism to bring down the Castro government and was a symbolically hostile act," Nichols says. "If somebody did the hard figures they would discover a net loss [in listenership] by replacing the old [Voice of America] with Radio Marti. VOA dedicated programming to Cuba starting in the Sixties and continued until the transmitter in the Keys was turned over to Radio Marti. I can recall sitting on a Cuban bus and everybody was listening to VOA. It wasn't frowned upon. Castro listened. The relevant question is not whether the Martis' audience figures are going up it's, Are they greater than VOA's were? And I think not. That indicates the real reason for broadcasting is less Cuba and more domestic politics. We've spent a huge amount of money for a huge operation with what is probably a smaller audience."