Broadcast Blunder

When the feds snatched Elian, Radio Martí should have been first with the news to Cuba. Instead its director quit in protest and chaos reigned.

But not until 1997 did a distinct deterioration in programming and news coverage begin to take place. That year the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), which operates Radio and TV Martí, moved from Washington to Miami, and a new director took over. Most critics place a large part of the blame for the Martís' declining professionalism on the new OCB director, Miami lawyer Herminio San Roman, as well as the Miami climate -- by which they don't mean the afternoon cloudbursts.

The atmosphere in Miami is not ideal for cultivating diverse thinking about Cuban issues, though some insist it's not the physical location but the management that shapes the stations' culture. Many of the Martís' on-air personalities, including Radio Martí director Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera, came directly from local exile radio stations, and several program hosts are long-time vocal proponents of hard-line anti-Castro views. The exile stations are by definition unbalanced and subjective; the whole point is to bring down Fidel, or at least to talk a whole lot about it. Speaking on behalf of the U.S. government's foreign policy, though, is different from discussing policy on a talk show slanted to exile listeners.

A few Radio Martí news employees remain from the old Washington days, when the station could boast a large audience in Cuba and a reputation for accuracy and thoroughness. But unmistakable now in Radio Martí's programming are a narrowness of perspective and a shallowness of information, similar to that of Miami's Cuban-exile AM stations that have long been heard on the island. One U.S. journalist who has evaluated Radio Martí's programming scoffs, “Compared to Radio Martí, Radio Mambí [WAQI-AM 710] is National Public Radio.”

The seizure of Elian prompted Radio MartĂ­ director Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera to place his convictions before his employer
Steve Satterwhite
The seizure of Elian prompted Radio MartĂ­ director Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera to place his convictions before his employer
The seizure of Elian prompted Radio MartĂ­ director Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera to place his convictions before his employer
Steve Satterwhite
The seizure of Elian prompted Radio MartĂ­ director Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera to place his convictions before his employer

Among the recommendations contained in a 1999 report by the U.S. State Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is that Radio Martí programming be more closely monitored than it had been until then. The OIG report analyzed the station's programming and management and concluded that professionalism and competence were scarce commodities. Thus the International Broadcasting Bureau kept an ear to Radio Martí's handling of the highly sensitive Elian saga.

Early coverage generally was well-balanced, according to a four-page report authored by an IBB program analyst, Ivette V. Martinez, and later leaked to the Internet Spanish-language newspaper La Nueva Cuba, whose contributors have close ties to disgruntled Radio Martí employees. As the story wore on and Elian achieved icon status, however, Radio Martí's news segments increasingly followed the lead of most Miami media: openly sympathetic to the Miami relatives and oblivious to the few who attempted to speak in favor of returning the boy to Cuba. “Whatever coverage there was,” wrote Martinez, “tended to be slanted toward the “exile' point of view.... One frequent topic was “what Elian should expect if he is returned to Cuba.'”

Speculation on this subject was rampant throughout Miami at the time, with most Cuban Americans predicting Elian's strict communist indoctrination, segregation from his peers and parents, or even his death. The IBB report singled out Radio Martí director Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera's noon talk show, Haciendo Caminos, as the most frequent forum for these negative views; however, the report also cited one well-balanced Haciendo Caminos show in which several opposing opinions about Elian's fate were expressed. “There was a very lively discussion,” Martinez noted, “in which it became evident that this is a very complex issue with no clear-cut solution.”

Rodriguez-Tejera became Radio Martí's director in November 1997, having joined the staff immediately after quitting his job at WQBA-AM (1140), formerly known as La Cubanísima. He announced his departure -- along with another WQBA personality, Julio Estorino -- by declaring that the station had become too “de-Cubanized” under new management. Within two weeks both men had taken important positions at Radio Martí. (Estorino, whose professionalism was lambasted in an independent 1998 study conducted by Florida International University, hosts a three-hour weekday talk show.)

On the morning federal agents forcibly removed Elian from his great-uncle's house, the 48-year-old Rodriguez-Tejera was thrust into what proved to be a most uncomfortable role. Charged with managing coverage of a huge breaking story in his own back yard, the station director disappeared. According to a widely circulated version of events, when informed of the raid, Rodriguez-Tejera resigned from his job on the spot rather than participate in chronicling an act (by his employer) he found reprehensible. The Radio Martí newsroom personnel on duty when the raid took place apparently did not feel they could broadcast the breaking news (thus interrupting the regularly scheduled programming) without authorization from their boss.

“At the same time they were trying to locate Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera ... he was notifying [OCB director] Herminio San Roman ... that at that moment he was resigning his position as head of the station,” alleged a May 5 La Nueva Cuba article.

A source with close ties to OCB employees (two on duty during the raid did not return phone calls) asserts that Rodriguez-Tejera -- like most of the leading Cubans in town -- showed up at the Little Havana house after Elian had been seized. There Rodriguez-Tejera encountered the Radio Martí reporters. “They asked him: “How are we going to cover this?'” the source says. “He said, “Don't ask me. I'm not the director. I've resigned.'”

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