Renegade Radio

A Miami radio station makes waves — short waves, that is

Fuerza Democrática has kept the program alive, though it has been a half-decade since Fujimori decamped. Gonzalez contends that's because the media still aren't free. "Now they're moved by money," he says. "Whoever pays gets covered."

Gonzalez's story is similar to those of many who have turned to WRMI over the years. In addition to pumping out far-right programs, the station has given voice to those who can't get their message in the media in their own country. Some of the nations targeted by White's station are remote. For the past several years, WRMI has partnered with a German company to help Somalians, Gambians, and Maldivians beam messages home.

But most expatriate clients have been from Latin American and Caribbean countries. Among them: former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who enlisted the Miami station to beam his three-hour daily program back home while was living out his exile in Washington, D.C., during the early Nineties.

Jeff White is making waves from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego
Jacqueline Carini
Jeff White is making waves from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego
WRMI's broadcasts target the Americas, but listeners write in from around the globe
WRMI's broadcasts target the Americas, but listeners write in from around the globe

Such people turn to WRMI because it reaches Latin America and the Caribbean better than other commercial U.S. stations — WWCR in Nashville; WBCQ in Monticello, Maine; and WWBS in Macon, Georgia. Latin America is home to 13 million shortwave listeners, according to BBC research. That's approximately four times the number of North Americans who are tuning in. But it's a marked decline from decades past, when the region was dominated by dictatorships that cracked down on indigenous media.


Of course, there is one Latin American country where the media remain firmly in the government's grip: Cuba. And many of WRMI's shows continue to target the island nation.

A handful of them are recorded on Saturday, along with Gonzalez's show. First comes Conversando Entre Cubanos, produced by the Club of Ex-Political Prisoners. The three dapper hosts huddle around the collapsable table in the recording studio, thumbing through piles of crumpled notes and roaring their anti-Castro tirades.

Among them: Teresa de Cuadra, who reels off a list of grisly suicides that have taken place in Cuba. One man, who threw himself from a sixteenth-story window, left a note that read, "I killed myself because Castro deceived me," she says.

When the Ex Club's half-hour studio stint is done, the Voz del Escambray hosts, who have been lolling around the waiting room and sipping coladas, filter in. Aged veterans of the first armed uprising against Castro, they begin by playing a cassette of their deceased leader, Evelio Duque, a gravelly-voiced man who calls on the Cuban military to turn weapons on Castro and "put things in their proper place."

Such shows are the relics of an era when any Cuban exile organization with a political agenda and a few dollars put a show on the air. Over the past few years, many such shows have disappeared. Even Voz de la Fundación, the Cuban American National Foundation program that long dominated WRMI's airwaves, is gone. It went off the air without notice in 2001.

Perhaps these radio renegades realized their messages were missing the target. At least half of Cuban homes still have at least one shortwave radio set, according to Graham Mytton, former head of audience research for the BCC. But only about three percent of the adult population actually tunes in during any given week.

This is in part because the Internet has helped break Castro's lock on information (although he has recently begun trying to block it). And in many areas of the island, people can pick up stray signals from U.S. television and FM radio stations. This provides a lively alternative to the exiles' dry harangues.

John Nichols, a Penn State professor and Cuban broadcasting expert, likens the situation to that of Fidel Castro's ragtag guerrilla army in 1957. They had scant funds, rickety weapons, and little to eat. But they decided they needed a propaganda operation. So they bought a shortwave transmitter and launched Radio Rebelde. This changed the way the guerrillas operated entirely, because instead of roving through woods, they had to establish a base camp. Then, when the station had been on the air for a few weeks, someone came up with the idea of taking a receiver into the field to check the signal.

It couldn't be heard at all. "That's the way it is with many of these broadcasts," concludes Nichols. "They jimmy the troops and help raise money. That is, they've tended to do far more for the sender than the receiver."


But it's not quite time to sound the death knell for shortwave broadcasts to our southern neighbors. This past October the Czech government enlisted WRMI to air Radio Praga, the Spanish-language version of its international service. A key goal of its programs — some of which are delivered in Czech-accented Spanish — is to send pro-democracy messages to Cuba.

And around the some time, an anti-Castro group called Directorio Democrático Cubano launched a show called Radio República. It airs ten hours a day Monday through Friday. That's two more hours than former heavyweight Voz de la Fundación at its peak.

Radio República is broken up into a number of segments. Among them: Libro Prohibido, which features readings from banned books; Secillamente Mujer, which offers cooking and parenting tips; and Despierta Cuba, a hip morning show that explores all things cultural. One episode featured a tour of the Louvre; another, Miami Book Fair International. And the talk is spiced with rousing music that blends Afro-Cuban riffs with hip-hop, electronica, and R&B.

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