Kreyol-language AM radio is the most important medium of communication within South Florida's Haitian community and its most immediate link with the larger society. Which is a sobering thought, considering what's currently on the air.
A small but influential collection of brokers buy and sell Kreyol-language airtime on a few AM stations, principally WLQY-AM (1320) in North Miami. Anyone with a few hundred dollars can purchase an hour or two and broadcast almost anything. This results in short segments of news, call-ins, evangelical preaching, and Haitian music sandwiched between interminable commercials for used-car dealers, chiropractic offices, and beauty-supply shops. At times virulent political rhetoric voiced by some show hosts and their callers amounts to downright slander. Other on-air personalities are talented radio professionals or knowledgeable community leaders. Then there are the clueless folks who just want to hear themselves on the radio. Apart from the local AM stations, the two-and-a-half-year-old Kreyol- and French-language Radio Collective International is well regarded for the quality of its programming, but it's a so-called subcarrier, broadcasting on an FM frequency that can be picked up only by a specially tuned radio.
Thus the Haitian community already is speculating about the news that a group of Haitian investors is acquiring a Miami station, WRBF-AM (1020). If the sale is finalized, WRBF will be the first Haitian-owned and -operated radio station in the nation, with the exception of two subcarriers (besides Radio Collective, there's Radio Soleil in New York). In any event WRBF will begin broadcasting under Haitian management on January 1, 2001, on a test basis. But the truly radical thing about the 10,000-watt station is that it will not be part of the prevailing brokerage system in Haitian radio. It will be centrally programmed and operated, eliminating individual brokers' fiefdoms. It also will be one of the first radio stations in South Florida to be ready for digital technology.
"We want this to be a competitive, very highly professional station that will bring pride to this community," declares Rudolph Moise, a prominent Miami osteopath, attorney, and community leader, and the driving force behind WRBF. "We don't want people who have no idea about radio to come in and rent time." The 46-year-old Moise, tall and photogenic, has served as an on-call physician on the set of Miami Vice and as a model in Ebony magazine, in addition to numerous traditional medical duties. He runs a medical clinic in North Miami and sits on boards and committees for several business and nonprofit organizations.
"I tell you," Moise repeats, "I want this to be the best. From 7:00 [a.m.] until 7:00 [p.m.] we'll have full programming: news from Haiti; stories in English, Kreyol, French; good music of all types. It's really going to be well done. And at night and sometimes on weekends we'll rent to people from churches, but at least every day, seven to seven, there'll be full programming. And after we finish with this, we're planning to go into other areas -- Orlando, New York, Boston. We'll start with Miami."
Moise is president of Haitian Broadcasting Network, Inc., the four-month-old corporation that in October, after intensive negotiations, began leasing WRBF from its owner, Baja Florida Radio, Inc. The lease includes an option to buy the station within 38 months. Moise didn't want to reveal the lease or purchase price of the station, but Fort Lauderdale attorney Anthony Lepore, who represents Baja Florida, advises that AM stations vary in price according to a host of variables; for example, Lepore notes, two Miami AM stations recently sold for $7.5 million and $14 million respectively.
WRBF's general manager will be broadcaster Alex St. Surin, who owns two radio stations in Haiti and five afternoons per week conducts a program locally on WLQY, Carrfour. The Haitian Broadcasting Network will move into the office and studio currently occupied by WKAT-AM (1260) on Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami. (WKAT is moving to the Coral Gables offices of its corporate owner, Spanish Media Broadcasting, L.L.C.)
Flooding this past October has delayed construction of the WRBF transmission tower just west of Krome Avenue and south of 140th Street, but both buyer and seller estimate the station will be able to begin broadcasting by January. Initial broadcasting will be at a lower power, though, while engineers test the station's signal. The FCC requires this "proof of performance" before regular 24-hour-per-day broadcasting can start. St. Surin didn't want to talk about the station until the transmission delays are resolved.
WRBF is unusual because it's a newly created station. Radio airspace in South Florida is so crowded, attorney Lepore explains, it's impossible to find a vacant broadcast frequency that doesn't impinge on neighboring frequencies in violation of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations. But in this case San Jose, California, engineer Richard Bowers "discovered" the unused 1020-AM spot about five years ago and in 1998 obtained an FCC permit to construct a transmission tower for that frequency. Moise, who like many Miami Haitians had for years been talking up the notion of a 24-hour Kreyol-language radio station, says he heard about WRBF "through friends." He gathered more friends with assets and began the process of convincing Baja Florida that Haitian Broadcasting Network should operate the new station. "Oh my God, we negotiated and negotiated," recalls Moise. "It was several months until we made an offer, and they were talking to other people as well. The competition was intense, but the important thing is we got the radio station."
Now the real competition begins. Miami's Haitian community has not been studied as an advertising market, nor have Haitian broadcasters ever sought large corporate advertising accounts, as WRBF will have to do. "Sales will be easier [than with a brokered format]," asserts producer Adrian St. Surin, Alex's brother. "We've got nobody to compete with; the other stations don't go after national advertisers, but we can." Adrian St. Surin, who co-owns the two Port-au-Prince radio stations with his brother, says he recently moved to Miami from Boston to join the new enterprise.
Alex St. Surin's business acumen and journalistic abilities are widely praised within the Haitian community. "He has the most professional and listened-to program in Haitian radio," observes Yves Renaud, a Miami-Dade school district employee who operates the successful Internet news service Haiti Online.
When he leaves WLQY for the new station, St. Surin also will take away a large audience as well as his hourly airtime fees, totaling at least $1500 per week. Such a move is more meaningful within the Haitian community than a simple job change, given the competition it represents. Nobody knows just how the new station, with its new style of programming, will affect the well-established and influential programmers. "There's going to be a lot of politics," predicts a businessman who doesn't want his name used. "Already there are a lot of rumors. The programmers aren't going to go down. They'll start by badmouthing the other station."
Herntz Phanord, one of the principal programmers on WLQY (and the broker from whom Alex St. Surin buys the time for his show), expresses only approbation for the prospective competition. "As a matter of fact," Phanord offers, referring to the November election of Phillip Brutus as Florida's first Haitian-American state representative, "I think it's become evident that our community, having affirmed itself so vehemently during last elections, is large and viable enough to serve at least two other stations like WLQY, and I'm sure there will be others [besides WRBF]. I guess plurality will benefit our community, because we'll have more sources for information and be able to make more informed choices."
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While the politics and programming sort themselves out, the main concern of the new station owners is how they'll secure enough advertising to pay the rent and turn a profit. Despite the potential attractiveness of a professionally run operation targeted to 450,000 Haitians in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, there's no guarantee the big accounts will fall easily into the hands of WRBF sales reps.
"The businesses in this community are still mom and pop," cautions Marc Villain, president of the Little Haiti-Edison Federal Credit Union. Villain, who plans to host a program on WRBF, believes a professionally run Kreyol-language station is long overdue but that its success is hardly guaranteed. "The corporate advertisers want proof the shows are highly rated, and we can't gauge that," Villain goes on. "The burden would fall on us to prove we're a distinct market, because right now corporate America sees black people as black people."
Yet Villain and others don't discount the value of Moise's prestige and St. Surin's savvy. "Alex, in his one-hour show, has lots and lots of advertisers and not enough airtime," says community activist and teacher Carline Paul, who also conducts a weekly program on WLQY, Education for the New Generation. "He has his own marketing operation and sends out press kits to non-Haitian business people. I think he will reach out to the greater community and non-Haitians. I truly believe we need a station that can be an honest voice of the community."