Cuban Radio Is Dying Because of Aging Hardliners and Miami's Changing Market

A square "on air" sign lights up inside the studio of La Poderosa 670 AM, located at SW Third Street and 27th Avenue in the heart of Little Havana. Clad in a tan guayabera and matching slacks, Jorge Rodríguez pushes a button on the phone next to his mike. It's just after 9 a.m., and a woman with a thick Cuban accent is ready to complain about Barack Obama.

"I want to say something about the president of the United States," she cackles in Spanish. "Everyone knows he is not going to do anything for Israel because he is a Muslim. If he gets re-elected, he will certainly open a dialogue with Raúl [Castro]. He hasn't done it yet because the Republicans have held him in check. Down with the president! He's a disgrace!"

A few minutes later, a man calls to ask why Rodríguez and his cohost, an Argentine named Aaron Glantz, didn't challenge her claims.

"Why didn't you tell her: 'No, ma'am, he isn't [a Muslim],' just like John McCain did in 2008?" he asks.

Rodríguez and Glantz glance at each other with incredulous expressions. "Read the president's history sir," Glantz retorts. "¡Sí!" Rodríguez adds matter-of-factly.

So it goes every weekday for an hour and a half as Rodríguez and Glantz open the lines to their right-wing, mostly elderly, overwhelmingly Cuban listeners, who vent about the Castro brothers' latest conspiracies, Obama's socialist agenda, and current political scandals engulfing Miami-Dade.

It's a uniquely Miami slice of conservative chest-beating, and — for better or worse — it's fading along with the older generation of Cubans who tune in.

La Poderosa, in fact, is the last independently owned Cuban talk-radio station in town, and a recent round of corporate rebranding raises questions whether the format can survive. Both of its longtime competitors — Radio Mambí (WAQI, 710 AM) and WQBA (1140 AM) — are owned by media giant Univision, which gutted WQBA in June and has recently imported more moderate, pan-Hispanic voices to Mambí. Smaller stations catering to the exile community have gone silent altogether, like Little Haiti's tiny WNMA (1210 AM), which was recently bought by ESPN Deportes.

There's no mystery why. In recent years, straight news stations such as Colombian-owned Radio Caracol and Venezuelan-tied Actualidad Miami have gained thousands of listeners at the expense of the old Cuban stations, which have lost a full percentage share of the market since 2006. That shift has followed the changing demographic in Miami, where non-Cubans — who were just 40 percent of the Hispanic population in 1997 — today represent close to half.

"It's unbelievable and incomprehensible," Rodríguez says of Univision's recent changes at WQBA. "They are not putting any consideration into what has been created here in Miami. Why change it?"

Some observers say a move toward more moderate Spanish-language radio would be healthy for a town too long obsessed with the lives of two strong-arm brothers on an island a few hundred miles away.

"On Cuban-American radio, you hear things that happened 50 years ago as if it was happening right now," says John De Leon, an ACLU attorney and Miami native. "It's highly nostalgic, but it is not conducive for change and progress in the community."

But anyone who appreciates Miami's unique history should feel a sting of regret if the kind of radio broadcast every day at La Poderosa fades to static; this is a format, after all, that El Exilio has used for 53 years to undermine Castro's revolution and amass political power in South Florida.

These frequencies have hailed alleged terrorists such as Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles as freedom fighters and condoned bombing cars and offices to defy El Exilio's enemies. They've fomented mob rule against those acquiescing to Fidel Castro, especially during the battle to keep Elián González in Miami. And thanks to pressure from the stations, Miami-Dade politicians have been forced to pander to listeners by banning Cuban musicians and ordering boycotts of Cuban-friendly businesses.

Those days might just be gone for good. "It is not like it used to be in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, when it was overwhelmingly Cuban-American," former Miami Mayor Joe Carollo says of the stations' influence. "It doesn't have the same impact anymore."

Emilio Milian stepped out of the WQBA studio and into the parking lot around sunset on April 30, 1976. The then-45-year-old host had just wrapped another show slamming his fellow exiles for condoning terrorism against moderate Cuban-Americans. Milian knew he was a marked man for his views.

He scanned the lot for suspicious characters and warily watched a woman walking his way. She'd found a lost little boy nearby. Milian told her to go into the station to call the police, and then he opened the door to his white Chevy station wagon and got behind the wheel.

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.