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TV/Radio Marti Boost Their Volume to Cuba, Expanding Their Services

Jan 4, 2007

MIAMI, Fla. -- TV and Radio Marti may have finally come of age. They are now beamed into Cuba by Miami's runaway powerhouse Spanish language station, and on DirecTV to circumvent the Castro government's broadcast jamming. With Fidel Castro's decline from power, could expansion of the Martis throughout Latin America be on the horizon?

You've got to be kidding, you say? Not so fast.

It was an ignominious debut for the U.S. government's broadcast services to Cuba in the mid- and late 1980s, when program offerings were often laughable and embarrassing, especially on the TV side. Through the intervening years I have attempted, as objectively as possible, to chronicle the Martis' efforts in several articles and a book.

Programs on TV Marti in its formative stage included re-runs of old sitcoms such as Spanish-language versions of the "Gong Show" and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." The broadcasts were beamed only from a helium balloon nicknamed "Fat Albert," that would deflate into Everglade mangrove swamps. Radio Marti has been frequently tagged by critics as being in the pocket of Miami's Cuban exiles.

But a fair observation in 2007 is that the new Martis have emerged from their elongated, painful learning curve of some 20-years, and are now producing news and information programs in expanded formats that rate placement on commercial broadcast facilities, and big ones, that want programs that attract audiences.

Two local Miami stations have begun to transmit news programs from the U.S. government-sponsored Radio and TV Marti services to Fidel Castro's Cuba, just 90-miles off the southern tip of Florida.

An hour of Radio Marti's news programs are carried each night, midnight to 1:00AM, by Miami's most popular Spanish language station, Radio Mambi (WAQI-710AM), which blankets the island of Cuba with its 50,000 watt signal, although it's jammed in Havana. A low-power Miami TV channel, WPMF-TV, Channel 38, carries TV Marti's half-hour early and late evening newscasts, but the channel is also carried on DirecTV, which is pirated by many Cuban civilians. The Marti news programs fit comfortably into the formats of the commercial stations, with the attractive young anchors who were born long after Castro came to power.

The Martis pay fees through the U.S. government's Office of Cuba Broadcasting to have their programs carried. In six-month contracts, Radio Mambi receives $182,500, and WPMF-TV $195,000. The two distributor stations can receive additional revenue through the sale of commercial spots.

Some observers suggest that the arrangement with the Miami stations may violate the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act that prohibits U.S. government-funded broadcasts meant for overseas audiences to be carried domestically. Representative William Delahunt, D-Mass., the incoming chairman of a sub-committee of the House International Relations Committee, is to launch an investigation of the Martis and hold hearings soon.

But the domestic availability of the Martis in Miami is incidental to the Marti mission of bringing all the news to Cuba. Now for the first time the Martis have private sector help to cut through Castro's jamming to increase audience, and play a greater role when Cuba must adjust to life after Castro.

Smith-Mundt was also enacted after due pressure from US commercial stations in 1948, who convinced Washington lawmakers that the tax supported Voice of America should not compete with domestic private stations, which no longer seems to be the case.

Additionally, a 2005 modification of this act permits the leasing of commercial broadcast facilities when a sufficient level of signal jamming occurs to prevent stations from reaching their intended audiences, and Castro's government jams incoming signals full time.

U.S. government broadcast spokesperson Larry Hart tells Worldcasting that "Castro has gone to extraordinary lengths to jam broadcasts some writers have said are useless.

"Engineers estimate the electricity poor country utilizes 8.5 million watts (8.5 Mw) an hour to jam both radio and TV, enough to power a small industrialized city. Also, the charge in some stories that the contract with Radio Mambi is some kind of political payoff is ridiculous. This is the only Spanish language AM that has a 50,000 watt nighttime signal."

The next logical step for Radio and TV Marti, after Castro, would be to expand their program services throughout Latin America, a vast region long-neglected by U.S. international broadcasting. Everything is in place: a broadcast headquarters in Miami, the recognized U.S. gateway to Latin America, from state-of-the-art broadcast facilities, a production and news staff trained by world-class consultants, and a sound footing in signal distribution from private sector broadcasters.

The first order of business would be to take on Venezuela's dictator Hugo Chavez, who started a TV satellite channel of his own called Telesur, that can be seen throughout Latin America, and plans to shutter a competing opposition station.

Discussions regarding such innovative tasks for the Martis along with a serious rewrite of the Smith-Mundt Act would make for productive sessions at the upcoming congressional hearings.

Comments

Apparently this incompetent writer fell asleep during the election in Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez won 67% of the vote.

Purchasing time on WPMF-TV to get access to DirecTV is an interesting tactic and it might work. But satellite transmission will not circumvent jamming. Satellites can be jammed: a few watts on the uplink frequency will obliterate reception in the entire DirecTV footprint, not just Cuba. A few years ago, Iran used a transmitter in Cuba to jam a satellite over the Atlantic that transmits U.S. Farsi-language broadcasts. Furthermore, satellite reception requires satellite dishes, which tend to be visible on rooftops, facilitating their confiscation.

The purchase of airtime on WAQI, 710 kHz AM, is problematic. Cuba's Radio Rebelde is on the same frequency with transmitters at four locations, ranging from 10 to 150 kilowatts. Nighttime AM reception can behave in strange ways, but hearing WAQI in Cuba might be a stretch.

Buying airtime on the two stations might technically sidestep the Smith-Mundt prohibition on domestic dissemination, except that "the two distributor stations can receive additional revenue through the sale of commercial spots." Are those commercial spots aimed at Cubans? Not likely, given the purchasing power of most Cubans. The ads target South Floridians, thus bolstering arguments that this *is* domestic dissemination.

If the elements of U.S. international broadcasting provide a straight, legitimate news and information service, then the issue of "propagandizing" Americans is moot. We do not need regulations to prevent reception of U.S. international broadcasting in the United States. We do need controls to prevent funds for international broadcasting from slipping subtly into domestic political communications efforts.

Watching TV Martí recently, just after the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert, I saw this short production: A statue of Lenin was toppled as communist regimes fell in Eastern Europe. Then Saddam Hussein's statue was pulled down somwhere in Iraq in 2003. Finally, Fidel Castro was shown tripping and falling at a graduation ceremony in 2004. The point, I assume, is that all dictators eventually "fall."

Would viewers in Cuba be impressed by this propaganda making fun of an old man's mishap? Would the Martís' new audience in South Florida more likely be amused?

(Views expressed are my own.)

I question the intent of buying time on satellite tv and south Florida radio stations. Is the audience truly Cuban, or Cuban-Americans? With the reported steady stream of Florida politicians who have been given open microphones on the Martis, are fairness issues raised when election cycles roll around?

Surrogate radio broadcasts have always worked most effectively when they are a part of a larger public diplomacy effort that includes educational and cultural exchanges and sound foreign policy objectives. I don't know of any instance when broadcasting alone (or coupled with economic embargos) has been effective.

I can't understand why an experienced broadcaster and PD practitioner like Al Snyder wants to continue throwing millions of taxpayer dollars down the Radio/TV Marti rathole, which makes no sense. Let the Miami Cubans finance Radio & TV Marti since they're the only people who watch and/or listen to those broadcasts.

A complete waste of taxpayers money to buy off radical Batista Cubans in Florida. The glorious days of Mafia run Cuba will never return, despite Marti propaganda and aging right wing zealots.

Al should stop the 1980's rhetoric and focus on how we can prevent the Cuban problem becoming the next Iraq in our own back yard. Someone has to tell the extremists in Florida that when Fidel dies and they eventually hold true elections in Cuba, then they will be Insurgents fighting a democratically elected government. This one is going to be interesting, especially now South and Central America will support Cuba against the Batista Insurgents and the growing majority of Hispanic immigrant voters in the US have no time for the Cubans. Or do we have one rule for the Arabs and one for the Cubans?

Consider a couple of million poor, unskilled Cubans fleeing to join their Batista brothers by way of Mexico and over the "Virtual" border. They heard about the Promised land on Marti!

I just wanted to ask Bolivariano if he really thought that Saddam was “elected” President of Iraq. In authoritarian states like that can you really trust the outcomes from their “elected” leaders?

Please, Bolivariano - Go back to wherever you came from with your head bowed down in shame, if you like your 21st Century socialism so much, why not move to Venezuela... If Satan himself offered a peasant a meal voucher to vote for him, Satan would have earned a vote - same for your Majesty Hugo Chavez...

Just like a pig with lipstick - may look pretty but is still filthy!

God bless CIA,American presidents,ana all americans,who support Cuban anticomunists. Whenever ,Cuba will be next american victory. USA won over Soviet Union,dont forget fellows,but it will take a time.

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