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Latin America Report

Mambí Mess: What does the sale of two iconic radio stations tell us about Miami?

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C.M. Guerrero
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El Nuevo Herald
ICONIC STATION BUT UNCERTAIN FUTURE On-air personalities at Miami's Radio Mambi a decade ago.

The conservative Spanish-language stations that a Democrat-led group is buying are revered by many Cubans in Miami. So why aren't Cubans buying them?

This month, a new media company led by Democrats announced it’s buying 18 Spanish-language radio stations across the U.S. for $60 million. Two of them are iconic Miami stations: WQBA and WAQI — known as Radio Mambí.

And many Cuban exiles are angry: They fear the buyers — Latino Media Network — will abandon the stations’ conservative hard line against Cuba’s communist dictatorship. At a press conference in Little Havana last week, exile community leaders like Sylvia Iriondo warned of a backlash if that happens.

“We will resist any attempt to censor the voices of this community represented by these radio stations with all legal and legitimate means,” such as boycotts and protests, Iriondo said, reading a statement from the exile coalition Assembly of the Cuban Resistance.

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Other Cuban American Republicans also called the sale of the stations a left-wing plot to censor conservative voices. In Doral, Miami Congressman Carlos Gimenez made this incendiary charge:

“It is a well thought out plan of how to, in their minds, win the heart and souls of Americans — to basically destroy America.”

Republican Florida Senator Marco Rubio, also a Cuban American, echoed Gimenez. So did Republican Florida Senator Rick Scott:

“This is what socialism does, communism does," Scott said. "They want to silence people.”

READ MORE: A new Latino media group is buying up — and shaking up — Spanish-language radio

Florida GOP communications director Julia Friedland asserted that Latino Media Network’s Democratic founders have “voiced their strong support” for the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. WLRN asked Friedland for proof of that accusation; she could not offer any.

One of Latino Media Network’s founders, Democratic activist Jess Morales Rocketto, does hail from the party’s left wing. One financial backer is liberal philanthropist George Soros. But the investment and adviser group is also bipartisan, including former Florida Republican chairman and Cuban exile Al Cardenas, and the California law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which has represented prominent Republicans such as former President George W. Bush and Senator Scott.

“The mission of this company is helping Latinos make sense of the world and their place in it,” Stephanie Valencia, the other Latino Media Network founder, told WLRN.

Valencia was a Latino outreach aide to former President Barack Obama — and, like just about any Democrat today, she knows her party is losing Latino voters in South Florida. But she said her group has no plans to make WQBA or Radio Mambí liberal stations.

“There are elements of Radio Mambí that are really important to preserve," Valencia said.

"It has obviously been an important part of the Cuban exile community and experience in Miami. But we also believe in balanced journalism.”

Valencia’s last point refers to criticism Radio Mambí and other Spanish-language stations in Miami receive for airing right-wing disinformation — like former President Donald Trump’s lie about fraud in the 2020 election; the falsehood that President Biden and the Democrats are "socialistas" in the mode of Latin America's left-wing authoritarians; or the claim that the Black Lives Matter racial justice movement is a communist scheme.

When these stations were Republican megaphones nobody ever worried about balance or fairness. Now the Democrats are buying them — and Republicans are suddenly worried about it?
Carlos Saladrigas

This week Cuban exile leaders sent the Federal Communications Commission — which must still approve the purchase — a “letter of concern.” It urges an investigation of the sale of the Miami stations from the current owner, TelevisaUnivision, to Latino Media Network, and the impact it could have on the community. But, because of the buyers' First Amendment rights, media experts say the FCC won't block the transfer based on political objections.

That's the very point, in fact, that Republicans made to Democrats last year when the latter objected to the sale of Radio Caracol — one of Miami's only moderate Spanish-language radio stations — to a media group co-led by conservative Cuban exile attorney Marcell Felipe. (That purchase was voluntarily withdrawn earlier this year when, after Democrats filed a complaint about potential legal problems regarding ownership and the FCC requested further information, the owner pulled out due to the delay and opted instead to have Felipe's group run Caracol programming.)

REPUBLICAN MEGAPHONE

As a result, says Cuban exile Carlos Saladrigas, the Republican and conservative exile furor over the WQBA and Radio Mambí sales "is hypocritical."

Saladrigas is a millionaire entrepreneur and former Republican in Miami who chairs the nonprofit Cuba Study Group. It supports engagement with Cuba, so it’s often attacked as “comunista” by stations like Mambí.

“[They've] been using these stations, particularly Mambí, as a megaphone for Republican causes for years," Saladrigas said.

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Latino Media Network
Latino Media Network founders Stephanie Valencia (left) and Jess Morales Rocketto

"Nobody has ever worried about balance or fairness. So now the Democrats found the money to buy them — and now [the Republicans] worry about it? Give me a break.”

But the controversy raises another question: If Spanish-language radio stations like Mambí are so iconic and beloved in Miami’s Cuban community — why did no investors from that community step up to buy the stations themselves?

“Radio Mambí might be iconic, but it doesn’t mean that it’s that important," says Guillermo Grenier, a Cuban American sociologist at Florida International University.

"And I think the fact that nobody [in the Cuban community] ponied up serious cash to make a counter-offer is probably the most empirical measure of that — because there are a lot of rich Cubans out here.”

Grenier directs FIU’s Cuba Poll, a regular survey of Miami’s Cuban-Americans. He said that even though most of the Cuban community shifted rightward on Cuba and U.S. political issues during Trump's presidency, demographic trends still suggest Mambí’s listener base is aging and shrinking. Younger and more recently arrived Cubans tend to be more moderate — and are turning to social media like YouTube for news and information instead of radio.

“So to invest in Radio Mambí’s long-range prospects?" Grenier said. "I think Cuban investors probably looked at it and said, ‘Nah.’ ”

But if so, that means Radio Mambí’s new owners actually have a bigger problem than losing the old Cuban and Latino audience in Miami.

To stay viable, they'll have to find a new Cuban and Latino audience in Miami.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.