Sale of Radio Mambí revives history of Cuban radio in Miami

Before the powerful voice of Armando Pérez Roura popularized the greeting “Aquí, Radio Mambí, la grande” (Here is Radio Mambí, the great one) and dominated the radio scene for Cubans in Miami, the exile community spent decades seeking prominence on air in their adopted city.

Without capital funds, but with experience from working in front of and behind the microphone and cameras in the country that was a pioneer of radio and television in Latin America, the exiles’ first move was to buy space on the English-language stations in Miami in the 1960s. Then came businessman Herb Levin, who decided to launch a station entirely in Spanish, WQBA, La Cubanísima.

The on-air voices from those early days included Norman Díaz, a political commentator who always had Cuba on his lips; Juan Amador Rodríguez, who gained followers from his program in Cuba, “El Periódico del Aire”; and other popular personalities such as actor Otto Sirgo.

“I was fascinated by the radio that the Cubans made. It was a Cuban radio, not a Hispanic one, and the main topic was the dictatorship in Cuba,” recalls journalist and radio host Ricardo Brown, who was 10 years old when he arrived from Cuba.

Concerns recently emerged about the future of Cuban radio and that two conservative Miami stations, Radio Mambí and WQBA, may be silenced when they pass from TelevisaUnivisión to Latino Media Network, which is led and financed by liberal-leaning businesspeople.

A radio that became the voice of Miami

Brown remembers announcers and journalists such as Agustín Tamargo, Pérez Roura, Jaime de Aldeaseca, Manolo Penabás and lawyer Luis Fernández Caubí, who could comment on the political events of the moment while addressing issues of history and culture in depth.

“They had a smooth talk, and they were very likable. On the radio they sometimes sounded a little angry, but when you met them in person, they were very nice,” says Brown.

“Miami radio is a sequel to where all those people came from, from Cuba before 1959,” says actor and broadcaster Omar Moynelo, noting they brought experience from Cuba and reinvented themselves in Miami.

They talked about the Machadato, the regime of Gerardo Machado in Cuba, the same way they told anecdotes about politicians and leaders of the revolution, whom they had sometimes met in person, says Moynelo, who hosts “Late, Late Night de Mambí,” a comedy show from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

For the film critic Alejandro Ríos, “the duo” of the late hosts Pérez Roura and Tamargo on Radio Mambí, whose hallmark was the phrase “Cuba first, Cuba afterwards and Cuba always,” was very interesting.

“Tamargo had a vast culture, he was a humanist, and Pérez Roura had a political, pragmatic and community culture,” Ríos said.

Pérez Roura was loyal to his team at the station, another media veteran, Roberto Rodríguez Tejera, recalled on his Actualidad Radio 1040 AM program, which he hosts with Brown in the mornings.

“Pérez Roura kept García Sifredo on the air until the end, after he had a stroke and you could hardly understand what he was saying,” Tejera said on his show, referring to journalist Armando García Sifredo, who before his work as a host at Mambí, founded the Patria newspaper and was one of the creators of the National College of Journalists of the Republic of Cuba in Exile.

Politics on Radio Mambí

José Luis García Pérez Antúnez, who was imprisoned in Cuba for 17 years for participating in a protest, points out that the merit of Radio Mambí and other Cuban stations is that they can “tell things like they are,” such as refer to the Cuban government as a “dictatorship.”

“We cannot do that elsewhere. These stations are the voice of the political prisoners, of the relatives of the political prisoners, spaces that cover the actions of the opposition, marches, rallies, activities like these, and above all, stations where we can call Fidel, Raúl, Ortega and Maduro ‘dictators,’ ” Antúnez said at a press conference for the Assembly of the Cuban Resistance, a coalition of organizations that on June 8 expressed concern that the change in ownership could result in censorship of anti-communist views.

Political issues, most of the time vehemently expressed by program hosts and the public, have been a mainstay of these stations, which have audiences that include victims of totalitarian regimes, according to exile leaders and politicians at the press conference Wednesday at the 2506 Brigade Museum.

“One of the reasons why we returned to Cuba was to fight for freedom of expression, and for us it is very important that in this great country respect for freedom that has cost so much effort is maintained,” said Humberto Díaz Argüelles, who, as a young man, landed in Cuba as part of Brigade 2506.

Alejandro Ríos points out that the Miami stations, especially Radio Mambí, which can be heard in Cuba, allowed Cubans on the island to find out what was happening outside the country, in times when social networks did not exist. With these stations, and especially after the Mariel exodus, “the wall of water” that prevented contact between the exiles and the island gradually broke down.

With open microphone programs, which allow the public to give their opinion, the listeners of these stations could talk about what upset them about the situation in Cuba.

Moynelo, who hosted the humorous program “La Timba de la Mañana” on Clásica 92, owned by SBS, says that listeners sometimes insulted “Fidel,” who was one of the characters whose voice was imitated by the late comedian Eddy Calderón, his partner on the program.

Community service on Miami radio

Although Spanish-language radio in Miami is much more than Radio Mambí, its listeners worry that it will disappear and recalled the community service it provided.

Martha Flores and Marta Casañas, radio hosts who are now deceased, are among those most remembered by the artists and promoters of culture and art in the city to whom they offered time on their programs.

“Mambí and its journalists always seemed very consistent to me,” says Ríos. “In community terms it is admirable. Martha Flores tried to solve many problems.”

“The Queen of the Night,” as Flores was called, would also mobilize her listeners to help find a lost dog and inform older adults where to collect their pension.

“Radio Mambí is the house of artists. When we knocked on the doors they opened them wide for us, without question,” acknowledges artist Tania Martí, director of the nonprofit cultural organization Martí Productions.

Martí said the station’s cultural and musical programs contributed to her education since she left Cuba for Spain at a very young age. The programs helped her get to know composers such as René Touzet, Juan Bruno Tarraza and Mario Fernández Porta.

Will Cuban radio come to an end?

Although there is uncertainty among the public and the hosts of these stations about the future, Moynelo points out that this is a city very suitable for the radio, because it depends on the car, where listeners tune in to be entertained and informed on the road.

Cuban radio faces a big challenge. Many of its original listeners are disappearing, and sometimes the younger generations seek information and entertainment elsewhere.

Ríos points out that radio is a 20th-century medium that is struggling to survive, but at least in Miami, with the constant arrival of Cuban immigrants — U.S. officials expect 150,000 Cubans to arrive this year, The New York Times reported — the stations are likely to still have an audience although it has decreased.

As René Anselmo, one of the founders of Univision, told Ricardo Brown when the network was beginning, there are many things that Hispanic immigrants share and many that separate them.

“But if there is something that unites them, besides language, it is the desire to succeed in this country,” says Brown.

The media that understand this motivation will have a clear path in this “audiovisual Babylon,” as Moynelo calls the land of many accents that is Miami.

Sarah Moreno cubre temas de negocios, entretenimiento y tendencias en el sur de la Florida. Se graduó de la Universidad de La Habana y de Florida International University.

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