On the air, but under fire
By DAVID ADAMS
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001
MIAMI -- Falling ratings, disgruntled staff, alleged death threats and mounting lawsuits.
That ought to be enough to cause concern at any television or radio station.
Not so apparently at the federally run Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
The Miami-based office operates Radio and TV Marti, the stations that broadcast to Cuba, and it is going through tough times.
Besides its audience loss, the office is under attack from former and current employees who allege a campaign of intimidation and discrimination by top officials. Disaffected staff members accuse its director, Herminio San Roman, of systematically violating broadcasting regulations to achieve personal political ends.
At least half a dozen complaints have been filed against the office -- the first of which was upheld last month -- alleging a pattern of abuses, ranging from unfair dismissal and demotion to blackmail and death threats.
"It's incredible what's going on there," said Oscar Barcelo, former director of programming at Radio Marti. "Somehow it's been pushed under the carpet like a piece of dirt."
Washington has ignored repeated warnings of mismanagement at the Martis, Barcelo and others say, for fear of antagonizing a small coterie of influential Cuban-Americans in Miami. The failure to act, they add, is merely a symptom of official U.S. policy toward Cuba that falls over backward to avoid any undue run-ins with Miami Cubans.
"No one wants to touch it because the political cost is very high," said Damian Fernandez, a Cuba expert at Florida International University. "There's an attitude of fatalism that reflects a lack of any coordinated policy toward Cuba."
The Broadcasting Board of Governors, comprised of nine presidential appointees that oversee government-run, non-military broadcasting operations, hasn't dealt with the turmoil at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. Board president David Nathanson declined to be interviewed.
San Roman defends his management. Like any big government office, it has its share of personnel problems. "Some people may not like me, but I'm here to do a job, not to be liked," he said.
Others defend his four years at the station, saying he has opened the microphones to a broader range of Cuban-American voices.
Despite being a useful tool of U.S. foreign policy, the office has always dealt with a $22-million budget that is a hot potato. Because of the political heat -- from left and right -- finding someone able and willing to fill the $130,000 post of director hasn't always been easy. San Roman said he has been the subject of anonymous death threats.
Since its inception in 1985, its flagship, Radio Marti, has been attacked as an illegal invasion of Cuban radio frequencies. When TV Marti was added, controversy swirled around allegations of influence by Jorge Mas Canosa, leader of Miami's powerful Cuban American National Foundation.
Mas Canosa played a key role in moving TV and Radio Marti from Washington to Miami in 1996. At the time, opponents of the move warned that being in Miami would undermine the stations' objectivity by making them more vulnerable to exile politics.
But Radio Marti won a strong following in Cuba. TV Marti has always been less effective because of Cuban government jamming.
The staff also was careful to follow congressionally mandated programming and content guidelines to ensure objective and balanced broadcast standards.
That all went out the window when San Roman was appointed in 1997, staff members say.
Active in the Florida Democratic Party, San Roman had no broadcasting background. But Clinton administration officials privately believed the 39-year-old zoning lawyer was someone they could trust. At the time, relations with the Cuban government were tense. Some in the Clinton administration wanted the Martis toned down.
But, it seems, San Roman had other ideas.
He shocked the staff with his abrasive management. Barcelo remembers an early meeting.
"San Roman said, "I'm going to rule this place like a dictator,' " he recalled -- a comment San Roman denies making.
Barcelo is one of the people suing the agency. Despite an unblemished 13-year record of service, Barcelo says, he was forced to quit after raising objections to San Roman's programming and contracting decisions.
"He quickly became hostile and unreasonable toward my cautionary advice and my refusal to comply with his orders, which clearly violated federal regulations," Barcelo wrote in a letter to the board last month in which he said he would sue.
Barcelo and others point to dramatic programming changes. The father of one of Miami's Cuban-American members of Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, was given a program. The father of another Miami Republican congressman, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, also became a frequent commentator.
While experienced professionals at Radio Marti were forced out of their jobs, content was instead outsourced to radio hosts at some of Miami's most virulently anti-Castro radio stations.
The research department was closed.
Meanwhile, ratings in Cuba were dropping. Audience figures are hard to measure in Cuba, but one recent U.S. government survey found that the regular audience for Radio Marti had dropped from 16 percent in 1994 to only 9 percent.
San Roman acknowledged that ratings are down, although he estimated the audience at 20 percent.
"Cuba is a closed society. If you ask anyone do they listen to Radio Marti, a lot of people are too afraid to say the truth," he said.
He blamed criticism of his management on staff unhappiness about moving to Miami. A tight budget also meant cutting 40 jobs.
Programming decisions also were part of an attempt to liven up the station by moving away from pre-recorded material to live shows.
"I wanted a change in direction," he said. "Times had changed."
But staff complaints are backed up by a June 1999 federal audit of the Martis, which pointed to the breakdown of internal controls, daily editorial conferences, program review committees and focus groups.
"Some programs were aired without supervisory review or preparation," the report found. "As a result, many employees with journalistic experience no longer had input into program decisions."
The report also cited a 1998 study by a panel of five independent journalists and academics who reviewed 20 hours of taped programs.
The study questioned the balance and objectivity of much of what it heard. Some of the most scathing criticism was of San Roman's newest hires.
"We corrected that," San Roman said. "Yes, we made mistakes, but we overcame them. No one is perfect."
A team from Florida International University's journalism department was contracted for several months to train the staff.
"We felt that was pretty successful," said Charles Green, director of FIU's International Media Center.
But Green said Radio Marti had "a long way to go" to meet its goal of being a model for Cuban media in a post-Castro Cuba.
"They were making a lot of mistakes in the way they were handling their programming and the sort of moderators and guests they were having," he said.
While critics say that remains a problem, some recognize that under San Roman there has been a marked improvement in some areas, especially cultural programming.
"I see a lot more diversity," said Alejandro Rios, a respected Cuban-American cultural analyst and head of media relations at Miami-Dade Community College. Rios is a regular panelist on Points of View, a Radio Marti discussion program. "They have put all kinds of people on the air, no matter what their opinion."
But Barcelo and others say the problems at Radio Marti run deeper than programming.
Barcelo alleges that he was mocked and threatened by San Roman and other senior Radio and TV Marti officials because he is gay. One San Roman assistant told Barcelo he "could not be trusted by the coded standards of the "Old Cuban Boys Network.' "
He also alleged that San Roman threatened to expose him as gay on the Miami airwaves if he did not leave the station. Barcelo said he took the threat seriously.
"Mr. San Roman is quite fond of using Miami's airwaves as a means of conducting personal attacks against disfavored employees," he said.
He also worried about exposure, having hidden his sexual orientation from family and friends. "I was terrified that my good name and reputation would suffer unjustified public ridicule by Mr. San Roman."
Barcelo agreed to leave Miami quietly, accepting a job with Voice of America in Washington.
But after his parents died in a car crash, Barcelo decided to break his silence.
"I no longer fear Mr. San Roman's blackmail," he said.
San Roman declined to discuss Barcelo's allegations.
In a separate case, a judge ruled last month that San Roman's office discriminated against employee Angelica Mora-Beals on the grounds that she was not Cuban.
Mora-Beals, 56, who was born in Chile, worked at Radio Marti for 10 years. She was responsible for handling news from Cuba about the internal dissident movement.
At an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hearing, Radio Marti staff members testified that San Roman did not believe such an important post should be held by a non-Cuban. Soon after his arrival, the two shows Mora-Beals produced were canceled by Radio Marti's director, Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera.
When dissidents and journalists in Cuba complained, San Roman and Rodriguez-Tejera allegedly mounted a smear campaign on Miami radio branding her as a Castro agent.
After being put on the night shift, Mora-Beals quit in May 1998.
In her Feb. 5 ruling, the judge found in Mora-Beals' favor on every count.
"Complainant was considered an excellent journalist and had outstanding evaluations, and her two shows had good ratings in focus groups evaluations," she wrote.
The judge also reprimanded the Office of Cuba Broadcasting for providing "untrue" evidence.
Another hearing is upcoming to decide damages to compensate for psychological suffering and harm to Mora-Beals' reputation. The outcome could cost as much as $300,000.
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