The U.S.-government sponsored broadcasting program to Cuba—originally created in 1983 with Radio Martí—was based on the longstanding and successful programs of Radio Free Europe that broadcast non-censored news to Communist Eastern Europe. But since the creation of Radio Free Europe and even Radio Martí, a lot has changed.
It’s time to vest a program that costs the U.S. taxpayer $26 million (in 2014 alone) in the far more effective and modern efforts of communication led by the U.S. private sector.
This year, in response to relentless criticism over the effectiveness of the Cuba broadcasting endeavor, the Obama Administration tucked into its Congressional budget request a plan to convert Radio Martí and its TV counterpart Televisión Martí into non-profit organizations that would receive block grants from the U.S. government. The problem is that the current plans to spin it off would maintain the ineffective structure and programming of the existing entity while also loosening the U.S. government’s control over programming.
The entire structure, programming, and concept of news transmission underpinning Radio and TV Martí needs a complete overhaul.
Just to give you an idea: when Radio and TV Martí first started broadcasting in 1985 and 1990, there was no Internet, no satellite radio, no DirectTV, no flashdrives (that now serve as a major vehicle for sharing U.S. media content, the so-called “paquete”), and Miami Vice (the TV show featuring Don Johnson) was popular and seen as cutting edge. (I don’t know if any of you have seen re-runs of Miami Vice recently, but they’re worth watching if only for the retro-humor factor.)
Sure, Radio Martí has moved on—though TV Martí is still blocked by the Cuban government—to incorporate more modern technologies, but many of those who support it or work with it haven’t.
Just to give you an idea, Radio Martí broadcasts through short wave radio. Even if you ignore the scandal involving a USAID-grantee shipping overpriced shortwave radios—procured from family members—you’re still left with the question: short wave radios? Really? Who uses those any more? Why stop there? Let’s send in telegraphs and Morse Code books too.
The fact is that other media are overwhelming the capacity of Radio and TV Marti to provide much-needed sources of independent information to the island. For one, the painfully earnest broadcasts from both of these media sources attract very, very small audiences. According to a 2010 report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee only 2 percent of the Cuban population listens to Radio Martí—though I suspect that dated survey is generous now. And compared to the audience of TV Martí, which estimates have placed at one third of 1 percent of the Cuban population, Radio Martí is a mass phenomenon.
Admittedly, part of the reason is that they are being blocked at great expense to the Cuban government. But part of it is also because the sorts of programming, such as Hacia La Democracia (Towards Democracy), are simply not in step with what much of the world looks to for entertainment or information. Moreover, as a Government Accounting Office (GAO) report revealed, Radio and TV Martí often lapse into editorializing, slander and vitriol.
To be fair, both Radio and TV Martí have evolved in terms of their professionalism and objectivity, though it took a few years after the lamentable decision to move the operation from Washington, DC to Miami in 1996. But it’s still a damaged brand, especially among Cubans on the island. If the Obama administration just turns the radio and television programs over to a private non-profit run by the same cast of characters, it is highly likely that the same unprofessional programming will continue or even increase.
Then there’s also the problem of the medium. In the best of instances the non-propagandized information provided by Radio Martí has been a welcome break from the ridiculously ramped-up paeans to socialism and the information and entertainment value provided by the Castros and the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela via the Cuban newspaper Granma or the Venezuelan “news” station Telesur. But there is now a host of new independent and far-more-entertaining media and news sources out there–many of them already being accessed by entrepreneurial Cubans.
A quick tour of Havana—especially if you eat in a rooftop paladar—reveals house tops dotted with satellite dishes that are surreptitiously pulling down broadcasts from around the world.
Cuban’s aren’t straining to tune into Radio Martí or TV Martí, they are illegally picking up Breaking Bad, Univision, and the unfortunately now-canceled Sabado Gigante on satellite television or hustling to get the most recent, uncensored programs through the USB paquetes.
Piracy and the private sector have overtaken U.S. taxpayer funded amateurish news broadcasts. And why shouldn’t they? Who wouldn’t prefer to watch or listen to many of these more entertaining and informative broadcasts that often convey the world and possibilities beyond a Cuba-centric, but Miami-based, media outlet?
Which brings me to the thing those other media cannot do, but to which Radio Martí has adapted well: providing a source of participatory media. In the past years, Radio Martí has launched a series of Web 2.0 programs that other media cannot provide due to the island’s abysmal connectivity rates and restrictions on freedom of expression. Unlike the Radio Martí programs, such as El Revoltillo that seeks to provide a service to listeners by broadcasting CraigsList-like classified ads or the martinoticias.com website run by Radio Martí that features blogs and multimedia stories prepared by Cubans on the island, DirecTV programs and shows shared through the paquetes can’t provide the real-life and real-time wiki connections that the Internet and communications do in the developed world—and that Radio Martí is striving to provide.
So, here’s the deal. As the Martís’ licenses and status come up, the new goal should be to combine the reach and sexiness of the private sector’s communication and connectivity on the island with the participation and cross-straits collaboration that Radio Martí is seeking to provide.
The answer lies in the U.S. divesting itself of the entire Martí enterprises and working with private sector groups to develop wiki-type content for the island. The December 17, 2014, executive actions by President Barack Obama are intended to provide incentives to increase connectivity on the island by allowing the sale of telecoms hardware, giving greater scope for roaming agreements, and encouraging visits by telecoms and Internet business leaders to the island. The trick now is to use that opening in ways that can overtake and improve a huge U.S. taxpayer sinkhole.
Google executives have already traveled to the island twice. Pockets of wifi access already exist. U.S. government support—direct and indirect—of these efforts can help encourage private providers to seek content and input in ways that Martí is trying to provide—while also reducing the risk of corruption.
To this end, rather than sustain Radio and TV Martí in whatever form, the U.S. government needs to provide even greater incentives for the private sector to fill the information vacuum in Cuba with modern-day techniques. That doesn’t necessarily mean public funding—which could help but could also put private freelancers on the island at risk—but rather providing different incentives (easy access to general licenses to travel to Cuba, expediting Commerce Department licensing, and meetings and exchanges to further interest). Providing tax incentives—though complicated—would be a real boon; imagine what $26 million in tax incentives for businesses that sell and engage in training and media-related programs in Cuba could do! In addition, providing subsidies to reduce the costs of satellite dishes—DirectTV and the like—will also encourage the spread of easier-to-access and more appealing news and—yes, even entertainment—to Cubans that the overly earnest and blocked Radio and TV Martí cannot.
Along those lines, encouraging media collaborations between Cubans—vested with telecoms hardware and know how—and U.S. Internet media start ups would help to create a new modern, media cadre and connection between the two countries.
It’s that sort of shared, community-driven news that Martí has—in its best moments—strived to achieve but given its antiquated medium (radio) and politicized editorial orientation, has often fallen short, at U.S. taxpayer expense.