Miami’s Radio Mambi sale turns into political fight

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MIAMI — Listeners calling into Radio Mambí, a popular Spanish-language talk radio station, often spend their airtime raging against Cuba’s communist leaders and the Democrats they believe are too soft on them before the producer cuts to another health insurance commercial set to a merry salsa tune.

But in recent days, these callers — as well as the on-air hosts — have focused their ire on the South Florida radio giant’s soon-to-be new owners: the Latino Media Network, a start-up founded by two Latinas who built their careers working for Democrats. This month, the group reached a $60 million deal with Mexican American company TelevisaUnivision to purchase 18 radio stations, including Radio Mambí.

“I feel like I’ve lost a loved one,” one caller sighed on a recent afternoon, before turning angry. “This is a ploy by the left.”

The surprise sale of Radio Mambí — founded in the 1980s by Cuban exile businessmen and a fixture on Miami’s airwaves — has become a flash point in a larger debate about free speech and Spanish-language misinformation on radio, a medium that industry analysts say has far more resonance with Latinos than any other demographic group in the country.

It’s also a window into the pitched battle for a crucial electorate at a time when the Republican Party has made rapid inroads with Latino voters. Democrats have blamed Spanish-language AM stations like Radio Mambí for spreading falsehoods that cost them votes in 2020 — such as repeating Trump campaign claims that President Biden would turn the United States into a socialist state — and fanning conspiratorial doubts about who won that election.

Latino Media Network’s two founders — former Obama White House staffer Stephanie Valencia and former Hillary Clinton campaign aide Jess Morales Rocketto — have not yet signaled any content changes and promise they won’t diminish Radio Mambí’s commitment to “Cuba’s freedom” as its flagship cause. “We believe wholeheartedly in that mission,” they said in a statement, “and we will remain true to that spirit of liberty that has guided them over decades.” Neither was made available for an interview.

They have also asserted their support of “a free press which values verifiable facts and balance,” and promised that “all points of view will be welcomed and encouraged to debate in the free marketplace of ideas, so our listeners can make informed decisions for themselves and their families.”

Yet the station’s on-air personalities are lashing out, as are many of the state’s most powerful conservative politicians. Some, though not all, of Latino Media Network’s investors and advisers have backed Democratic causes, such as actress Eva Longoria Bastón. An investment firm with ties to liberal billionaire George Soros — who has become a perennial focus of right-wing conspiracy theories — provided a loan.

Critics of the new ownership are also triggered by Valencia’s previous work researching the Latino electorate and the concerns she has raised about the spread of QAnon-type conspiracy theories, false election fraud claims and covid misinformation in digital Spanish-language media. They are framing her concerns about “misinformation” as an attempt at censorship.

“They have their liberal, progressive agenda,” Ninoska Pérez Castellón, one of Radio Mambí’s most popular hosts, told her listeners last week. “You can be sure that my principles and dignity don’t have a price and aren’t for sale.”

Campaigning for reelection, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has run ads on Radio Mambí warning about “Soros and his minions … coming with their ideological agenda.” In a letter to the Federal Communications Commission’s chairwoman, the state’s GOP senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, joined Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and others in opposing the sale, calling it a “far from benign” move by “elite progressives desperate to claw back support from Hispanic voters.”

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On a recent afternoon, Pérez Castellón took calls into her popular show. One was a listener who mused conspiratorially about a supposed “New World Order” plot to oust President Donald Trump from the White House so that socialists can redistribute global wealth.

“It is something that has been planned for a long time,” he said. “It’s written in the Bible.”

Pérez Castellón, an elegant 70-something with a sideline in whimsical watercolors inspired by her native Havana, pushed back gently. “There are a lot of ways to interpret the Bible,” she offered. But she encouraged her listeners to stand up for their beliefs. “We need to be attentive, vigilant — vibrant.”

Launched in 1985, Mambí was among Miami’s first Spanish-language stations, and it became the political voice of a highly engaged electorate. Soon enough, presidential candidates were dropping in.

“It’s the soundtrack of Cuban exile politics,” Albert Laguna, a professor at Yale University who focuses on race, ethnicity and migration. With a clear anti-Castro position, Radio Mambí’s hosts never attempted to be neutral or impartial, Laguna said, calling the station, “a bully pulpit where more moderate voices are shot down.”

Radio Mambí is the highest-rated Spanish-language talk radio in Miami-Fort Lauderdale, as well as the market’s top-rated AM station overall. While it’s always been staunchly Republican, the station has moved farther right along with the party, courting more controversy along the way and pointedly stoking its listeners’ fears about Biden before the 2020 election. In an Instagram post, Pérez Castellón promoted a meme collage of Biden, Castro and former Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez — implying the Democrat was a closet socialist.

Experts who study Spanish-language misinformation say that fact-checkers and social media monitors frequently overlook the falsehoods gaining traction in non-English media — which can find an especially susceptible audience among many new immigrants, some of whom fled countries where power grabs by leftist autocrats are no mere conspiracy fever dream. Democratic leaders and civil-society advocates are increasingly raising alarms about the trend.

“No one wants to silence anybody,” said Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, a Democratic strategist who specializes in countering Spanish-language disinformation. “This is not about censorship like they’ve tried to paint it. “This is about people blatantly lying, saying things that are not true to create hate and division in our community.”

The Radio Mambí sale comes amid other fights for control within the market space. A new conservative Spanish-language satellite radio and streaming service with ties to both Trump and former Florida governor Jeb Bush launched earlier this year, to the alarm of Democrats. And the attempted sale of Miami’s Radio Caracol, another AM station, prompted several congressional Democrats to ask the FCC to examine the “ways in which Spanish-language listeners may be targets for political and other misinformation.”

But in this case, Rubio, Scott and Díaz-Balart — who had protested the Mambí sale to the FCC — argued that the agency should not get involved, calling the Democrats’ plea an attempt “to impose on the FCC’s independence and politicize its decisions by encouraging content-based censorship.”

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The battle for the airwaves underscores the importance of radio in Latino communities. “There’s no other medium for Latinos that has the reach like radio, period,” said Stacie de Armas, Nielsen’s senior vice president of diverse insights and initiatives. “Not digital, not YouTube, nothing.”

According to Nielsen, 97 percent of all Hispanics in the United States are reached by radio monthly — and within that, 40 percent of radio listening by the crucial 18-to-49-year-old age demographic goes to Spanish-language stations. Many Latinos tune in even if English is their dominant language. Twenty-one percent of Spanish news-talk listeners speak English in their daily life.

“That tells you that it really is more about cultural connection. It is about a nuance that is present in culturally programed content,” de Armas said.

In addition to Mambí, Latino Media Network purchased a second Spanish-language station in Miami and 16 other FM and AM stations from TelevisiaUnivision that mostly carry entertainment and sports. They’re located in major markets, such as Chicago, Dallas and Las Vegas, that, according to the start-up, reach 33 percent of Latinos in the United States.

TelevisiaUnivision “met with dozens of potential buyers” before selling to LMN, a company spokesperson said. NBC News reported that LMN beat out conservative Christian Salem Media Group, which two Radio Mambí hosts confirmed on air. Salem did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post.

The media deal is expected to close by the end of the year, pending regulatory approval. But despite protestations from Republicans, “the general rule is, that if everything is in order, the FCC approves them,” said veteran media lawyer Andrew Schwartzman. The agency would never “concern themselves with ideological issues,” he added.

If Mambí’s new owners have plans to modify its voice, though, longtime listeners warn that any big changes could diminish its audience. Former Miami mayor Tomás Regalado, a Radio Mambí reporter in the 1980s and ’90s, recalled covering the 1994 Cuban rafter crisis and two presidential administrations. Then and now, he said, there was “an unwritten code that the presenters have to give priority to the anti-Castro theme” and “any deviation from that posture will make listeners abandon the station and go somewhere else.”

Yet the station also repelled some listeners as it grew increasingly conservative. Retired massage therapist Mercedes Nieves, 70, said she occasionally listened to Radio Mambí until she noticed an alarmist new tone among the show’s hosts, peaking around the time of the 2020 election. That’s when a friend began parroting claims that Biden would turn the country into a socialist state.

Now the two don’t talk — and Nieves blames the station for her friend’s political radicalization: “She was addicted to Radio Mambí.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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