The phrase public radio usually sparks thoughts of NPR, with its pledge drives, symphonic hit parade, and middlebrow commentary. But the federal government devotes a much larger share of its budget to the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and other services putatively designed to broadcast balanced, outside news programs into countries lacking independent media. Now one of the government's operations–Radio Martí, a $23 million-a-year service beamed at Cuba–has come under fire for transmitting what even some critics of Fidel Castro have labeled "pathological propaganda."
Late last year, an independent panel of politically moderate journalists concluded that Radio Martí's programming suffered from "lack of balance, fair-ness,…objectivity…and adequate sourcing." They also accused the station of "confusing packaging" and "poor news judgment in story selection." This February, a lengthy federal investigation came to the same conclusion, finding that Martí's fare often fails to meet the International Broadcasting Bureau's news-gathering standards. Critics accuse the station of being virtually indistinguishable from Cuban exiles' talk shows airing on commercial radio–suggesting that the channel may be superfluous as well as journalistically dubious. Radio Martí's first news director, Jay Mallin, recently told the Miami Herald that the service is "out of control and very unprofessional."
Meanwhile, a new study by the State Department puts Martí's regular audience at only 9 percent of Cubans polled–a low estimate no doubt, given the difficulties of accurately polling the subjects of a dictatorship, but still only half the audience found in a similar survey conducted five years ago.
While Martí has had detractors since it went on the air in 1985, things took a clear turn for the worse in 1997, after President Clinton appointed Miami lawyer Herminio San Roman to run the operation. Despite its shaky professional reputation and leaking market share, Martí has its defenders, most prominently Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. "The Clinton administration supports your efforts," she told Martí's staff at a recent ceremony. "We will fight for your budget. We will defend your mission." Even, it seems, if no one actually wants to listen to the station's product.