Herb Levin: the Jewish godfather of Miami’s Cuban radio

Cuban radio has always been a political and cultural beacon within Miami’s exile community. Many of my childhood memories are tinged with the passionate sounds of my grandparents’ radio.

Recently, I enjoyed sharing anecdotes with one of Cuban Miami’s great storytellers — his is not a household name yet he played a pivotal role in the development and boom of Spanish-language radio in Miami. It offered him a front-row seat to witness the rise of Cuban Americans — among the most politically, economically and culturally significant U.S. minority groups. Ironically, he is not Cuban.

Herb Levin came to Miami in 1966 to survey the market after his company, Susquehanna Broadcasting, had purchased a small AM station in the city, WMIE. Levin, a then wet-behind-the-ears Penn State graduate, moved to Miami in 1967 bringing with him good business acumen and his Northeastern, liberal, Jewish sensibilities. This meant that living and working side by side with recently arrived foreigners didn’t scare him off.

“My first impression of Cubans was that they were extremely proud people. Many were well educated and ran businesses on the island before Castro. I am the descendant of European Jews who fled Hitler’s Europe. My family knew a thing or two about picking ourselves up by the bootstraps and starting over in America. I easily related,” Levin shared.

The young, ambitious radio executive convinced the owner of Susquehanna to convert WMIE to an all-Spanish format. A risky move considering Miami still had all the trappings of a midsize, sleepy, Southern city. “To this day I’m a firm believer in research and all the numbers bore it out,” he said. “I was sure we would succeed in Spanish.”

In 1967, Radio Continental hit the airwaves and by mid 1968 was quickly treading water. The only other Spanish radio station in town back then, WFAB, La Fabulosa, had cleverly launched a campaign to discredit the newbie station. Radio Continental, they said, “was a tool of the CIA..”

In a post-Bay of Pigs Miami, Levin said, “being affiliated to the CIA in any fashion was not a good thing.” So in the fall of 1968 Radio Continental gave way to WQBA. To any Cuban American over the age of 35, those call letters are engrained in your memory. When I hear them, I recall Celia Cruz’ iconic station identification spot and the smell of Abuela’s café as family members gathered round to listen to Emilio Milian’s editorials. WQBA would become the news epicenter of Cuban Miami for two decades.

The cagey survivor of many Miami radio wars, Levin observed that “what happened in Miami was more of an acculturation process than assimilation. Cubans became Cuban Americans and they never lost their sense of Cuban pride.

“The success we had at WQBA was greatly due to the fact that we were a reflection of the community’s wants and needs. . . . “Under today’s corporate structure we could not have accomplished half of the things we did at WQBA a few decades ago. Media is now run by chief financial officers as opposed to people who know about radio and care about their communities.”

Levin spoke of the great talents he encountered along his radio journey. Figures like Emilio Milian, Salvador Lew, Juan Amador Rodriguez, Maucha Gutierrez, Eduardo Gonzalez Rubio, Tomas and Raquel Regalado, Tomas Garcia Fuste, Amancio Suarez, Aleida Leal, Julio Mendez, Armando Garcia-Sifredo, Alexis Fari, Armando Perez-Roura, Guillermo Alvarez Guedes, Minito Navarro, Marta Flores, Carlos D’Mant, Ninoska Perez-Castellon, Salverio del Valle, and Marta Casañas, (many of whom worked with Levin) helped forge a path for Spanish-language radio in Miami.

Indeed, those radio personalities of yesterday — and still today — have helped preserve Cuban culture and identity in Miami.

“Miami has become an energetic, exciting American city,” Levin noted. “I see great enthusiasm and potential in the new waves of immigrants arriving from Latin America. A younger migration from Cuba has also changed the face of Cuban Miami. It’s made the community less monolithic.”

The soft spoken, humble Northeasterner unquestionably takes his place as one of the pillars of Miami’s Cuban airwaves.

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