It’s 10:30 a.m. on the morning after the second presidential debate, and Ricardo Brown is live on the air on WURN-AM Actualidad Radio hosting his daily political talk show “Panorama Nacional.” But instead of a heated analysis of how Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump fared during their latest showdown, Brown is speaking softly, Vivaldi playing in the background, telling his listeners he’s in the mood for peace and quiet.
Brown even tells his co-host Maria Fernanda Silva that he’s considering taking a long vacation until Nov. 9, when the election will have been settled. A little while later, at the radio station’s offices in Doral, Brown says he wasn’t kidding about taking a break. Only his smile implies he’s not serious.
“I try to stick to the middle of the road when I’m covering elections, but this one has been difficult because you keep getting hit by trucks going in both directions,” he says. “I’m getting bored. I want this election to be over soon. In fact, I want the next four years to be over soon. No matter who wins or loses, the next four years are going to be gridlock in Washington. We’ll survive as a nation. Heck, we survived the Civil War. But I’m bored. I wish I was a bear. I want to hibernate until this is all over.”
Brown’s candidness about his election fatigue is refreshing. It’s hard to imagine an English-language news personality of his stature — an Emmy award-winning correspondent and reporter who has covered stories for Univision, Telemundo and CBS Telenoticias in more than 50 countries over four decades — being this frank and off-the-cuff.
But in the present-day of South Florida’s Spanish-language TV and radio, a personal connection edges out political agendas. This more moderate, restrained tone is a radical departure from what Hispanic media in Miami used to be in the 1980s and ’90s: an often bitter landscape dominated by hardliners who raged at Castro’s regime and stoked public sentiment against anyone they deemed sympathetic to communist governments. In 1976, a car bomb severed the legs of WQBA host Emilio Milian, who had denounced extremist Cubans on the air.
We are part of the Latino community and we serve it, but we’re not here to tell them how to think.
José Diaz-Balart, Noticiero Telemundo co-anchor
Today, though, Hispanic media have evolved and caught up with their English-language counterparts — not just in terms of professionalism, but also in importance and advertising. That sophistication is critical in earning the attention of U.S. Latinos, who account for 17.6 percent of the country’s inhabitants and wield 11.3 percent of its purchasing power. In 2015, overall spending on U.S. Hispanic media (including TV, radio, newspapers and magazines) totaled $7.83 billion.
President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney spent eight times more money in 2012 on Spanish-language ads than in 2008. 2016’s totals won’t come anywhere near that, since Trump has spent no money on Hispanic media advertising. But the increase proves the growing importance of courting Spanish speakers, whose numbers continue to grow.
In direct impact, the dollars spent on Spanish-language media buys in the presidential campaigns are relatively insignificant. As of mid-September, the campaign of Democrat Hilary Clinton had spent only $2.5 million of its total $110 million general election advertising buy with Spanish-language broadcasters on TV and radio. Republican candidate Donald Trump’s campaign has spent less than $19 million overall, with $0 devoted to Hispanic media. Overall, the two candidates have spent a total of $56.8 million in the state of Florida.
But an election year brings a windfall to news outlets in both languages. Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group projects that an estimated $4.4 billion will be spent on TV ads for the 2016 election, an increase from $3.8 billion in 2012.
And although nightly news programming can’t compete with filmed entertainment in the ratings game, prominent Spanish-language news and radio personalities can use their reportage to build their audiences and establish loyalty over the course of the election cycle, particularly among populations whose own histories have been marked by dictatorships. In media businesses, the larger the audience, the more the outlets can charge advertisers of all types.
And then, of course, there is the influence of the voters on the election outcome. According to a poll released by Univision earlier this month, 60 percent of Hispanic registered voters in Florida would vote for Clinton if the election were held today. The percentage was even greater in other states such as Nevada (65 percent) and Colorado and Arizona (66 percent).
In an election year when immigration has become an intensely debated issue, the 27.3 million U.S. Hispanics eligible to vote — an increase from the 23.3 million in 2012 — could determine the results in critical swing states such as Florida. Yet according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, only 69 percent of registered Latino voters say they are “absolutely certain” they will vote in this year’s election, down from 2012’s 77 percent. The study also showed that 33 percent of eligible Latino voters who say they will not cast a vote on Nov. 8 cite a dislike of both candidates, while 22 percent don’t feel their vote would make a difference.
Reflecting the importance of that vote, Spanish-language news media has taken a stance on the election that is noticeably more neutral and balanced than their English-language counterparts, where cable TV stations (CNN, Fox News, MSNBC) and radio personalities (Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity) are often synonymous with the candidate they favor.
“We are part of the Latino community and we serve it, but we’re not here to tell them how to think,” says José Diaz-Balart, the co-anchor of Telemundo’s nightly national 6:30 p.m. newscast and host of the network’s Sunday public affairs program “Enfoque.” “The beauty of Telemundo is that we’re serving a community with passion and respect but not being activists. We’re here to give people as wide a perspective of information as possible so they can make up their own minds.”
Diaz-Balart also anchors the Saturday evening edition of NBC Nightly News from New York and appears on “Meet the Press” every month.
“The bilingual community in South Florida is probably the best representative of how informed Hispanics around the U.S. are,” he says. “They are extremely well-versed in issues you would have to explain in-depth in other parts of the country, whether you’re talking about the desaparecidos in Iguala or the peace deal in Colombia. That depth of knowledge shows how wrong the misconception some have that the Spanish-speaking audience only cares about immigration.”
But immigration — Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Syrian refugees, anti-Muslim sentiment — is a key factor in this year’s election. No other Spanish-language journalist has hit the subject harder than Jorge Ramos, the co-anchor of Univision’s nightly news show since 1988.
Ramos, who also hosts the weekly English-language “America with Jorge Ramos” program on Fusion, was born in Mexico and has been one of Trump’s most vocal critics. In August 2015, he made national news after squaring off against the Republican nominee during a press conference in Iowa, even getting booted out of the room by Trump’s security staff at one point.
Although Ramos was criticized by some of his journalistic peers for allowing himself to become the center of the story instead of reporting it, he remains unrepentant.
“I’m just a journalist asking questions,” he says about the charges of activism some have leveled at him. “The problem is not with me. The problem is when you have a candidate who makes sexist and racist remarks. Our role as journalists is to challenge those who are in power.
“Trump is the most disruptive and divisive political figure in generations. He has attacked the press more than any other candidate than I can remember in this country. The only other person who has blocked me with bodyguards was Fidel Castro in 1990. That’s why this is a unique election, because of the candidate. But for us, it’s also unique because it’s the largest number of Latinos eligible to vote. We have 28 million Latinos eligible to vote. Hopefully, we’ll have a larger percentage than the 42 percent who turned out to vote in 2012.”
Both Univision and Telemundo have aggressively courted viewers to register to vote. Eduardo Suñol, vice president of Telemundo News Digital, says the network launched its #YoDecido (I Decide) public service campaign and website last year as a way of keeping viewers informed while also stressing the importance of their vote, particularly the 18-34 demographic. The network launched a Telemundo News App for Android and iOS devices that live-streams content and breaking news and will allow users to follow voting results in the Presidential, Senate and House elections on Nov. 8 in real time.
Along with PBS NewsHour and MSNBC, Telemundo also partnered with Microsoft Pulse to allow viewers to use their mobile devices and computers to react live to the presidential debates as they happen.
“We had 600,000 users in the first debate, and we were able to see exactly whether they were male or female, Democrat or Republican or Independent, and the exact moments they agreed or disagreed with live,” Suñol says. “It’s an amazing tool we didn’t have in the past. It’s like having a voting machine in your living room. And our news app will allow our audience not to have to wait for someone to tell them the results.
“When I was 18 and living in Cuba, I loved to take my girlfriend out to the Malecón and whisper beautiful things in her ear under the moonlight. Today, you can still take your girlfriend there and whisper in her ear, but you could be checking the election results at the same time.”
75% of Hispanics in Miami are foreign-born
Univision’s “Destino 2016” political coverage encompasses TV and online coverage, including a strong engagement on social media via its “Univision Politica” feed on Facebook and Twitter, which has a combined following of nearly 700,000. Carlos Chirinos, the senior political editor for Univision Digital, says Univision’s broadcast of the first presidential debate in September via Facebook Live was the third most-watched of any news outlet, after Fox and the New York Times. Interestingly, the English-language version edged out the Spanish-language version of the debate, which is translated live by a staff of seven.
“That shows we have an audience that is bilingual and prefers to hear the candidates in English,” Chirinos says. “Some of our most-read pieces every day are posted on Univision News [the network’s English-language site, which was launched in June]. The first that happened, we were astonished.”
Lourdes Torres, senior vice-president of politics and special projects for Univision, says the network is constantly thinking of ways to get their viewers involved in the Presidential race, but on their own terms.
“For the first debate, we had Jorge Hernández, the lead singer of [the socially-outspoken norteño band] Los Tigres del Norte,” she says. “For the second debate, we had the [Oscar-nominated] Mexican actor Demián Bichir. The opinion of people like them means a lot more to our viewers than some Democratic or Republican spokesperson or analyst.”
On the radio
Even more than television, Spanish-language talk radio in South Florida has transformed itself into a far more sophisticated and inviting arena than it was 20 years ago. According to a recent report by Nielsen Media Research, 97 percent of the nearly 57 million Hispanics in the U.S. tune in to radio every week, with nearly 10 percent of them listening to talk shows.
In South Florida, as in the rest of the country, FM’s dominance over AM continues to grow. But talk radio is so deeply engrained in Latin American culture that corporate giants such as Univision, CBS and iHeart Media have all acquired AM stations in Miami over the last 15 years that previously operated independently.
“Hispanic media in Miami went through a revolution after 2000,” says Dario Moreno, a political consultant and professor of political science at Florida International University. “First you had the consolidation of the old Spanish media, especially AM talk radio, under Univision. A lot of the decision-making authority was taken out of Miami and put into corporate, so radio now has a more corporate attitude.
“Then came the rise of immigration as a national U.S. issue,” Moreno says. “You saw that start to happen in the 2004 and 2008 elections. Jorge Ramos took a very pro-immigration public stance, and that started to change a lot of the tone of Spanish-language broadcasts. U.S. foreign policy became the main subject. And then you had a demographic revolution. An increasingly larger of the viewers and listeners of these stations are increasingly non-Cuban. News coverage is no longer Cuba-centric.
“When Cubans made up 90 percent of the listening audience in the 1980s, Spanish-language radio in Miami tended to be a mirror of English-language conservative talk radio, where you were preaching to the converted,” he says. “As the community became more diversified, radio has had to become more diverse to maintain their listenership. It’s a simple matter of market forces.”
About 75 percent of Hispanics in Miami are foreign-born — a larger percentage than in any other city in the U.S. (By comparison, 57 percent of Hispanics in New York and 50 percent in Los Angeles were born in another country). Oscar Haza, a veteran journalist and South Florida radio personality who currently hosts the morning drive-time show on WCMQ-FM Z92, says the breadth and depth of the conversation of South Florida’s Spanish-language radio is a reflection of the diversity of the area’s Latino population.
“People tell me we talk too much about Cuba and Venezuela, but that’s because they continue to be the news,” he says. “In the 1980s, we also talked about Panama and Nicaragua and Haiti. Miami is the capital of Latin America, and every time there is a political crisis that forces people out of their countries to come here, they create news. That’s why the Spanish-language media in Miami will always thrive. We keep getting replenished.”
Haza also argues that Hispanic media has one advantage over their English-language competition: They don’t take sides.
“We’re seeing a lot of things we’ve never seen before with this election,” he says. “The debates have shown the usual limits are broken. There’s no etiquette any more. They use every low blow imaginable. And with polarizing issues, the press often becomes the scapegoat. People generalize as if we were all the same. There’s no one more radical than Rush Limbaugh or more sensationalist than Bill O Reilly. We’re much more balanced than those guys. We give Democrats and Republicans equal air time. I think we’ve come a long way.”
Fernand Amandi, a partner at the polling firm Bendixen & Amandi International who is also teaching a course on the 2016 election at the University of Miami, sees a similar evolution in South Florida’s airwaves.
“This market has always been unique in that the last 30 years, there have been multiple outlets on TV and radio talking about politics in Spanish on a daily basis,” says Amandi, who also hosts a morning talk show on WIOD. “Miami-Dade was one of the pioneering counties in this arena. And what used to be a uniformly Republican-leaning, Cuban focus is much more diversified today. There’s always been this pejorative sense that Spanish-language media has always been of an inferior quality. But the people working in South Florida radio today are all respected journalists who happen to be Spanish-dominant. They are doing a great job presenting this election from all perspectives and filters.”
The founding fathers of this country hated each other. But there was a level of civility.
Ricardo Brown, host of WURN-AM “Panorama Nacional”
Actualidad Radio’s Brown is one of them. Born in Cuba and raised in a working-class neighborhood in the south end of Hartford, Conn., he served in the military during the Vietnam War (he was stationed in Newport, R.I.) and began his career working for a local NBC TV station before making the switch to Spanish media.
“I feel very Cuban, but I adore the U.S.,” he says. “I’m one of those corny people who gets really emotional when I hear the national anthem, because of the life I’ve had in this country. I love American history. I’ve read all of Lincoln’s debates. His opponents called him an ape. The founding fathers of this country hated each other. Jefferson hated Hamilton and Adams. Adams hated Hamilton. But there was a level of civility.
“I’m still an idealist,” he says. “So it hurts when these campaigns become so bitter and people start saying these ugly things. I have a lot of friends who are for Hillary and a lot of friends who are for Trump, and they hate each other. There’s nothing wrong with people getting passionate, but it’s just gotten out of hand. Maybe it’s our fault, the media. I don’t know. So I’m thinking about closing down my Twitter and Facebook accounts and just going to a monastery.”
The following morning, though, Brown was back on the air, doing his job.