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WQBA, historic Cuban exile radio voice in Miami, to lose key talent to Radio Mambí as part of makeover

WQBA, the historic Spanish-language radio station that was once a powerhouse among Miami’s Cuban-American exiles, will shed its moniker and most of its local content next month, when it will lose several of its most popular personalities as part of a makeover by owner Univision.

Oscar Haza will jump to sister station Radio Mambí, which long ago surpassed WQBA as Miami’s leading Spanish-language AM station. Host Helen Aguirre Ferré will be doing special projects for the revamped WQBA and Mambí. And host Robert Rodríguez Tejera, who recently began hosting a local television show, will be let go.

The moves are part of an effort by Univision, which owns both stations, to launch a new, national AM radio network dubbed Univision America on the Fourth of July.

The result for South Florida: shrinking local news talk-show programming on the influential Spanish-language airwaves — and the end as listeners knew it of WQBA-AM (1140), which for nearly two decades was the voice of Miami’s influential exile community as La Cubanísima, “the very Cuban.”

“We are going to have less local issues discussed on the air,” lamented Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, a longtime Spanish-radio reporter who was once a personality on Cubanísima. “The good news is that being on the network, we may be able to get local issues on the national [stage].”

Claudia Puig, a senior Univision vice president and the stations’ general manager, said in a statement that the changes at WQBA will help Mambí “further strengthen its programming and grow its talent line-up to continue to deliver excellent journalistic coverage of the topics and issues relevant to Hispanics in South Florida, under the direction of [news director] Armando Pérez-Roura.”

“Univision Radio’s priority is to serve our listeners, and we recognize that our community is rapidly growing and evolving,” she said.

The question is whether the audience will follow favorite broadcasters.

“The audience, they follow people,” said Regalado, who himself left Cubanísima for Mambí before entering politics. “But they also like [particular] radio stations, so that’s a risky experiment. But it may work.”

WQBA dropped the Cubanísima handle about 15 years ago in an effort to appeal more broadly to younger Cubans and non-Cuban Hispanics. In recent years, WQBA had reinvented itself with a local-news focus featuring the Dominican Republic-born Haza, El Nuevo Herald columnist Bernadette Pardo and the broadcast team of Aguirre Ferré and Rodríguez Tejera, who typically dedicate one of their two hours on air to local issues.

Univision has said WQBA’s overhaul was prompted by the company’s new national focus and not by the station’s local ratings, which remain high but not as high as Mambí’s — or as rival Radio Caracol’s, a Colombian station that appeals to South Florida’s burgeoning Central and South American population.

Long before WQBA lost its dominance of the airwaves, however, it was the king of militant, anti-Fidel Castro news and commentary and, at one time in the mid-1980s, the most listened-to AM station in South Florida.

Established in 1967, the station changed its call letters from WMIE to WQBA, the closest it could come to W-CUBA. Three years later, three gunmen in Army green pants and black hoods took two station employees hostage and broadcast a pro-Castro message before fleeing.

In 1972, after Castro banned Christmas in Cuba, then-news director Emilio Milián proposed a Three Kings Parade in Miami — a celebration still held today. Four years later, after Milián aired editorials condemning terrorist activity in the United States by Cubans, he was almost killed by a car bomb that severed both of his legs.

In the tradition of Cuban advocacy journalism, the station featured callers on the air who were sometimes cut off if they were rude or disagreed with the host. It rallied protesters, called for boycotts, raised money for causes and stirred long-coveted Cuban-American voters.

In 1980, the station broke the news that Cuba would allow exiles to travel to the island by sea to pick up relatives — launching the Mariel boatlift. Two years later, the station purchased a new antenna to transmit into the heart of Cuba without Castro government interference.

But eventually, the station lost ground to Mambí, which snatched some of Cubanísima’s most popular personalities, including Regalado. The stations became cousins when ownership consolidated in 1993 — a move opposed by advocates of dialogue with Cuba who feared the airwaves would be dominated by hardliners.

The station continues to feature moderate conservative to conservative hosts. But it’s a far cry from its days of airing all Cuba news, all the time, though it still plays its catchy jingle recorded decades ago by the late Celia Cruz: “ Yo llevo a Cuba la voz, desde esta playa lejana ...” (I send to Cuba my voice, from this distant beach ...).

The new WQBA, under the Univision America network, will continue to feature Pedaleando con Bernie (Pedaling with Bernie), Pardo’s morning drive-time show. Other local talent is being considered for Univision America projects in Miami.

The remainder of the station’s programming, other than Miami Heat coverage, will come from Univision America, which will include stations in Chicago, Houston, Dallas, McAllen, Texas, El Paso, San Antonio, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

WQBA’s afternoon drive-time show, Prohibido Callarse (Silence Banned), co-hosted by Aguirre Ferré and Rodríguez Tejera, will be canceled. Armando Fernández Lima will move to Mambí as part of its sports coverage, and other projects are still being considered.

WQBA’s existing early-morning show, Ahora con Oscar Haza (Now with Oscar Haza) will transfer to Mambí. Haza, who is also a popular local television personality, will then co-host En Caliente (In the Hot Seat) with Mambí fixtures Ninoska Pérez Castellón and Pérez Roura, that station’s news director. The more moderate Haza has been considered a rival of Pérez Roura, the voice of the first-generation Cuban exile community.

Tomás García Fusté, a former WQBA news director who left after the station dropped its Cuban focus, said he’s intrigued by the changes and thinks consolidating Univision’s local personalities in one station could work well — as long as everybody gets along.

The Spanish-language radio market has gotten increasingly crowded with stations, he noted, while WQBA and Mambí competed with each other.

“There’s really a series of new radio stations that have high ratings,” said García Fusté, who leads a daily television show on TeleMiami. “I think now they’re really going to get Radio Mambí to function.”

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