Rumba, corn belt-style: Can WHO weather Cuban radio?

A Cuban rumba in the Iowa corn fields?

This paradox seemed to move one step closer to occurring as the House this week approved plans to set up a US government radio station in Florida to broadcast programs to Cuba.

The catch: Cuba promises to retaliate with a powerful blast of programming from a station that would jam commercial airwaves -- including the proposed US station -- all the way to Iowa.

This prospect did not deter strong bipartisan support, in a 250-to-134 House vote Tuesday, for the ''Radio Marti'' project, but it has Iowans turning up the volume of their displeasure with the idea.

Radio Marti, named after Cuban liberator Jose Marti, is a State Department concept designed to counter Cuban and Soviet propaganda broadcasts directed at the Cuban people.

Accepting an amendment that would direct the station to broadcast only ''responsible news . . . not propaganda,'' congressmen backed the bill creating Radio Marti and called the station a ''message of truth to the people of Cuba.''

The bill assigns the station to a frequency of 1040 KHz (near the top of the AM broadcast band) and authorizes only $7.5 million of the requested $17.7 million for the station. The measure must still pass the Senate, where questions about alternatives are being raised.

In appraising the bill's chances one congressional source says, ''It's a thorny issue for an election year, nobody wants to vote against something anti-Cuban, or (appear) soft on communism, even if the money would be better spent on other nations in the Caribbean.''

But, meanwhile, back in the Midwest, things are getting hot enough to pop corn, say legislators from the region.

Radio Marti would share the 1040 frequency with radio station WHO in Des Moines. The station's farm service broadcasts, which reach five states, have been a vital link in this agricultural region for 58 years. Moreover, President Reagan launched his broadcasting career at the station.

''We do not quarrel with the concept,'' explains Robert Harter, of Palmer Communications Inc., which holds the license for WHO. But he adds that the broadcasting community has no reason to doubt Fidel Castro's threat to meet watts with more watts.

With last year's announcement of Radio Marti, Castro denounced the plan as US interference in Cuba's internal affairs. He promises to build a transmitter for a station called ''Radio Lincoln'' with 500,000 watts of power -- 10 times the maximum power allowed for US stations on the AM band.

''I can't assure you that's going to happen,'' says Mr. Harter, ''but this is not something new. We've (many US radio stations) been getting interference (for years).''

Further, testimony at House hearings on the subject showed that building a 500,000-watt transmitter would not be exhorbitantly expensive for Cuba at a cost of only $1 million to $2 million.

If the US begins Radio Marti broadcasts off the tip of the Florida Keys, the expected Cuban retaliation could whittle WHO's 50,000-watt range from a radius of 800 miles to 45 miles, says Mr. Harter. To listeners living more than 45 miles from WHO's antennas, Radio Lincoln's signal would be roughly the same strength as WHO. This would leave listeners with a hodge-podge of noise, rather than a program to listen to. Other smaller stations, closer to Cuba and on the same frequency could be totally jammed.

Criticisms and alternatives to the Radio Marti plan to be considered by the Senate include:

* Putting the station at either of the extreme ends of the AM band on a frequency not currently assigned to commercial stations. While this likely would protect stations like WHO, it would not prevent the Cubans from jamming Radio Marti with a more powerful signal.

* Assigning Radio Marti to shortwave frequencies. Critics of this idea note that Cuba doesn't boast a large number of shortwave receivers.

* Using the established Radio Marathon, which broadcasts the Voice of America to Cuba for 51/2 hours a day over shortwave radio. Radio Marti proponents, however, say that their concept is to set up an ordinary AM radio station that avoids the pro-US bias implicit in VOA's editorial policy.

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