MIAMI — Not since Franklin Roosevelt used fireside chats to rouse America to war has anyone used radio so successfully as Cuban exiles in Miami.
For three decades, Cuban talk radio's stars have been a force in Cuban-American politics, pouring condemnation of Fidel Castro into the homes of fellow exiles and the halls of Washington - and fusing the exiles into one of the country's most politically-powerful ethnic groups.
But in the year that saw the death of Jorge Mas Canosa, the exiles' most-persuasive leader, Cuban radio - and the Cuban community - are showing signs of change. Many younger Cuban-Americans are more interested in pop culture. They want music - not anti-Castro rhetoric - on the radio. This shift could soften anti-Castro resolve - and US hard-line policy toward Cuba.
"This is the year you've seen a real major shift in the role of Cuban radio," says Dario Moreno, a professor at Florida International University. Cuban stations "are losing their audience," he says.
The biggest evidence of change on the Miami radio scene is the emergence of Colombian-owned Radio Caracol. Now the top-rated station among Miami's young Latinos, it offers news on a variety of topics. Unlike the anti-Castro and Cuba dominated news broadcasts, Caracol news is presented with a variety of viewpoints.
But some of Miami's Cuban stations are trying to adjust as ad revenues and ratings shrink. On a recent show hosted by exile radio star Tomas Garcia-Fuste, for instance, most guests were Nicaraguan immigrants. Mr. Garcia-Fuste's show highlights the area's shifting demographics. By 2000, Cuban Americans will make up only 45 percent of the area's Hispanic population, down from 90 percent in 1960.
Still, Miami's traditional Cuban radio commentators are largely undeterred by the generational shift in listening interests. And their influence certainly hasn't faded. Recently, when the Archbishop of Miami organized a cruise to go to Havana for the pope's visit this month, anti-Castro talk show hosts fed public outrage.
Radio Mambi's host, Martha Flores, was among those leading the opposition. On a recent night, during her "The Night and You" show, nine telephone lines flashed nonstop. One caller said he won't go to Cuba to see the pope until Cuba is free. A smile cracked Ms. Flores's face. "The pope has a very important message," she said, her voice rising, "But I don't believe in giving money to Castro."
The cruise was canceled.
LIKE other personalities still dominating Miami's AM radio, Garcia-Fuste and Flores created Spanish-language radios after escaping Cuba in the 1960s. Radio helped unify their community, gathering food and money for exiles, sponsoring citizenship drives, and organizing anti-Castro marches.
"But the other side of the unity thing is that those who step outside of the preordained unity face the 'music' of the radio station," says Max Castro, a University of Miami sociologist. "Radio presents them as pariahs, traitors."
Indeed, callers on the Martha Flores show recently vilified the owner of a restaurant who had booked a singer from Cuba. After days of radio protest, a Molotov cocktail was tossed into the restaurant. The owners canceled the show and sold the restaurant.
"Cuban Radio isn't going to change until Cuba is free," a combative Flores says.
But how large an audience her style can continue to attract remains to be seen, as a growing number of younger Cubans demand programming that relates to their lives here in the US, not the island their parents left behind.