Reagan OKs toned-down Radio Marti

Radio Marti, a Reagan foreign-policy measure using radio waves rather than force of arms, finally has been approved by Congress, despite last year's high-powered warning blasts from Cuban radio transmitters that jammed American AM stations from Texas to Iowa.

As the legislation emerged last week, its proponents and opponents agreed it is a considerably toned-down version of the programming originally envisioned by the Reagan administration. The President approved the compromise legislation Tuesday.

Radio Marti won't be a separate government-run AM station, as first planned. Instead, Congress approved $14 million for a separate ''Cuba Service'' under the Voice of America (VOA), the government's shortwave broadcast service. ''Marti programming,'' as it has been called, will maintain a certain independence in that it will have its own board of directors appointed by the director of United States Information Agency.

''The administration is not pleased, but it was the only thing that was possible out of Congress,'' says an official who helped develop the radio station, which Reagan had listed as one of his top foreign-policy initiatives earlier this year. ''The reason this compromise was accepted with such glee is it is assumed by putting this (Radio Marti) within VOA it will be more palatable or acceptable to Castro.''

Indeed, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) admits it was Fidel Castro's retaliatory jamming during congressional proceedings on Radio Marti last year that fueled the association's vigorous lobby against the idea of a separate station.

Observers believe that expanded programming for Cuban listeners under the VOA won't invite Castro to jam the airwaves again, says Wayne Smith, former chief of the United States mission in Havana. ''The Cubans would say, 'we don't like VOA, but it's part of the established rules of the game and not an act of aggression. . . . Long years have shown us it does tend to be responsible, and not strident propaganda aimed at destabilizing the government.' ''

Given Reagan's anticommunist zeal, he explains, an independent station viewed as operated by the administration (or by Cuban exiles allied with the administration) could be perceived by Cubans as unobjective, ruining its credibility.

The purpose of VOA is to create a ''window on America,'' while the purpose of Marti Spanish-language programming is to focus on Cuban news.

''If they aren't terribly careful about what they broadcast, if it's not totally accurate, they'll lose listenership in Cuba because people in Cuba have a better idea of what's going on there than people sitting up on Marathon Key,'' Mr. Smith says.

Further, he says, ''50 percent of the stations you pick'' on the island nation are commercial American and Jamaican stations with news of their own. That news can always be compared with what the US government would disseminate over the airwaves.

Programming, in terms of time, format, and staffing, has yet to be defined. The VOA broadcasts on specific shortwave frequencies that lie between 3 and 30 megahertz, but it also has used an medium-wave transmitter (on 1180 kilohertz) on Marathon Key in Florida, which juts accomodatingly toward Cuba. The Reagan administration had hoped Radio Marti broadcasts would be separate from other programming, and put out on a new transmitter for 14 hours a day. It is unclear how much time the Cuban service will be given beyond the VOA's regular 51/2 hours of broadcasting during the breakfast and early evening time slots, or if it will be broadcast on anything other than the existing medium- and shortwave facilities. (It had been argued that AM broadcasts were a necessity because few Cubans own shortwave radios.)

Further, appointment of directors (subject to Senate approval) is likely to be an issue - particularly if many Cuban exiles are named to the board.

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