The Political Brawl Brewing Over Miami’s Airwaves


As a young girl growing up in South Florida, Cuban-born restaurateur Irina Vilariño, 46, vividly remembers the soundtrack of her family life: the chatter of a much-beloved local radio station, Radio Mambí.

“I get chills thinking about it,” recalls Ms Vilariño, who was four when her family escaped Fidel Castro’s government. “Radio Mambí gave us a voice. The voice we lost in Cuba. It unified our community.”

Founded in 1985 by Cuban exiles, Radio Mambí – named after Cuban guerrillas known as “mambises” who fought for independence from Spain – soon became an influential fixture of Miami’s large community of Cuban exiles. The radio gave voice to the exiles’ vocal opposition of Cuba’s communist regime.

Today it is still for many the sound of Spanish-speaking Florida: a mix of chatter about modern-day Cuba interspersed, on a recent Friday, with calls from listeners opining about the state primary elections on 23 August – and laments about Democratic President Joe Biden’s “socialist agenda”.

Its influence on the heavily Republican-leaning diaspora is clear: party bigwigs from George W Bush to Mike Pence have frequented its studios. In 2018, one of the station’s most popular and outspokenly conservative radio show hosts, Ninoska Pérez Castellón, even scored an exclusive interview with then-President Donald Trump.

But now, a surprise sale of the station to a media start-up with ties to veteran Democrats has sent shockwaves as far away as the halls of power in Washington DC – and, some say, offered a glimpse into an intensifying battle for the attention of Latino audiences, and, by extension, politically vital Latino voters in a key electoral swing state.

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Many are wondering, is this the last election in which Radio Mambi – and stations like it – will play a role in Republican politics?

Jess Morales Rocketto

According to the latest census data, there are now 62.1 million Latinos in the US, and Spanish is the most widely spoken non-English language.

This audience is largely served by exclusively Spanish-language media, with research from City University of New York showing that about 78% of Latino-focused media is solely in Spanish, compared with 15% that is bilingual.

Radio dominates. Nielsen, a ratings firm, estimates that the medium reaches 97% of the US Latino population each month. Among Latinos over the age of 50, that percentage rises to 99%. In Miami, where 70% of the population is Latino, about one-third of the population is older than 55.

Since 2002, Radio Mambi has been owned and operated by TelevisaUnivision, the largest Spanish-language media conglomerate in the US.

But in June, a start-up, Latino Media Network, announced a $60m (£50m) deal to buy the station and 17 others across the US owned by Univision.

The two Latinas who founded the new venture have deep ties with Democratic politics.

Stephanie Valencia worked in the White House during the administration of Barack Obama, and Jess Morales Rocketto was a campaign aide for Hillary Clinton.

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