OKEECHOBEE, FL – When commercial shortwave radio station Radio Miami International – which operates under the call letters WRMI – debuted in 1989, its main purpose was to help Cuban exile groups in Miami legally transmit programs to their country of origin.
Since then, the station has broadcast news during all sorts of difficult times – the Gulf War, hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters.
Now, 30 years later, at a time when Instagram, TikTok and other social media platforms rule the roost when it comes to communication, WRMI finds itself in a unique position during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In conjunction with several organizations and government groups, the station broadcasts news programs to Russians and Ukrainians who have access to shortwave radios.
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“We’ve been through all kinds of crises. This is one of the biggest,” said Jeff White, the station’s general manager.
When the station launched three decades ago, Radio Miami International worked with Cuban exiles and Latin American groups to find existing shortwave stations where they could purchase airtime to broadcast.
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It was difficult because most stations were owned by the US government or religious organizations, White said. “We did that for a few years, but saw the need to put our own facility on the air.”
WRMI obtained a license from the Federal Communications Commission and opened its own small station in what is now Hialeah with a single transmitter and antenna, transmitting to Cuba and throughout Latin America. Eventually, they worked with other organizations to air shows and expanded their programming.
The station has struggled to sell commercial airtime to corporations, though it has tried to target multinational corporations like Eastern Airlines and Pan American Airways, White said. Because they broadcast via shortwave radio frequencies, there was no data available to quantify their audience for these companies’ marketing and advertising teams.
Instead, the station sold blocks of airtime to organizations with their own programming—political groups, religious organizations, some cultural programming.
In 2013, they learned of a commercial station—the largest in the Western Hemisphere—that suddenly became available in Okeechobee.
It was operated by Family Radio, a California-based Christian radio network run by Reverend Harold Camping, which prophesied the abduction in 2011. When the world didn’t end, the group found themselves faced with financial difficulties, according to the Denver Post. Family Radio sold its station after Camping’s death in 2013.
“It’s a very interesting story about the end of the world that didn’t end,” White said.
For WRMI, the new facility was a huge step forward with 14 1,000-watt transmitters and 23 antennas “broadcasting around the world”, he said, all from a square mile leased from a ranch in South Florida cattle.
From there, programming expanded further, offering programming in “all kinds of languages” – a combination of political, religious and cultural programming – all over the world, he said.
Much of the station’s programming comes from the United States and other foreign government-owned radio stations that buy airtime to carry programs, mostly in English, although some are in Spanish and other languages. ‘other languages. Over the years, the station has worked with groups like Radio Slovakia International, Radio Prague International, Radio Tirana, Radio Japan, Radio Taiwan and Argentine Foreign Radio.
WRMI also previously broadcast Radio Ukraine International in English, White said. “But a few years ago we lost contact with them.”
When the war in Ukraine started at the end of February, he contacted RUI to broadcast his programs in English again. However, a few days after their relationship resumed, Ukrainian Radio’s foreign language services branch suddenly stopped.
“We assumed there was no one left to produce (the shows), and they had other important things to do because of the invasion,” White said.
And as Ukrainian radio stations are bombed and shut down, WRMI has found a way to broadcast Ukrainian-language programs.
These programs are uploaded to a German-based website and “we send their own government radio program back to Ukraine,” he said.
White added, “With everything going on, it’s basically 24-hour news right now. I don’t speak Ukrainian, but I can understand enough to know it’s day-to-day news.”
Then, last week, he got a call from Dr. Kim Elliott, his friend who previously worked with Voice of America as audience research manager.
Now he’s part of a group called Shortwaves for Freedom, a group that finds the funds and airtime to get the programming to places in Eastern Europe. Specifically, they were looking for a way to air a daily half-hour show, “Flash Point Ukraine”, which currently focuses on sharing information about the invasion of the country and the ongoing war.
In recent years, many shortwave radio stations have focused more on their internet and satellite offerings, rather than shortwave broadcasts, White said. This includes shows like “Flash Point Ukraine”, which was previously only available to listeners via the Internet.
“Which, of course, fewer and fewer people in Ukraine have access to these days,” he said.
Over the past week, Shortwaves for Freedom has also raised the funds needed to broadcast Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty broadcasts. In the past, the two transmitted broadcasts in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
They also phased out shortwave broadcasts in recent years, but felt the need again during the current war, White said.
WRMI has just started broadcasting its Russian language programming to Russia for two hours a day, seven days a week. While the station has carried religious and scientific programs in Russia in the past, this is the first time it has offered political programming and news.
“Basically the only thing they get is the government line in Russia,” he said. “And the internet stations have all been shut down. People in Russia, many of them have no idea what’s going on in Ukraine and the atrocities going on there.”
Older Russians might remember Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which he hopes they still trust as a source of news.
“We send them credible information,” he said. “Let’s hope that more and more (Russians) are convinced of what is really going on.”
While the internet and satellite radio have been more widespread in recent years, he expects “a lot of people still have a lot of old Soviet-made shortwave receivers in their closets in Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe”.
This current conflict in Ukraine shows how valuable shortwave radio still is, he added. “We’re often called crisis radio. In a crisis, you can turn to shortwave radio and find out what’s going on. Although the technology is considered old technology, many very shortwave receivers modern and inexpensive are being built.”
It’s especially important — and popular — in countries like Cuba and Russia, “where the media is government-controlled and they have to get real information from outside sources,” White said.
Although he is not surprised by the role WRMI played during the Ukrainian war, he is happy that the station is able to offer a platform for those seeking information in this region.
“No one knew two or three weeks ago how big this was really going to get in Ukraine,” he said. “I’m just happy that we’re able to do something to hopefully contribute to the information void that has arisen as a result of this.”