Monday, September 14, 2009

KAAY And The Cuban Missile Crisis

This material, researched and submitted by Dave M., is timely, since these events occurred shortly after KAAY signed on...and, in-line with the anniversaries re: KAAY and the Cuban Missile Crisis, here is Dave's material:

"[This account was pieced together from a variety of sources, including some private notes from AJ (no confidences are betrayed) as well as some of the historical records available on the internet.]

====Some Notes on the Cuban Missile Crisis and KAAY====

The Cuban Missile Crisis of the '60's has been discussed several times on this blog and KAAY’s role needs a bit more context to really appreciate the position the station was in and the gravity of the decisions that senior staff were being asked to make.

On Labor Day weekend 1962, the call letter change occurred from KTHS to KAAY. KAAY’s on-air date of Labor Day weekend 1962 was only a few weeks prior to the October 1962 standoff between US President Kennedy and Khrushchev of Russia. Russia’s actions in Cuba, and President Kennedy’s response to it brought the world to the very brink of all out nuclear war.
The historical context was this - the Batista government in Cuba had recently been overthrown by Castro's revolutionaries, and Khrushchev was in power in Russia. American school children were being taught about nuclear attacks and how to "Duck and Cover" in classrooms. Khrushchev was a belligerent international bully, and he saw Cuba as a natural extension of Russia's nuclear arsenal, right in America's backyard, just 90 miles from Florida. Khrushchev was supporting the new Communist regime in Cuba with aide and money and military materiel. Russian "advisors" had taken up permanent residence in Cuba.

KAAY was in a unique position because of its powerful night-time signal into downtown Havana. KAAY also had emergency power capability in the event it "was needed". KAAY was a brand new radio station, still getting on its feet and building a new business with new advertisers. So when the call came requesting KAAY participate in the VOA broadcasts to Cuba, there were a number of factors pulling the new staff in opposite directions.

In some private (email) conversations with AJ, he gave some insight into behind the scenes activity during this period. To say that everyone on staff at KAAY agreed with the station's role in broadcasting to Cuba is an understatement. Instead, some on the staff held sharply divided opinions, and some vigorously objected to anything having to do with the Cuban broadcasts.
Those opposed were motivated in part by the practical aspects of getting the new station on its feet and developing an audience. KAAY, after all, had just gone the air just a few short weeks beforehand. Broadcasting to Cuba meant that local advertising could not be sold, eliminating part of the vital revenue stream needed to keep the new station on the air. The other rationale was the simple (and very real) fear of getting directly involved in a situation that could potentially result in the physical harm to people or themselves, and possibly jeopardize the radio station itself. Both of these were good reasons "not" broadcast to Cuba.

So Americans, including the KAAY staff had every right to be very afraid of the potential consequences. The Russians were building nuclear missile launch sites in Cuba, aimed at the US mainland. Was KAAY a target?

The tension was palpable. Americans were rightly afraid that Khrushchev's USSR would act on their threat to launch nuclear missiles onto the US mainland. US Air Force planes overflew Cuba daily taking reconnaissance photos, and these pictures were broadcast on US nightly news - pictures of the Cuban missile launchers being installed and populated with Russian nuclear tipped missiles.

President Kennedy had no choice other than to call the bluff of Khrushchev and Castro. A US Navy blockade was formed, US Navy ships "surrounded" Cuba, to prevent any shipping from reaching Cuba. The blockade enraged Khrushchev and tension escalated to an impossible level. It truly appeared that we were on the verge of an all out nuclear war with Russia. We had tiptoed up to the brink.

One thing was well known - KAAY had the second strongest American radio signal into downtown Havana at night. So the services of KAAY were sought and brought into action.

(Footnote: KAAY was not the only US radio station brought into VOA service. WWL New Orleans was also brought on line as well as others, including some private shortwave stations, as well as the might and muscle of the VOA shortwave transmitters.)

The VOA broadcasts in Spanish went on the air nightly. We have heard anecdotally from Cuban ex-pats from those days, who listened to KAAY in Spanish, and of the Cuban attempts to jam those broadcasts. Many continued to listen to KAAY after the jamming was lifted – KAAY was their source of American music and information.

Diplomats of all sides sought a peaceful end to it. No one wanted the nuclear missiles to fly. Thankfully, the crisis devolved over a period of days, and both the US and USSR were able to announce a diplomatic resolution had been reached. The world took a step back from the brink. And eventually, regular programming returned to KAAY.

Part of the "hardening" of the KAAY transmitter site was the direct result of the Cuban missile crisis, and part was a result of KAAY being designated as a Conelrad Clear Channel station. KAAY was the only radio station in the state with a 50kw transmitter, and therefore the only radio station that could cover the entire state with news and information in the event of a national emergency.

Almost anticipating unforseen future historical events, when the KTHS transmitter site was built, a generator set was installed. The generator set and an underground fuel tank would insure that the transmitter would be able to stay on the air for "days" at full power in the event of a national emergency. A fallout shelter was built on the ground floor of the transmitter building and it was provisioned with several weeks’ food and water supply. A small studio was also built in the fallout shelter, and a basic telephone line was installed to the downtown studios using a magneto crank phone.

Later, the transmitter itself and assorted support equipment were fitted with a "EMP" kits to protect it from Electromagnetic Pulse radiation that would be radiated from a nuclear blast. It had to be checked every year at Proof of Performance time to confirm it was still functional."

Dave also sent along some links where he gleaned this information, for additional reading:
This is the article that the article quote came from -
Here is a Cuban history, including a section on US relations, the Batisa overthrow, and the emergence of Castro and his support from USSR.

Thanks to Dave M. for all his hard work, showing how KAAY was interwoven into the important history of our country!

Bud S. (

1 comment:

  1. Somewhere I have a recording of the first couple of words of one of the broadcasts. I was expecting to record the Rob Robbins Show, and when it didn't air, there is a loud clunk when I abrubtly switched off the tape. I knew the cause was good, but I didn't understand a word of the Spanish broadcasts. I was disappointed because I think the Cuban broadcasts were not aired at the same time each night. I remember them continuing for many weeks, and I'll bet the staggered times hindered the jamming efforts.

    Ron Henselman