Monday, December 24, 2018


NARBA was replaced in in 1983, with the adoption of the Regional Agreement for the Medium Frequency Broadcasting Service in Region 2, A.K.A. the "Rio Agreement", which covered more or less the entire Western hemisphere. That was over 30 years ago, so NARBA is largely a historical artifact now. Looking back what remains notable is both the nations that participated, and that that didn't. Most notable is the one nation who joined, then later withdrew: Cuba. More here.

Cuba was on board with the original NARBA, let's call it "NARBA Classic" back in the 1930s. The initial NARBA bandplan, was actually known as the "Havana Treaty."  It was signed by the United States, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti in December of 1937. It took effect in March of 1941. Back then the primary goals were: standardizing engineering practises, reducing interference and fairly distributing channel assignments across nations.  In fairness, NARBA Classic favored the US substantially.

In 1949 when NARBA was being re-negotiated, Cuba was in it to win it. The problem of conflicting channel assignments was of primary concern and while Mexico refused to participate the other participating nations were in for a high stakes poker game. Cuba in a savvy maneuver proposed they get wildly more than they wanted putting the US on defense. Broadcasting magazine literally described the Montreal NARBA proceedings as the “threat of ether war.”  This was a tad dramatic, but Cuba did ask for the following:
  1. Right to 3 more 1-A channels
  2. Power increases on 3 more 1-A channels
  3. Establishment of 11 Class 1 stations (7 regional, 4 clear channel)
  4. A total of 108 assignment son 79 channels
  5. Increased protection on certain Cuban channels 
  6. A ban on further licensing of 590, 690, 860, 950, and 1010 in the Southern US (FL, GA, AL, MA, LA)
Under the previous NARBA treaty of 1941, (and the interim agreement of 1946) the 690 frequency was already designated a Canadian 1-A clear channel, so that wasn't a big ask. In trade, they offered to give up the below stations to protect the clear channel status of KNBC in San Francisco and WMAQ in Chicago.
  1. 1 Kw station on 670 kHz at Oriente
  2. 250 watt station on 680 kHz at Artemisa
  3. 1 Kw station on 680 kHz at Santa Clara
The conference voted 6 to 4 against.  Letters to broadcasting magazines described it as "jungle warfare" or as a "cold radio war" and the island of Cuba as "pint-sized."At the time, the whole island of Cuba only had a population of about 5 million. That is about the size of Boston, MA today. Boston has more than 90 AM and FM signals so 108 assignments isn't excessive in today's terms, but it may have seemed that way in 1949. 

It's 1,300 miles from Cuba to Chicago. By today's math, the stations they were offering to protect were in little danger from those local Cuban stations. Though at the time AM reception was common at those distances for clear channel stations. So they would have been regionally impeded in the South East. Interestingly ABC, Westinghouse, KPRC, and Fort Industry Co. all still voted in favor of the treaty.  (Mexico refused to even attend the conference.) The following US stations would have been effected by the Cuban proposal:  KFI, WNBC, WJR, WBBM, WCCO, WLS, WENR, KPRC, WFBC, WSUN, WJBO. An even greater list was described over-dramatically as having "incomplete' protection. In Cuba WIBS would have to move from 740 to 730 kHz, and WKAQ in San Juan would have to reduce it's radiation toward San Juan. 

Cuba didn't get what they asked for, but they got what they needed.  A three-year interim agreement gave Cuba expanded allocations, including the right to share 5  U.S., 3 Canadian, and 2 Mexican clear channel allocations. The interim agreement expired on March 29th, but the new NARBA agreement was signed in November 1950 and was good for another 5 years. NAB was pretty pissed. That same month Billboard Magazine published that the NARBA "conference quietly stole away this week after signing a pact which empowers Cuba virtually to destroy half a dozen clear-channel frequencies in New York and elsewhere."  Broadcasting Magazine just referred to it was "Cuba's Victory."

Remember Fidel Castro rose to power in 1959, so while he was the beneficiary of those proceedings, he was not their architect. NARBA was still biased in favor of the U.S. and Multiple signers were considering walking away before 1980. But Cuba had been in a radio fight with the U.S. for decades. The CIA broadcast anti-Castro propaganda starting in the 1960s, VOA began beaming western propaganda at the island the same year as did Cuban exiles in Florida. In response, Cuba beefed up it's local service, aided Radio Free Dixie, and broadcast Radio Moscow to the U.S. as late as the 1970s.  All of that was outside the treaty.

The Carter administration had improved relations with Havana to the point where the radio spat had largely cooled. But Ronald Reagan was a rabid anti-communist. After his election  the broadcasts resumed.  In 1980, Cuba gave the required one year notification that it was withdrawing from the NARBA treaty. Reagan administration officials announced plans to establish a "Radio Free Cuba". This service was named Radio Marti in 1982 and service began in 1983. Seeing this coming, and with no attachment to treaties signed by the pre-revolutionary government, Cuba abrogated NARBA in 1980. They even gave the standard 1-year notice. 

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