SAN DIEGO — National Public Radio has bid adios to a 9-year-old weekly Spanish-language newscast produced here, touching off charges that officials at NPR lack a commitment to serving Latinos, and drawing congressional interest.
Citing low listenership and a lack of funding, NPR has scotched "Enfoque Nacional," a 30-minute news magazine that focuses on national issues of concern to Latinos. The final broadcast of "Enfoque" is scheduled for March 24.
The cancellation is part of a larger issue of whether Spanish-language public radio programs should be broadcast by English-language public radio stations or by Spanish-language commercial stations.
"My argument from the beginning has been to go to commercial stations," said NPR President Douglas J. Bennet in a telephone interview. "The point is to reach the Spanish-speaking audiences."
The editor of one of the nation's major Spanish-language newspapers, who is also on the NPR board of directors, agrees.
"What good does does it do to put out the very finest program if nobody carries it?" said Ignacio Lozano, who is editor in chief of La Opinion, a daily newspaper in Los Angeles.
"Being in the business I'm in, I recognize how difficult it is to direct a program or a publication in more than one language," Lozano said. "We don't publish any English in our newspaper. I think that is one of the problems NPR is running into to meet the needs of the Spanish-speaking audience. The fact of the matter is that the managers of NPR member stations are the ones who decide" which programs they will carry. Because of that, Lozano has encouraged NPR to make programming available to Spanish-language commercial stations.
Arnold Torres, however, a Sacramento lobbyist on Latino issues, says that airing Spanish-language programming over commercial stations rather than public radio flies in the face of NPR's mandate for minority programming.
"NPR has never encouraged its network of stations to carry (Spanish language) programming," Torres said. "NPR has always ghettoized minority programming.
"The problem is public radio was not designed to simply have white liberals listen to what they want to listen to. It is designed to provide alternative programming," which a Spanish-language program does, Torres said.
"Enfoque" is NPR's only Spanish-language broadcast and the only NPR program produced in San Diego. It will be replaced by a daily 10- to 15-minute program in English. The new show, with a similar format, will likely be produced in Washington. If funding can be found, a Spanish-language version of the program will be offered to commercial stations. As for Spanish-language broadcasts, NPR member stations are not required to carry them. Consequently only a few dozen do.
"It's basically out of our hands," said Tom McManus, station manager at KPBS-FM (89.5), which produces "Enfoque Nacional." McManus praised "Enfoque Nacional" (ayn-FOKE-ay nah-see-oh-NAL) for its high quality and for training Latino journalists and introducing them to public radio.
The cancellation will not affect KPBS' nightly three-hour Spanish-language news magazine, "Contacto 89," station officials said.
"This is not the first time we've been jerked around," said Jose Mireles, executive producer of "Enfoque." "Every year we have to go through these extremes to get a piece of the pie.
"There's no long-term commitment (at NPR) to Spanish-language broadcasting. They say, 'It's not our job. That's a job for commercial Spanish-language stations.' "
Mireles implied that NPR used a double standard, that it permits the broadcast of public radio programs in Spanish over commercial Spanish-language radio but restricts English-language public radio programs such as NPR's popular "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" to nonprofit, public radio stations.
NPR officials in Washington said "Enfoque Nacional" was canceled after years of a declining audience. Only 6% of NPR member public radio stations subscribed to the program in October, according to NPR. Last February the program's funding was cut to only six months this fiscal year.
"We feel we have given it every chance that we could," NPR's Bennet said. He praised the quality of the program but said its weekly audience of 11,000, at a time of scarce funds, did not warrant a $180,000 annual budget.
"I'd rather take a risk with something new," he said.
Mireles has enlisted the aid of several congressmen and Senator Pete Wilson's office to try to prevent the program's cancellation.
"We are sympathetic . . . and trying to help get their money back," Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) said in a telephone interview on Thursday.
Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), who once singled "Enfoque" out for its professionalism, "does not want to see it go under," according to one of Richardson's spokesmen.
An aide to U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson of California said that the replacement program for Enfoque "sounds like they (NPR) want to reinvent the wheel."