How MPR is able to broadcast from Cuba

Minnesota Orchestra’s appearance in Cuba has gotten plenty of well-deserved attention. But another facet of the concert tour in the Communist nation is getting some attention today. How is it that a certain public radio outlet is able to broadcast from the closed country?

“I had to re-read the date a couple of times,” Brian Newhouse, MPR managing director for classical music, tells Currrent.org. While major concert tours are typically scheduled two years or more in advance, “once I got my brain wrapped around that this was really the Minnesota Orchestra and it was this May, I sent an email to my boss and said, we’ve got to do a live broadcast, yes?”

That was the easy part and Current does a fine job of confirming what I’ve always noted when conducting tours around MPR — the voices you hear on the radio are a very small part of what’s happening away from the microphone.

“If we were to do a broadcast here in the states, we would do what most any organization would do,” said Rob Byers, technical coordinator, broadcast and media operations for MPR. “We’d call up the telephone company and order ISDN lines or Internet service of some kind, and we just did not have that ability in Cuba to do that sort of thing.”

Indeed, when Byers and his team sat down and examined the map of undersea cables in the Caribbean, they found almost no connectivity to the rest of the world, save for two connections to Venezuela. But because both MPR’s sibling company American Public Media and Cuban state radio (ICRT) are associate members of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), it was possible to make a satellite connection from Cuban radio in Havana to a downlink in Geneva, Switzerland, and from there to a site in London that could connect to MPR in St. Paul.

They found a better way. A direct satellite uplink from Havana to St. Paul, using a downlink at the Fitzgerald Theater and a backup site at Twin Cities Public Television.

Seven MPR employees are heading to Cuba to pull the broadcast off. The equipment will be far more than a typical remote broadcast.

“You can’t just go to the corner store and buy a pack of AA batteries,” Byers observed during his initial visit. In addition to the usual collection of microphones, cables, mixing console and other gear that always travels with the orchestra, Classical Movements will be transporting all of those staple items — batteries, memory cards and so on — to Havana. “We’re having to make our list and check it about 85 times.”

MPR isn’t saying how much it will cost to provide the live broadcasts Friday and Saturday.

Update 11:03 a.m. – In comments, people asked about political and legal hurdles. I checked back with Rob and Brian. Brian says they’ve asked from the start whether there would be any editorial oversight of the broadcasts by Cuban authorities and they have been assured there would not be.

Rob says he has not encountered legal hurdles. He said it is illegal to bring satellite phones and satellite equipment to Cuba, but that, while inconvenient, has not been a hurdle.

  • MrE85

    Oh, you want to explain the technical questions. I thought this was about the (still there) political and legal barriers.

  • Gary F

    MPR political bias is welcomed in Cuba. The technicalities, because of little things like using out dated low amperage aluminum wiring or non-grounded outlets, that’s another thing.

    • Oh, stop it.

      • Gary F

        do they have 60 hertz power or 50 hertz power? Old outdated US power generation or state of the art 1970’s Soviet system?

        • Gary F

          Will the political dissidents in prison get to hear the concerts?
          Johnny Cash has been playing for people in prison fifty years ago.

          • Jerry

            The U.S. doesn’t have a lot of moral high ground to complain about indefinite imprisonment and the use of torture on the island of Cuba. The government has consistently argued that human rights don’t apply there.

          • Jon Eisenberg

            Do they waterboard prisoners and then claim it’s not torture?

          • Gary F

            Waterboarding terrorists is equal to torture and jailing people because they want economic and personal freedoms?

          • Jon Eisenberg

            You’ve taken this discussion way off topic, but anyway both situations are violations of international law – in the case of water boarding, law which was established primarily at the behest of the United States to protect our service members.

        • In general the voltage in Havana is 110V AC 60Hz, but some new hotels have 220V AC 60 Hz too.

          And you realize that Cuba wasn’t operating in a vacuum during the height of the embargo, right? They DO have trade partners.

  • Inella

    The work done behind the scenes is phenomenal.

    Despite Denny’s best efforts to explain to me how it all worked, I still marvel at how satellite uplink happens.

    Thanks for satisfying my inner geek again.

  • The truth of how they do it:

    • Peter Tobias

      Looks like a Minnesotan 🙂

  • Peter Tobias

    I saw the times of the broadcast on the linked MPR-site:
    Friday and Saturday, May 15 and 16, at 7 p.m. both nights.
    I plan to listen on one night, but have they announced yet what they will play?

    • Veronica

      No announcements so far. That information had been embargoed.

      *crickets*

    • Jon Eisenberg

      This information has been announced and is on the MN Orchestra’s web site, but here it is:

      “The Orchestra’s opening performance on Friday, May 15, at the Teatro Nacional will feature Music Director Osmo Vänskä conducting the Orchestra in an all-Beethoven program, including the Egmont Overture; Symphony No. 3, Eroica; and Choral Fantasy, the latter with Cuban pianist Frank Fernández and choruses Coro Vocal Leo and the Cuban National Choir.

      “The second performance, on Saturday, May 16, at the same location will feature Cuban composer Alejandro García Caturla’s Danzón, Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite, conducted by Vänskä.”

      • Peter Tobias

        Thank you, Jon.