MIAMI — Everything about the evening newscast at TV Marti looks and sounds as it might at any live broadcast studio.
Cameras, lights, a smooth-voiced anchor and a roomful of technicians sitting in front of monitors get ready as the seconds tick down to 6 p.m.
All that is missing is the audience.
For the past 18 years that has been the daily dilemma at TV Marti, the world's least-watched news station. The United States has spent an estimated half billion dollars over the past two decades broadcasting TV and radio programming into Cuba.
But the U.S. government has yet to find a way to stop Cuba from jamming the signal of TV Marti, according to a report issued this month by the Government Accountability Office, the research arm of Congress. Even though the radio signal has better reception, both TV and Radio Marti had audiences of less than 1 percent of Cuba's 11 million residents, it said.
Critics say enough is enough. Recalling how President Obama used his inaugural address to state his belief in "government that works," some argue that the time has come to pull the plug on TV Marti. "It's our taxpayers' money, and these are hard times," said John Nichols, director of communications at Penn State University.
Radio Marti began broadcasting in 1985 as part of an effort by the Reagan administration to promote democracy by countering Cuba's state-run media. TV Marti was added in 1990. In the early years the stations operated out of Washington, as part of the U.S. international broadcasting arm, which includes Voice of America.
But political pressure from Cuban exiles in Miami brought about the stations' relocation to Miami in 1996. Critics say that move doomed the stations by bringing them under the domination of Miami's hard-line Cuban exile groups. As a sign of that influence, the stations' offices today are housed in a building named after Jorge Mas Canosa, the late and legendary founder of one of the main exile groups.
The GAO report has revived questions about the effectiveness of the Marti stations, as well as a perpetually poor standard of journalism. Internal reviews over the last five years found repeated problems, such as editorializing and "the presentation of individual views as news," the report said. It also found use of "unsubstantiated reports coming from Cuba," and the use of "offensive and incendiary language in broadcasts."
Officials at TV and Radio Marti, who are almost all Cuban exiles, concede that the report was fair. Even so, they strenuously defend the $34 million annual budget allocated by Congress.
"Overall, we are fairly satisfied with the report," said Pedro Roig, a Cuban-American attorney who heads the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which manages the stations.
But he went on to question the methodology used to measure the audience, pointing out that Cuba does not allow independent polling, so surveys must be done by telephone from outside the island. "The people answering in Cuba believe it was the Cuban government calling. So there was a fear factor," he said.
He also strongly rejected any lack of professionalism of his staff of 150. "This is not a biased station," he said. "We are very careful about that. We are objective, informative, fair and well-balanced."
The St. Petersburg Times was invited to sit in and observe the nightly 6 o'clock newscast. Despite professional editing and studio quality, the newscast at times sank into the kind of political propaganda cited by the GAO report.
The lead item, a story from Geneva about annual human rights hearings, included unsubstantiated allegations by a Miami exile group about torture in Cuban jails, citing up to 100 deaths. The report was not balanced with independent sources. Another item, about Fidel Castro's birthplace being turned into a museum, included an exile critic who commented that the ailing former president had "not had the decency to die."
The news that evening also included an item about the GAO report; the item failed to mention the tiny audience figures, stating instead that the signal continues to suffer from jamming by Cuba.
While jamming is a problem, Roig said residents of the capital, Havana, ought to be able to see the TV signal during certain hours, thanks to an airborne transmitter, known as AeroMarti, that has flown up and down the Florida Straits for five hours, six nights a week since 2006 — at a cost of $5 million a year.
But the GAO found no evidence to suggest this had boosted its audience. Others argue that due to the distance, the signal is too weak when it reaches Cuba. "All the Cubans have to do is sneeze on it and the signal is useless," said Nichols, the Penn State communications director.
The station is also carried via the satellite signal of DirecTV, though few Cubans have access to dishes.
By contrast, many Cubans in Havana are able to watch Miami's Spanish-language TV stations, including several popular current affairs shows that target the Miami Cuban audience.
The GAO report recognized that Cuban TV and radio is more varied these days, making it a more competitive field for the Martis. Hollywood movies, once scorned, now fill state TV programming. On the other hand, news remain firmly under state control.
"In the old days Radio Marti really did break the information monopoly of the communist system," said Phil Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute who writes the Cuban Triangle blog. "Now in Cuba everyone has DVDs and flash drives, and information changes hands more easily."
Like many others, Peters believes it would make more sense to lift restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba. "Let the information flow that way," he said.
David Adams can be reached at email@example.com.