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 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.