Commentary / World

Argentina's 'Loony Radio' making waves

by Cesar Chelala

Special To The Japan Times

Antonio Peralta, known to listeners as “exageradamente loco,” or “extremely crazy,” is a well-known radio personality in Argentina whose show is heard by 12 million people. But his studio is hardly conventional: He broadcasts from the courtyard of the largest psychiatric hospital in Buenos Aires.

Like Peralta, all of his on-air colleagues are patients at the hospital. They read news headlines and poems, sing tangos and conduct interviews inside and outside Dr. Jose T. Borda Hospital. Meanwhile Peralta, a tall man with long hair and a pleasant smile, concentrates on the legal rights of mental patients.

Their show is called “Radio La Colifata,” slang for “Loony Radio,” and the patients help produce the weekly show as part of their therapy. It is the first radio program in the world to broadcast from inside a psychiatric hospital, according to the Pan American Health Organization.

“Loony Radio” is one of Argentina’s most popular programs. Broadcast on 58 stations from cold Tierra del Fuego in the extreme south of the country to trendy Buenos Aires, the program reaches 12 million listeners who tune in looking for something out of the ordinary.

During its 25-year run, the show has managed to retain its popularity, a remarkable achievement in a nation that has undergone profound economic and social changes over the past two decades. “Loony Radio” has been copied elsewhere in Argentina, as well as in Uruguay, Chile, Germany and Spain, and it has won several local and international awards, including a special cultural citation from Argentina’s National Congress in 1997.

The program is the brainchild of Alfredo Olivera. When he started the program he was a 23-year-old psychology student making regular visits to the Borda hospital for a research paper. He was struck by how isolated the patients had become during their stay. They often slept 30 to a room and in some cases had been denied contact with the outside world for as long as 40 years.

When friends at a small community radio station asked to interview him on hospital conditions, Olivera decided to record patients’ views and play them on the air. The first tapes were such a hit they were picked up by network radio shows. At that point, Olivera thought about the importance of creating bridges with the community and decided to create the first radio show in the world that would be broadcast from a psychiatric hospital.

I met Olivera and visited “Looney Radio” during one of my frequent trips to Argentina. “We have created a tool to undo the marginality they normally experience,” said Olivera, who began the program as an experiment in 1991. “We try to change the idea many people have that these patients are dangerous people.”

Maria Lopez Geist, a Buenos Aires psychiatrist, confirms Olivera’s opinion: ” ‘Loony Radio’ demystifies the idea that a person with a mental health problem cannot have effective participation in society. Most important for the patients themselves, the show offers a unique therapy that provides them with contact with the world, and eliminates their isolation.”

Nobody is having a better time than the patients themselves. And so is Olivera, who now has a master’s in psychology from the University of Buenos Aires and works as a consultant for nongovernmental organizations interested in replicating “Looney Ratio’s” example. So far, there have been more than 40 similar projects in Europe and Latin America based on “Looney Radio’s” experience.

In 2007, the show hosted the First Global Meeting of Radios Implemented by Mental Health Patients in Buenos Aires. Both professionals and mental health patients from several countries such as France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Brazil, Chile and other Latin American countries attended the meeting. In 2005, Olivera was named as a “Distinguished Citizen” by the Buenos Aires Legislature.

“Loony Radio”was featured in the movie “Tetro,” directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and has the support of many artists, among them the famous European singer Manu Chao, who recently recorded music at the hospital, working together with patients.

Although listeners donate food, clothes and other everyday items used by the patients, steady financial support is always a challenge. But Olivera is undaunted by the obstacles. And so is Peralta, who remarked that he is always looking forward to the next program.

“We eagerly wait to help each other,” he said, talking about the other patients. “They are my family.”

Dr. Cesar Chelala, an international public health consultant and a writer on human rights issues, is a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina. In 2015, he received the Cedar of Lebanon Gold Medal in Tucuman, Argentina.