Listen with the crazies

Every week more than seven million Argentinians tune in to Radio La Colifata, the surprise-hit broadcast by mental patients. Jeremy Hart reports
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The Independent Online
"La colifata" in the linfardo slang of Buenos Aires's northern suburbs means "crazy lady". It is also the rather apposite name for Argentina's most popular radio station, broadcast from a mental hospital.

"All Argentinians are a little crazy, " says Maribel Davila, a Buenos Aires tour guide. "'It's healthy."

With an audience reach of more than a quarter of Argentina's population of 30 million, broadcasting once a week from a rickety old table in the pungent sewage-smelling courtyard of a dilapidated mental asylum, Radio La Colifata is possibly the most successful hospital radio station in the world.

"Buenos das, you crazy people, Loony Radio is on the air," is as familiar a rallying call as "Greetings, pop pickers" in England. In taxis, at restaurants and in soccer stadiums, Argentina grinds to a halt for Radio La Colifata.

"It is the best programme on the radio," whoops Juan Recalde, one of Buenos Aires's 30,000 taxi drivers. "I listen to it every week."

Loony Radio, as it is known locally, started as a medical experiment. In 1991, a psychology student, Alfredo Olivera, made regular visits to the Dickensian wards of the Jose T Borda mental hospital for his thesis. Wandering the wards where patients, many of whom are mental victims of the Falklands War, sleep 30 to a room and share their bare dank dorms with cats and rodents, Olivera was struck how isolated from society the patients had become during their stay, in some cases up to 40 years.

"I thought it would be good to connect the crazy people with the world outside," he explains. "A radio station was the obvious bridge. The patients could not always go out and the people outside did not want to come in, so it was the only way to introduce the two."

A Walkman was Olivera's only piece of hardware for the first historic programme. It never hit the airwaves. Instead, those in the asylum interviewed each other about any subject that mattered to them.

"One would talk about the food in the hospital, others about football or even tango," says Olivera. "I was surprised how much they enjoyed talking. It seemed very therapeutic and they didn't even sound that crazy. Just sometimes."

Twelve hundred patients are crammed into the peeling concrete walls of Borda. With such basic equipment, only a handful could record and listen to the programme that Olivera then edited at home.

"The hospital directors were not keen at all to start with, so it was incredible to soon get a small transmitter so we could broadcast the programme around the hospital," says Olivera. "We still use it today. It has a range of about 200m if the wind is in the right direction."

Even with a transmitter and a willing volunteer force of barmy broadcasters, Olivera's plan to reach the world outside crash-landed on the hospital perimeter fence every time.

"We could not get a licence to run a more powerful transmitter, so I decided to start taping the three-hour programme for the patients and send the best bits to radio stations around the country. It was an instant hit.

"Because crazy people talk about things in a much simpler and more understandable way than normal broadcasters, everyone loved the programmes. In two minutes the patients could discuss politics, sport and culture with refreshing simplicity."

Twenty-six radio stations, from the Antarctic supply base on the Tierra del Fuego to Buenos Aires's trendy Rock and Pop 106. 3, now retransmit Borda's cult crazies each week.

The dream of bridging the gap between the mentally ill and Argentina's marginally less nutty population suddenly became reality. The often confused and sedated patients of Borda were media stars.

Olivera made sure that in the frenzy, sight was not lost of the rationale behind the radio station. "I wanted to give Argentinians the picture that not all crazy people are dangerous or scary. More often they are just confused and frightened.

"I wanted people to understand them, even if sometimes they said crazy things on the programme. More often they are able to talk intelligently about major issues and interests."

The sudden popularity of the programme - which stayed loyal to its roots and gave the patients the chance to talk about a melange of subjects and even play some of their favourite music - made Olivera fear it would only have a short life.

"I thought that this was some passing fad that the country was going through and I was ready for it to finish as fast as it started, but it has not, and, to be honest, I don't know why."

The most popular segment on the programme is "El Borda Tango Club". Its presenter, Angel Villa, has not been in one of Buenos Aires's tango clubs for 37 years. All that time he has been in Borda.

His knowledge of the dance and the music is legendary and, armed with records sent in by listeners, he shares his love with a country fast rediscovering its traditional dance.

"I started to get letters from people who liked the programme and even from friends I had not seen for 40 years," Angel explains, through the haze of smoke from a filterless cigarette. He had burns on his fingers, cigarette burns in his clothes.

"The radio has changed my life. I go out now. I have things that I never had before the radio, liberty .... It makes me very happy that people like the programme. Before the programme I was nothing. Now I am something."

In April, 62-year-old Angel stood under the glare of bright television lights to receive Argentina's highest award for radio on behalf of Radio La Colifata. The other patients nominated him to receive their award.

Alfredo Olivera's psychology career is now on hold indefinitely as Radio La Colifata revolutionises the Argentinian airwaves and pushes the boundaries of neurology with his nutty idea.

"There are already six or so patients who have been able to leave the hospital because of the therapeutic effect being on the radio had," he says proudly. "If the hospital emptied as a result of Radio La Colifata that would get the job done."