Argentina's 'Loony Radio' threatened by hospital closure

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With no front teeth, Pacotillo is an unlikely radio sensation. And his patter with members of his on-air posse sounds more like a group therapy session than a Saturday show. But then the broadcast is coming from the inside of a Buenos Aires psychiatric hospital. And it is called La Colifata or "Loony Radio".

Thousands of patients at the Jose Borda hospital have picked up the microphone and taken part in this unique radio show, since it started in 1991. They read poetry, discuss sports, music and politics, interview guests or simply sing a song. And millions of Argentines tune in to Loony Radio each weekend to hear their wit and wisdom.

Now this national institution is under threat. Mauricio Macri, the Mayor of Buenos Aires, recently presented a new health plan that would see the city's massive psychiatric institutions disappear within two years. They would be replaced by what he described as more modern answers to mental health treatment, such as halfway homes.

The announcement has spread uncertainty among patients and staff at Jose Borda. They agree the system needs updating and that there should be more effort made to integrate patients into society. But that's what the weekly radio broadcasts do.

Loony Radio was the brainchild of Alfredo Olivera. As a teenage hospital volunteer it occurred to him to tape interviews on topical issues with the patients and broadcast them on a friend's radio show. "The idea was to give a voice to a part of society that has been classified as ill and marginalised," he says.

The listeners' response was overwhelmingly positive. "They were surprised that the things that were being said were so interesting," recounts Mr Olivera, now in his thirties. "The fact that these people expressed themselves in unusual ways and perhaps with more difficulty only added to listeners' appreciation."

Mr Olivera soon offered edited two-minute shorts to several national radio stations. "At first the radios took it because they thought it was goofy, but after a while they realised the value of the opinions being aired," says Mr Olivera. Within no time La Colifata was reaching an audience of some 12 million listeners, who tuned in every week to hear their favourite colifato, as the presenters called themselves.

The patients, used to being shunned, were suddenly celebrated and soon La Colifata's fame had transcended Argentina's borders. The French singer Manu Chao heard about the show and asked the hosts to record an album with him. This April, the Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola showed up at the hospital with a train of actors to include La Colifata in his newest film Tetro.

At a recent Saturday recording, the radio hosts calmly discussed the looming closure of the decrepit monolithic building from which they broadcast.

There is anger among the hospital's staff and patients at the Mayor's unilateral decision to tear down the building, but they remain hopeful. "For now we're confident some solution will be found," says former patient Hugo Lopez, a veteran presenter of the show who has helped set up similar projects in Italy and Spain. "Our final goal is to rid the world of nut-houses. You should know that people on the outside are just as crazy as us loonies in here."