Haiti radio fills information void in disaster

2010-01-21 11:59

THE caller from Boston was desperate.

She had just received an SMS on Tuesday from a friend trapped in

the rubble of a Port-au-Prince school and needed to get the news to rescuers,

the Haitian government, the world.

She called the right place: Signal FM, the only radio station in

the city that has broadcast non-stop during the earthquake. Its building,

transmitting equipment and antennas escaped damage, and the station has been a

key source of information since the magnitude-7 tremor wrecked Haiti a week

ago.

Day and night, journalists and disc jockeys announce names of

missing persons and news of open stores and dead celebrities.

Outside, people crowd the station’s parking lot with crumpled

handwritten notes, pleading for the announcers to read the names of their

missing loved ones or a location where hungry people need relief.

“The radio station is the people’s life right now,” said

56-year-old Roselaure Revil, a Haitian who runs a small church aid programme

that is out of food, water and clothing.

Even before the earthquake, radio was the nation’s most popular

form of media. About half of Haitians are said to be illiterate, so they can’t

read newspapers, and a lack of electricity in many households means television

is not an option.

Stations like Signal FM, which broadcasts nationwide from the

capital’s Petionville neighbourhood and on the internet, also highlight how

painfully absent the government has been. President Rene Preval has not

addressed the nation about the disaster live on any media, opting instead to

send Signal FM a cassette tape of remarks the day after the quake.

Signal FM is one of the few broadcasting news 24 hours a day.

That’s key for citizens who have lost everything, said Jacobo

Quintanilla, an internews project director, who is in Haiti working to connect

aid organisations with broadcasters.

In the case of the Boston caller, it was unknown whether anyone

tried to save her friend. The radio station has no time to follow up on every

call it broadcasts for help.

“I tell all the people here, don’t stop working,” said Mario Viau,

the station’s owner and director. “When you stop working, you start thinking.”

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