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December 23, 2014
Antonio Peralta, known to listeners as exageradamente loco, or “extremely crazy,” is a well-known radio personality in Argentina where a radio show is heard by 12 million people. But his studio is hardly conventional: He broadcasts from the courtyard of Buenos Aires’s largest psychiatric hospital.
On the air with are also colleagues –other patients– who read news headlines and poems, sing tangos and conduct interviews inside and outside Dr. José T. Borda Hospital. That is where Antonio Peralta, a tall man with long hair and a pleasant smile, hosts an innovative program on mental patients’ legal rights.
They work for “Radio La Colifata” — slang for “Loony Radio,” and they all are patients who do 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 radio programs. Broadcast on 58 stations from cold Tierra del Fuego to trendy Buenos Aires it reaches 12 million listeners who tune in for something out of the ordinary.
During its 23-year existence, the show has managed to stay popular, 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.
Maria Lopez Geist, a Buenos Aires psychiatrist said, “‘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 contact with the world and eliminates their isolation.”
The program is the brainchild of Alfredo Olivera. When he started with the program, Olivera 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 were denied contact with the outside world for up to 40 years.
“We have created a tool to undo the marginality they normally experience,” said Alfredo 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.” I met Olivera and visited La Colifata during one of my frequent trips to Argentina.
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 air. The first tapes were such a hit they were picked up by network radio shows.
Now, nobody is having a better time than the patients themselves. And so is Olivera, who now has a Masters in Psychology from the University of Buenos Aires and works as a consultant with non-governmental organizations interested in replicating La Colifata’s example. So far, there have been more than 40 similar experiences in Europe and Latin America based in La Colifata’s experience.
In 2007, La Colifata 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 “Distinguished Citizen” by the Buenos Aires Legislature.
La Colifata 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 a national award on journalism from Argentina.