Haitian radio helps keep a country afloat

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Radio presenter and DJ, Jean Gary Apollon, had just put a new thumping track of Caribbean bachata music on the air when the earth moved below this sprawling seaside city.

For some 60 seconds he felt the building of his station Signal FM sway back and forth like the bricks were made of rubber.

But miraculously, the music never stopped.

“We were so used to power cuts here in Haiti that we had built a special system for when the lights go out,” he explained, talking in his hectic studio. “Our diesel-run generator switched on automatically.”

When the Jan. 12 tremor ceased, the crying and wailing came from the street around, and he looked out the window to see whole office blocks reduced to rubbles. But besides having some equipment hurled around, the signal FM studio was virtually unharmed.

The luck of being saved in the dark lottery allowed Signal FM to be the only local media outlet broadcasting through the first frantic days following the catastrophic quake that devastated this Caribbean country.

Keeping itself on air, the station became a crucial source of information that helped get thousands of people to hospitals and back with their families. Now as Haiti faces the Herculean task of reconstructing its shattered capital, media outlets will have to play a central role in averting the chaos and building a new order.

“Right after the quake, it was hard to think about keeping the station going. We all wanted to just look for our families and friends. It was so hard to comprehend the enormity of the event,” said Apollon, a lively radio presenter in his 40s. “But we realized how important the station would be. And we all did everything we could to keep the signal up.”

The electricity grid was down but residents heard Signal FM on transistor radios and car stereos. Rapidly, hundreds of people flocked to the station asking to get out calls to their families.

The station reached out to lost relatives, allowing people to know news of their loved ones and arrange places to meet. Soon, thousands had found each other that way.

When the station regained internet connection, it also started communicating with its many web listeners abroad in the Haitian communities in the United States, Canada, France and other countries.

A tidal wave of emails swept in asking about loved ones, and Signal FM relayed the message onto the shattered streets of Port-au-Prince. Soon they were activating one of the country’s few fixed phone lines, and allowing an endless stream of people to make heartfelt calls to their families overseas.

“We became like a social center as well as a radio. But it was the only thing to do in these circumstances,” said owner Mario Viau, who speaks perfect English, as well as French and Haiti’s Creole language.

The station also gave out life-saving information about where there were field hospitals set up on the rubble-strewn streets, where trucks were handing out water and where shelters had been made for the homeless.

No newspapers were printing, so many of the journalists came to the station and started relaying all the information to Signal FM.

Viau said they tried frantically to get hold of government officials on the day of the earthquake to allow President Rene Preval to address his people. But they could not get ahold of him anywhere.

Eventually, in the second day they got in touch with Preval’s aides who sent them a written statement from him.

“Preval has been an almost absent figure in this crisis,” Viau said. “There has really hasn’t been a Haitian government since the earthquake. We have to have some kind of international force in control in Haiti now.”

His views are shared by many on the streets, who consider Preval to have utterly failed in the face of the tragedy.

As Haiti plods on to its second week since the tremor, Signal FM is focusing on the newly developing issues, such as where the U.S. troops are deploying with food aid and how city infrastructure is coming back.

The radio is also starting to look at what kind of Haiti they can rebuild in the long term. “We have all been dealing with the immediate problems. But eventually we will have to face up to some big questions about our country,” he said. “We don’t just need to build new houses. We need to build a new political system that actually works.”

When most people are asked what stands out in their mind in the first days following the quake, they mention the piles of dead bodies, the wounded and the smashed up city. But Viau has a different answer.

“It is the solidarity,” he says. “I saw so many people helping each other. That is what I remember most.”