Live From the Inside: A Radio Show Run by Psychiatric Patients

"Crazy Radio" in Buenos Aires breaks down boundaries between the "interned" and the "externed."

A mosaic outside El Borda National Psychiatric Hospital in Buenos Aires (Amelia Borofsky)

I used to dream of being a radio journalist. Instead, I became a psychologist. In this profession, I hear many incredible, traumatic, and empowering stories. I often think about how therapeutic it would be for patients to be able to share their stories on the radio, and also for the public to hear them. Confidentiality, however, would never permit it in our profession.

After finishing my doctorate in clinical psychology, I left the hospital to travel and look for stories of health and healing. I brought a tape recorder. In Buenos Aires, my first destination, I met up with a friend, a Chilean psychologist, to discuss the differences between psychology in the United States and South America. When I told him about my implausible idea to have a radio station transmitted from a psychiatric hospital, his head tilted. And then he stunned me.

"Didn't you know," he said, "Buenos Aires has the world's first and largest radio station broadcast live from a psychiatric hospital."

"What?" I spilled my café con leche, like a cartoon.

He shrugged. "Go visit," he said as he wrote down the address on a waxy-paper napkin.

* * *

It's a blue sky Saturday afternoon. I ask the taxi driver to take me to El Borda National Psychiatric Hospital. "You're going to visit Radio Colifata?" he asks.

"How did you know?" I say.

"Everyone in Buenos Aires listens to Radio Colifata," he says, "and lots of people from around the world come to visit."

I get out of the taxi and see the paint-peeling walls of a hospital with black graffiti that reads "Don't shut us down." Founded in 1863 and spread out on 49 acres, the hospital stands as a testament to an older model of institutionalized psychiatric treatment. In the United States, in part due to socio-political changes and the availability of psychiatric medications, most long-term hospitals closed in the 1970s, the patients moved into underfunded community healthcare networks. El Borda reflects the old institutional model, but Buenos Aires style. Psychoanalysis, magical realism, circus, tango, and pirate radio all thrive here.

A security guard smiles and says, "Are you here for Radio Colifata?" I nod and look for an ID. He shakes his head and, without unlocking any doors, points me to the courtyard. Big leafy shade trees cover a tiny yellow building with a mosaic of colorful people. Above their heads reads: "Radio Colifata," which means "crazy lady" in the lunfardo prison slang developed in the late 19th century so guards would not understand the prisoners. The motto of Radio Colifata, the founder Dr. Alfredo Olivera explains, is "To create bridges where there are walls."

"People on the outside want to listen, just as much as people on the inside want to share."

"It started," he says, "by accident." As a young, idealistic psychology student, Olivera interned at El Borda in the early nineties. "I found a lot of my friends and family kept asking me what it was like in there," he explains. "I decided to let the patients tell them." He started a radio workshop. Not as strange as it sounds in a psychiatric hospital that offers tango workshops, circus workshops, a patient-run bakery and an artist's cultural center where the community and university students also come to paint. I have fallen down the rabbit hole.

Patients and staff (you can't tell who is who) set up white plastic chairs, microphones and loud speakers into a circle under the trees. The scratchy music starts. Olivera apologizes, saying, "We do not have the money for good equipment."

Jose, a patient in his late forties, grabs a microphone. "Welcome to Radio Colifata!" His voice rings out like a ringmaster at the big-top. "Welcome to los internos (the interned) and los externos (the externed)," he bellows. Olivera chimes in on his microphone, explaining, "We prefer the terms 'interned' and 'externed' here instead of 'patient' and 'visitor' as it shows that only a wall separates us. Radio Colifata connects us." I imagine my taxi cab driver outside listening.

Jose has us introduce ourselves and gives us each a welcome kiss on the cheek. The "externed" include seven visiting psychiatrists from France, a documentary filmmaker from Chile, a psychology student from Mexico City, five argentine psychology students, some friends of the interned, a German writing his dissertation, and a few family members Skyped in from other cities.

For the next six hours, we experience "The Crazy Lady." Olivera writes the schedule on the green blackboard, and then disappears into the background. The patients, known as Los Colifatos, run the show. Later, he will edit and cut vignettes to be interspersed on other national radio programs throughout the week.

Maria begins with "Thoughts from Maria." She has shoulder length white hair and sagging cheeks that hang when she smiles, which she does often. I ask later if Maria is her real name. It is. No one seems to worry about confidentiality. A former patient, she still walks the four blocks from her apartment to Radio Colifata every Saturday. She reads from a notebook filled with blue scrawl, sharing her poems and her "thoughts of the week."

"I'm here riding my trusty horse and I will give you the news of the day."

Soon after she starts, someone walks across the green and grabs the microphone away. "Green cows run wild," he says, "milk and milk and milk spilling. Green organs spill. Intestines spill." An interned leans over and whispers to me, "That's Dr. Vazquez. He is the only one allowed to interrupt the program. He worked as a surgeon here. His wife, a nurse, lives here too." Doctor Vasquez leaves and his wife, who wears her nurse's uniform, runs after him. Maria returns to her poem. 

Presented by

Amelia Rachel Hokule’a Borofsky

Amelia Rachel Hokule’a Borofsky, Psy.D., is a community and clinical psychologist based in Hawaii and the Cook Islands. She teaches at Hawaii Pacific University and writes about health across different cultures.

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