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."

"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."

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.

Later in the week, as I am cooking milanesas in our San Telmo apartment, I hear Doctor Vasquez's Radio Colifata segment on the Argentine radio news hour. With the magic of editing, music intersperses with the repetition of his voice and it turns into a delightful radio piece.

Back in the courtyard we are still live and unfiltered. Ernesto begins his segment by singing tango. He has high cheekbones and closes his eyes when he sings. Later, he draws me a cartoon of Donald Duck on a piece of paper and says, "Put it in your wallet to remember me."

Hugo quickly becomes my favorite. He slaps his legs to make the noise of a horse's hooves galloping and says, "I'm here riding my trusty horse and I will give you the news of the day." Everything about him echoes Don Quixote. He talks about tsunamis and cooks an imaginary Hawaiian luau for everyone.

Later, I get his story. About 22 years ago Hugo's mother died and he had a "nervous breakdown." Worried that people might hurt him, he stopped working as a tailor, stopped communicating with his wife, and slipped away. A suicide attempt and a call to the police by his wife landed him in El Borda. "I hated this place," he says. "The cold rooms, the rain-stained ceilings, the lack of adequate linens." Then he found Radio Colifata. Even though he now lives on the outside, for the last 22 years he has not missed a single Saturday. He also now hosts a community radio program entitled "The Cow."

As the sun sets and the cold nips, Jose begins interviewing the visitors, startingwith the well-dressed French psychiatrists. He asks them about French food and how they like being a psychiatrist. They provide short answers. Hugo then takes the microphone from Jose and asks, "The French Republic is based on the values of liberty, equality and fraternity. Is that still true?" The psychiatrists look at one another and lean back in their white plastic chairs. They each pass along the microphone. No one answers. I wonder how often a psychiatrist receives only questions from a patient and asks none in return. Hugo smiles and lets them off the hook, taking back the microphone.

El Bordo's Cultural Center (Amelia Borofsky)

To close our six-hour live broadcast, the music of Manu Chao plays on the loudspeaker. Later I learn that he supports Radio Colifata with live concerts in the courtyard and by recording songs with Los Colifatos. During his Argentina tour, Manu Chao even invited a few Colifatos to join him. LT22 Radio La Colifata is a documentary shot over ten years celebrates the station and the tour. In the film, Hugo offers a simple and profound reflection in front of 10,000 concertgoers in Buenos Aires. As he walks off stage with his turtle grin, he turns to the camera and says, "That was better than a million pills or any professional." Later he tells me that someone stopped him in the street and told him, "Thank you. You changed my life." He said he smiled, held their hand and told them "Anytime, you can too."

As we leave the hospital grounds, Hugo waves goodbye and yells out to all of us, "Go back to your countries and make more Radio Colifatas!"

I am teary, not just from hearing the empowering voices of these patients, but even more so from the interaction between the inside and the outside.

* * *

Inspired by Radio Colifata, I looked again into the possibility of a radio station broadcasting from an inpatient psychiatric facility. I found around fifty such stations based on the Radio Colifata model in Latin America and Europe, including Nikosia in Barcelona, Spain, Les Z'entonnoirs in Roubaix, France, and Radio Rete in Italy. I asked a few directors of facilities here in the United States, but they all reiterated that funding, confidentiality, and legality would make it virtually impossible.

I did find prison radio. Texas and Illinois have inmate-run radio stations, which broadcast daily. Family and friends can call in and request songs, inmates provide news, tell their stories and DJ. Prison radio, however, only broadcasts internally. It never reaches beyond the walls of the prison. When I called to see if I could visit, the warden said "No way." I asked why prison radio does not broadcast nationally. "Legal issues and confidentiality," she replied.

I wonder if there is a way around it. I know from the experience with Radio Colifata that people on the outside want to listen, just as much as people on the inside want to share. We are naturally curious. How thick (or thin) is the wall that separates us?