Radio Tropical, Keeping New Orleans in Touch

The English-speaking population of New Orleans gets disaster-related information from large radio and TV stations on a shared broadcast. But Spanish speakers rely on smaller Radio Tropical. The station has helped evacuees get in touch with loved ones, and workers find out jobs.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

New Orleans may be smaller after Hurricane Katrina, but one population could thrive. The Hispanic population is expected to remain strong there. The city has close ties to Latin America as a center for bananas and coffee. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has been listening to a radio station meant to keep New Orleans' Hispanics in touch.

JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:

After Katrina, New Orleans' largest radio and TV stations banded together for wall-to-wall disaster coverage. City officials appear on the shared broadcast daily with information, warnings, advice, but none of this is translated into Spanish. If you're Hispanic and need to know what's going on, there's only one place, a low-wattage spot on the AM dial.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. MARIO ZAVALA (Host, Radio Tropical): (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: Radio Tropical broadcasts from an antiquated studio in a small beige trailer. Between news updates and upbeat music, host Mario Zavala fields a steady stream of calls.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. ZAVALA: Tropical. Buenos dias.

Unidentified Caller: Buenos dias.

Mr. ZAVALA: Buenos dias.

LUDDEN: Zavala's boss, Ernesto Schweikert, says he begs local officials to come on the air and answer everyone's questions, to no avail. So the station does the best it can. Much of the day is spent repeating a list of phone numbers...

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. ZAVALA: Dos veinticinco.

Unidentified Caller: Dos veinticinco.

Mr. ZAVALA: Nueve dos quatro.

LUDDEN: ...for the Red Cross, FEMA, a host of Central American embassies. On this morning, a woman comes to the studio with a flier she wants Zavala to read on the air. Rosario Hernandez(ph) is with a local religious school that's announcing its reopening. When asked what it means to have Radio Tropical at this difficult time, her eyes well up.

Ms. ROSARIO HERNANDEZ(ph) (School Official): Very important. You have no idea. It's completely in our hearts. We need it every day.

LUDDEN: For weeks, Radio Tropical's owner, Schweikert, and two colleagues lived at the station, divvying up long shifts on the air, doing without air conditioning as they used their tiny generator to power the transmitter.

Mr. ERNESTO SCHWEIKERT (Owner, Radio Tropical): And the listeners were our best friends, because they listened to our complaints, and they brought us gasoline, they brought us food. They even came and brought us hot meals, you know.

LUDDEN: In those early days, radio stations in Honduras kept calling. Their listeners were worried about relatives here. So Ernesto Schweikert arranged a hookup. He put a Honduran radio station on the air live in New Orleans.

Mr. SCHWEIKERT: They were taking calls on the air and say, `OK. I'm Pedro Pedez(ph). I'm looking for my cousin, Maria Rodriguez that lived in Kenner.' And then Maria would call back and say, `Oh, please tell my cousin Pedro that my family's OK, that they are in a shelter,' or whatever. So it was tremendous, you know. People were crying on the radio. They were nice, nice things.

LUDDEN: As evacuees were located, the government of Honduras sponsored free flights to bring them home. But Schweikert says few took up the offer. Immigrants come here to work, he says, and soon there was plenty of that once again.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Announcer: (Spanish spoken)

Mr. ZAVALA: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: Radio Tropical's air is now filled with ads placed by construction companies. They seek painters, carpenters, drywall hangers. Many provide housing and food, and similar ads run across the region. Oton Valdez(ph) came from Austin, Texas, to help repair the hurricane-damaged Sheraton Hotel.

Mr. OTON VALDEZ (Construction Worker): I make a lot of money in this company, better than the other companies. In the other work, I work just 40 hours. Here I work almost 80 hours every week. So I feel happy and tired, but it's good money.

LUDDEN: The large number of immigrant workers, especially those from out of state, has rankled some. Earlier this month, at a meeting with local businesspeople, Mayor Ray Nagin wondered aloud how he could keep the city from being, quote, "overrun by Mexican workers." But Radio Tropical's Ernesto Schweikert says those workers just may be the future of the city. He believes many newcomers will choose to stay.

Mr. SCHWEIKERT: Me myself and a lot of people like myself, we would not live in the United States if it wasn't for New Orleans. I know there is something about New Orleans, you know, the food, the people, the music. I mean, we feel like home. Even the politicians are the same thing, like in our country, you know.

LUDDEN: And so as soon as he can, Schweikert hopes to reschedule an important meeting he was to have had the day Hurricane Katrina struck. He's negotiating to launch New Orleans' first Spanish-language TV station.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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