Haitians Find Lifeline In Local Radio Station Signal FM 90.5 has been on the air around the clock since the earthquake struck Jan. 12. The station has become a community bulletin board for missing person reports, rescues, body collection, survival tips and solace.
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Haitians Find Lifeline In Local Radio Station

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Haitians Find Lifeline In Local Radio Station

Haitians Find Lifeline In Local Radio Station

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From the moment the earthquake struck Haiti, one radio station has stayed on the air, a lifeline for Haitians in Port-au-Prince and around the world via the Internet. Signal FM has transformed into a community bulletin board for missing persons reports, rescues, body collection, survival tips and solace.

NPR's John Burnett reports on the owner who has become a hero, among many Haitian heroes, over the past two weeks.

JOHN BURNETT: The first clue that Signal FM is a station that's close to its audience is the graffiti on the outside of the building: Viv Mario, Long Live Mario.

That would be Mario Viau, the 52-year-old owner and general manager, debonair and solidly built, sitting at his desk inside the station he started 18 years ago.

Mr. MARIO VIAU (Owner, Signal FM): You know, we were just like the phone. We were the phone of the country. Like, there were people on one side and people on the other side, and we were just the instrument in the middle that was saying exactly what was going on in Haiti.

BURNETT: When the quake struck at 4:53 p.m. on January 12, Signal FM was playing "Hotel California." The earth groaned and the building shuddered, but just before the terrified DJ ran out, he had the presence of mind to hit the repeat button. So for the first 30 minutes of Port-au-Prince's descent into hell, the only thing you could hear on the radio was the Eagles' standard over and over and over.

The DJ who was on the air at the moment, Jean Gary Apollon, considers it a miracle the building held together and the antenna, located on a hilltop five miles away, never toppled.

Mr. JEAN GARY APOLLON (DJ, Signal FM): (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: All the other radio stations were knocked off the air, Apollon says. We have the luck to keep broadcasting. God gave us the ability to stay on the air for the Haitian people and the whole world.

With all the capital's newspapers and TV stations down, too, Signal FM was all there was. Frantic listeners trekked to the station in the suburb of Petionville, seeking news of lost loved ones.

Mario Viau remembers one case in particular. The station put a woman on the air who said that her husband was alive under the ruins of a bank building. She begged rescuers to search for him. They went and looked to no avail. He was presumed dead. But the woman came back to the station. Viau was not sure if her husband had called or texted her. They again gave her the microphone. She said: My husband is alive in the bank. Please, please go and dig him out.

Mr. VIAU: And eight days after, she came here with her husband. That guy gave me a hug that I will never forget. That guy almost choked me to death. He was holding me, so happy, telling me: Thank you, thank you, thank you so much.

BURNETT: As the days went on, Signal FM told Haitians how to begin to handle their catastrophe. Doctors, engineers, seismologists and clergymen went on the air. They told people what to do with dead bodies, where it was safe to sleep, what to do about natural gas leaks, where they could locate medicine and food, and where to find God amid the agony.

For the time being, the station has changed its format from entertainment to information. And when they do play music, says Mario Viau:

Mr. VIAU: We try to play music that are appropriate to our situation, what we're living. We have a lot of dead people, so we're not going to put - no more hot music on the air on our station for a long time.

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: Today, Signal FM's staff of 23 reporters and announcers, with even more in the provinces, is the largest corps of journalists in Haiti. Many of them have lost their homes, and some have had family members killed.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: But they're on the air day and night telling Haitians what's happening in their calamitous nation. On Saturday, the big news was the huge funeral for the Catholic archbishop killed in the quake.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of siren)

BURNETT: Outside in the streets of Petionville, people are still coming to the station to hand messages to the guard at the door, who passes them to the announcers.

Ms. ANDREA ANSENNE: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: This radio station is really important because it's the first one that gave us the news. I don't know what we would have done without it, says Andrea Ansenne, standing in front of the station building. I came here for my niece to see if she's still alive. I would like to hear from her.

With tens of thousands of dead in the capital, does she really believe Signal FM can help her find her niece?

Ms. ANSENNE: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Mrs. Ansenne replies, I came here earlier with the names of four relatives, and they appeared. So here I am again.

John Burnett, NPR News, Port-au-Prince.

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