Payola’s real name is Paola Isabel, but the nickname that was given to her in high school is now the name she goes by. It has an additional significance too: she works as a DJ and radio presenter, and in the music industry “payola” refers to an illegal practice by record companies, where payments are made to broadcast recordings on commercial radio. But at Radio Red, the radio station that Payola founded in Puerto Rico in 2015 with her partner, Etienne Cardona, they do not need payola.
“Radio Red is not a commercial radio station that only transmits pop and reggaeton,” Payola told me when we met at the radio station this April. “It is something new that did not exist in Puerto Rico. We give space to local artists. They come here, make live programmes and play the music that we like.” Radio Red began in 2005 and was broadcast out of Payola’s home, but she and Cardona decided to hunt for an office in 2017. They found a space in the Santurce neighbourhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, and now have an office that also functions as a record store, a cafeteria and a vinyl-recording tent. “We wanted to create a meeting place where artists can get to know each other and create new projects together, a sort of community for the alternative Puerto Rican musicians,” Payola explained. “Our idea was to open in October 2017, but Maria changed all our plans.”
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on 20 September 2017. It destroyed villages, bridges and roads and left 3.4 million residents without power, potable water and telecommunications. The wind, recorded at as high as around 155 kilometres per hour, overturned cars, blew away doors and windows, felled thousands of trees and caused the Río de la Plata—the longest river on the island—to overflow. Maria caused damages worth around $90 billion, leading Ricardo Roselló, the governor of Puerto Rico, to launch an austerity plan that caused many protests and clashes with the police. Among those affected by the hurricane were musicians. It destroyed a few recording studios and damaged instruments, and several artists had to put their projects on standby and postpone the release of new records. In its aftermath, Payola told me, musicians associated with Radio Red have come together to support each other, financially and otherwise.
Although the official count estimated that the hurricane had caused merely 64 deaths, this figure has been heavily disputed. Eight months after Maria, in the week when a new hurricane season was about to begin, a report by researchers at Harvard and other institutes estimated that Maria had caused 4,654 deaths between 20 September and 31 December 2017—a figure that suggests a 62-percent increase in the mortality rate compared with the same period in 2016. After the release of the report, a group of activists organised a demonstration in front of the capitol in San Juan. They asked people to bring a pair of shoes that belonged to someone who had passed away during the hurricane. There were over 2,000 pairs in a few hours. “We always knew that the figure was ridiculous,” Payola said bitterly. “You could not only calculate the people dragged away by the wind and rain. People died because there were no medicines, doctors, no power to keep respiratory equipment running.”