Wind and Waves

A new radio station starts in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria

In the wake of the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Maria, the cofounders of Radio Red hope that the radio station, which doubles up as a record store and vinyl-recording tent, can offer Puerto Rican musicians solidarity and support MIRKO CECCHI
01 August, 2018

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.”


On the evening that the hurricane hit, Payola was at her aunt’s house in San Juan. “We could get out of the city only two days later. It seemed like an apocalypse outside,” she said. “Families were pulling out the destoyed furniture. Everyone was looking for a way to communicate with distant relatives. There was no food, no water.” Her mother was away in Barcelona and Payola only managed to contact her after a few days. “I was on the street and suddenly my phone got the signal. Just enough time to answer the call, tell her that it was all okay, and the communication collapsed again.”

Payola was disoriented for a few days, but she and a group of five friends began to organise volunteer efforts soon after. People brought basic necessities to Payola’s house in the Miramar district. The group then split into two cars and travelled to several areas to ask what was needed. They began to make and distribute survival kits, including cans of beans and antibiotics.

In a matter of weeks, telecommunications on the island started working again, although frequent power cuts remained. Radio Red began to broadcast from its new office in January this year. “We are now known in Puerto Rico. We have more programmes, and artists who live abroad come back to look for us and present new pieces, talk with listeners or agree to be interviewed,” Payola told me, adding that Radio Red is financed by the cafeteria and record store. “We still do not have advertising. But we are the only ones selling new vinyl records in Puerto Rico … there is a demand for vinyl here, it is back in fashion.”

Musicians across the country have addressed the storm in their work. The lead singer of the alternative-pop band Moreira, José Iván Lebrón Moreira, told me that he was forced to put his music on hold after the storm and work for three months at an insurance company. On the night of the hurricane, he recorded sounds he heard, including the rain, the wind and cries of the people, which he mixed. “I had nothing else to do, I was locked up at home with my girlfriend,” he said. “Now things are improving and on the anniversary of Maria, next 20 September, I would like to launch the new project I am working on.” The titles of the songs for the upcoming project refer to the storm, such as “Baja Señal”—Low Signal—or “Boca de Lobo,” a Puerto Rican expression implying that everything is transient.

Other musical groups have attempted to support fellow musicians who struggled financially after the hurricane. The Puerto Rican group Buscabulla—whose two members, Luis Alfredo del Valle and Raquel Berrios, are now based out of Brooklyn—created a collective called the Puerto Rico Independent Musicians & Artists to assist independent musicians on the island with emergency grants of $500. Shanti Lalita, a cellist who often DJ’s for Radio Red, was one of the grant’s beneficiaries. “The rain and the humidity had seriously damaged my instrument,” she told me when we met after a concert in San Juan. “The wood was swollen and the strings were broken. I spent a lot of money to repair it but my instrument is my life, and not in a metaphorical sense.” The hurricane had destroyed her house as well, and she was living out of friends’ houses. With the money, she was able to rent a flat again and return to playing.

Payola, who is apprehensive about a new wave of hurricanes hitting the country, hoped that the next time on does, it would not affect Radio Red as badly. “Radio Red is a space to disconnect but we know what happens outside. We cannot ignore it, we carry on,” she said. “We bought new batteries for computers and we will have to get a generator, to continue transmitting when electricity fails. Puerto Rico has learned to resist and will do it again.”

Claudia Bellante is an independent Italian journalist who reports on social issues in Latin America. She collaborates with several magazines across the world, including Internazionale in Italy, Rhythms Monthly in Taiwan, and Marie Claire and El País in Spain.