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THE HARTFORD COURANT
Voices Of The People: San Juan Radio Offers An Escape From Day's Pressure
By MATTHEW HAY BROWN
February 17, 2003
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - It's 1:30 in the morning, and the phone lines into NotiUno are full. Kristina wants to talk about her throat. It was sore after she went out in the rain without a coat. But she's found relief with the "syrup of love," which she says consists of honey and lots of affection.
Mr. Ruiz is looking for a concrete house with two or three bedrooms in the Mayaguez area. Maria, who is worried about the prospect of war with Iraq, has a poem to recite.
Alberto just wants friendship. He leaves his phone number.
All have waited for the chance to spend a few minutes on "En Contacto" - "In Contact" - a program not quite like anything else on the radio here. Five nights a week, host Anibal Ribot leaves behind the combative political talk and the Latin pop that dominate the airwaves on this Caribbean island, for five hours of intimacy and entertainment that sound like nothing so much as a family reunion.
Listeners call in from throughout the island and beyond - the show reaches the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands, is broadcast in Florida, and can be heard over the Internet. They talk about their day or sing a song, ask for friendship or pick out a tune on the guitar, sell a car or play a crackly old record over the phone.
Small wonder it appeals largely to an older audience: The slow pace and intimate atmosphere evoke an idealized Puerto Rico past, romantic and genteel, before industrialization, urbanization and mass migration transformed this U.S. commonwealth.
"When we're talking about the boleros, and the poetry, this is very traditional," said Sylvia Alvarez Curbelo, a communications professor at the University of Puerto Rico. "The island has been through a period of forced growth, but people's sensibilities are not yet fully urban or postmodern. They're still attracted to the old ways of communication."
Ribot, who this week completed 10 years as producer and host, says the show offers a form of social work.
"Our proposal is to rescue an audience that is lost during the night," the affable 36-year-old said in a voice recognized throughout the island. "Puerto Rico never sleeps.
We have security guards, nurses, taxi drivers, musicians - in many cases people who are alone and are looking for someone to talk to."
Ribot rules this empire of the night from a small studio at NotiUno headquarters, a one-story building tucked amid the showrooms and warehouses of San Juan. As midnight approaches, he settles into the glass booth, bringing a stack of newspapers and a cup of strong local coffee.
The green lights on the console telephone already are blinking. A computer screen identifies the callers waiting to talk.
Ribot takes the air after the news. As the theme music fades, he greets his amigos oyentes - listener friends.
The first few minutes are always the same. He gives thanks to God, cues a piano interlude and intones the thought for the day. Then he lays down the ground rules:
Callers may sing, recite poetry, make a statement, offer goods for sale or look for friends. They may not talk about politics.
"Mira, mira, mira" - he says, chuckling - "Look, look, look. Breathe deeply. Relax. I know it's the national sport of Puerto Rico. It's over for now. No politics, and no religion."
The lines will remain jammed until 5 o'clock.
Ribot mostly listens. Sometimes he coos friendly agreement. More often he simply nods or smiles as callers speak uninterrupted for minutes at a time. After each poem or song, he offers warm congratulations, no matter the quality of the performance.
For listeners with specific problems, he keeps thick notebooks of contact information for professionals and services.
He sends each off with a word of thanks for taking part: "Gracias por participar."
What began 21 years ago as a cheap way to fill the gap between the evening programming and the morning news has become the most popular overnight show in Puerto Rico, consistently attracting hundreds of thousands of listeners and inspiring several imitators.
Bobby Gonzalez has been tuning in for two years. A skilled guitarist, he calls in most Fridays to sing and play romantic ballads.
"I just listen on the other nights," said Gonzalez, 52, a former truck driver now on disability. "You get the chance to express yourself, and if you have a problem, someone else might be able to help you."
"This show is my form of therapy," said Luis Felipe, who tunes in from Colorado over the Internet. "The music, the tradition - it helps me to forget my stress."
Curbelo Alvarez says "En Contacto" addresses the basic human desire to connect with others.
"It's the loneliness of the city," she said. "People want to be heard. These shows provide people with a sort of communion with other listeners."