Without power, Puerto Rico turns to radio for information - and company in the dark

For several hours after Hurricane Maria slammed into the island of Puerto Rico, Jorge Blanco had an unexpected monopoly.

His station, Wapa Radio, was the only broadcaster — radio or television — still transmitting after the storm raked the U.S. territory with 110-mph winds.

Three weeks later, most media outlets are up and running again, and trying to feed the insatiable appetite for news post-Maria. But even now that the winds have died down, it’s clear that the hurricane has dramatically changed the media landscape.

With 82 percent of the island still without electricity and many without cellphone service, radio has, once again, become a dominant player.

At Wapa Radio — AM 680 — Blanco said advertising is up more than 300 percent since the storm. Companies are using the radio both to advertise and to communicate with employees who no longer have phones or are scattered over the island.

Across Puerto Rico, people sit in their cars and huddle around battery-powered radios to find out where food distribution centers are, or in hopes of hearing from loved ones on call-in radio shows.

Blanco is grateful for the new rush of advertisers but that doesn’t mean his business is running without a hitch. Since the hurricane made landfall Sept. 20, he’s been on a non-stop loop around the island trying to keep 10 generators full of diesel and functioning. And he fears he’s one breakdown away from losing his ability to broadcast, as well as his advertisers.

“These are generators that are designed to work for days and weeks, not three or four months,” he said. “I don’t know how long they will last.”

The government says it will have 95 percent of the power restored by Dec. 15, but many fear that goal is optimistic on a island that needs to replace at least 50,000 electricity poles and more than 6,500 miles worth of cable.

While radio is thriving, other media outlets haven’t been as lucky. One of the island’s largest newspapers, El Nuevo Dia, is warning staff members to prepare for layoffs blamed on declining ad sales after Maria, employees said.

Manuel Rodriguez, the lawyer and spokesman for the newspaper’s labor union, said the paper was being short-sighted. The country needs print media more than ever right now, and storm-rattled employees need their jobs, he said.

“This is an incredibly complicated moment,” Rodriguez said. “This is not the time to be threatening layoffs.”

Also this week, Sistema TV — a channel that began broadcasting in the 1980s and focuses on public education — announced that it was closing its doors because of Maria.

Sajo Ruiz, the chief creative officer at the Sajo Garcia Alcazar advertising agency, said his company has lost at least $2 million in business since the storm hit. Clients who had ad campaigns designed for television and online have pulled their business.

Social media campaigns have also ground to a halt amid the island’s limited cellphone service. Ruiz said radio ads and truck-mounted loudspeakers have, once again, become viable and attractive options.

“We’ve been pushed back in time several decades,” he said. “We have to reinvent the way we deliver messages.”

Puerto Rico has been trapped in a decade-long recession and, even before the storm, unemployment was running in excess of 10 percent. And it’s likely that some advertisers may not survive this latest hardship.

“We’re hoping that the electrical grid can come back up in the metropolitan area,” Ruiz said. “But it needs to happen fast or we’re going to start seeing massive layoffs and companies are going to have to go out of business.”

As both a television presenter and a radio host, Rafael Lenin López, has seen both sides of Maria. On his morning news show, on Radio Isla, the commercial breaks have grown from about four minutes pre-Maria to about eight minutes now, as advertisers pile in.

“Contrary to predictions and global trends in the industry, radio proved itself in this circumstance to be vital,” López said. “It became something of a first responder and the first line of help.”

Indeed, local government relied on Wapa Radio to send out emergency information after the storm, with the governor’s office buying fuel for the station’s generators in those initial hours.

There were two reasons the station managed to stay on the air, Blanco said. One was because the station’s 10 employees dropped everything they were doing and volunteered their energy and time, some of them working 36 hours straight. The second reason was because the station has maintained its old, outdated technology. Other stations went off the air when their fiber optic cables were severed. But Wapa had backup microwave transmitters, he said.

López, the anchorman, said the power of radio hit him the day after the storm, when he turned the dial and found only dead air.

“It gave you a feeling of desolation,” he said of the silent airwaves. “And it made you realize how important radio is just to make you feel like you have some company.”

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