A rebel radio station that defied Marcos' martial law

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Radyo Bandido broadcast the 1986 EDSA Revolution after Radyo Veritas was shut down. Theater actor Gabe Mercado shares how the radio station was born, and how it took a group of mostly theater actors to keep the revolution on-air. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When I volunteered to work at a rebel radio station during the height of the People Power Revolution of 1986, I was 13 years old. And at that age, you have nothing to fear.

I was probably one of the most politically aware kids in grade school. But there were a lot of us. The environment was really political at the time. I grew up hearing about the opposing political parties of Ninoy Aquino and Ferdinand Marcos — LABAN (Lakas ng Bayan) and KBL (Kilusang Bagong Lipunan) — in the parliamentary election of 1978, which was the very first of my political awakenings.

During the time of the presidential snap elections, students would come in wearing Cory Aquino pins, and others, Ferdinand Marcos pins. Add to that the fact that there were no distractions — no cable T.V., no internet. So politics was something to become passionate about at the time.

We turned to Betamax documentaries and Japanese investigative journalism pieces on the assassination of Ninoy Aquino. In grade six, I had this thick compilation of the Mr. & Ms. issues covering the assassination and its aftermath. We had the text of the Agrava report and the Narvasa report, which concluded that the assassination was a military conspiracy, and I would read it.

These were documents that my parents made available at our home, where my political consciousness was first shaped. My parents were wonderful in the sense that they did not dictate political opinion at all. They never, ever pushed us to think, “Marcos is evil!” They just made the information available. They allowed us to make our judgments.

The whole family was involved in political engagement some way or another. My mother worked for the Ayala Foundation. She was an editor for the Filipinas Heritage journal, a scientific journal funded by the Ayala Foundation that focused on the natural sciences, with a little bit of history on the natural sciences. Her office was at Ayala Avenue. After school, we would fetch my mother from her office, and every Friday afternoon, we would see the rallies on the streets.

I had seven siblings, three of whom were student leaders and joined the rallies. We also had a family friend who lived with us for most of that time — her name was Kaa Byington, and she was an American journalist (who authored “Bantay ng Bayan (Sentinels of the People): Stories from the NAMFREL Crusade”). Tita Kaa would sit in the living room with my parents, and have in-depth conversations about issues of the time.

As for me, at 11 years old, I only knew that I wanted to pursue theater acting, and hopefully be part of something.

radyobandido3.jpg At the time Gabe Mercado worked for Radyo Veritas (before he became part of Radyo Bandido), there were reports of cheating, violence, and discrepancies. COMELEC declared Marcos as the winner, while NAMFREL declared Aquino as the true winner based on its counts. Illustration by JL JAVIER

My Opus Dei grade school, Southridge in Alabang, had a really good theater tradition, and it’s where I developed a love for performing. When I wanted to do more theater outside school, my father said, “Act with Fr. Reuter.” Fr. James B. Reuter was an American Jesuit priest and a long-time family friend. He wrote, directed, and produced many Catholic T.V. and radio shows, theater and film productions, and many other programs. As the head of two media organizations — the Philippine Federation of Catholic Broadcasters (PFCB) and the Catholic Office of Mass Media — mass media was his way of propagating the faith.

Fr. Reuter had his own tight-knit theater group. He would write plays, have the group act them, and tour them around the country. My father was once part of this group when he was in college. In the fifth grade, I joined the group along with my brother Paulo. Later on, Fr. Reuter would become a second father to me.

The group had no official name, but we jokingly called ourselves the “Reuter Babies,” a parody of “Regal Babies,” as the Regal Films superstars were called at the time. We were a group of about 15 to 20 children and teenagers — of whom I was the youngest — acting for religious plays and led by a 70-year-old disciplinarian, whom we affectionately called a “slave driver.”

The result of Fr. Reuter’s kind of discipline, however, was a very well-functioning team. Our theater group was effective in working with each other, trusting each other, traveling, and doing impossible things together.

When we toured in Rome, we arrived as a theater group on our first full day, and agreed that we would do a stopover at the Coliseum. Fr. Reuter gave us 30 to 45 minutes to take a look around. We had to regroup when the clock hit the 45-minute mark, and then it was time to go. When our time was up, someone was left behind — it was Kim Atienza, Kuya Kim. He probably lost track of the time. He was college age then, and he had to find his way back. This would always be our routine under Fr. Reuter. If you don’t make the call time, it’s up to you to find your way to the next city. And that’s like from Milan to Florence. Fr. Reuter was that kind of disciplinarian.

But he was gentle. He was compassionate and certainly took an interest in almost everyone. Yet he was stern. Sometimes, he’d lose his temper. You could be running a 40-degree fever during a show and he would say to you gently, “You do not have permission to get sick. Get a body on stage. After that, you have permission to get sick.”

As a kid, I enjoyed the whole thing. It helped that theater was really my passion, but I think it was more than just that. You felt you were part of something. I was treated like an adult, with all these responsibilities. They never treated me like a kid. Only the kind of person Fr. Reuter was set such high expectations for me. The effect was that you wanted to live up to them.

I don’t remember being unusually afraid at the time. It was the same fear that you would have before an important basketball game, an important role where you will act and sing. But it was real that we were told that we could die.

 

 

Fr. Reuter was the go-to media guy of Cardinal Jaime Sin, the former archbishop of Manila. As the head of the PFCB, he was handling more than 17 Catholic stations all over the country. It was a truly independent network; it was owned by the Catholic Church. It was in their interest that they had their own news-gathering network because this was one network that was controlled by neither Marcos nor his cronies.

DZRV, or Veritas 846, which was then stationed in Novaliches, Quezon City, was PFCB’s Metro Manila reach. Its mission was to proclaim the Gospel to Asia. But because of ideological differences, Fr. Reuter didn’t trust Veritas. From what I gather, this was the ideological divide: Fr. Reuter was really anti-Marcos and working quietly. He was charged with 73 counts of sedition during martial law, and he was detained shortly. But I think that due to his being a priest — a Jesuit priest — and an American at that, he got out. Some people say he was with the CIA or at least was their asset. But nobody knows. So he was really anti.

Veritas, on the other hand, was trying its best to be neutral. It believed in its higher mission. It couldn’t be bothered; the people in the network told themselves they couldn’t be partisan. If they become anti-Marcos and if Marcos shuts them down, therein stops their greater mission of spreading the Gospel in Asia.

But all the while, Fr. Reuter believed in how powerful a medium Veritas was. When Evelio Javier, the director of Corazon Aquino's campaign in the province of Antique, was assassinated, Veritas was among the first to cover it live. The other stations downplayed. They regulated themselves for fear of being branded as part of the opposition.

Come the presidential snap elections of 1986, Fr. Reuter wanted his own news-gathering machinery, and he found it in his actors. He put us into teams, gave each of us two-way radios, and assigned us to different locations. Some were assigned to COMELEC (Commission on Elections) stations, and some went to NAMFREL (National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections), to monitor the ballot-counting. Some were tasked to do the electoral count at the Xavier House in Sta. Ana where Fr. Reuter lived. Along with a few others in a rotating team, Paulo and I, being the youngest, were assigned to the endpoint, the bridge to the public, where the news gets into the air: the headquarters of Veritas.

Classes were suspended for a week during the elections. Paulo and I were at the Novaliches station, manning the two-way radios, receiving incoming messages, which we had to relay to the voice on the radio: June Keithley-Castro. Before then, Tita June was a children’s show host and acted for Fr. Reuter in some of his plays. With her “shrill” soprano voice as she described it, she relayed the electoral anomalies of the time.

The prevailing notion at that time was, “Dinadaya na tayo. Ginagago na tayo. There’s so much poll violence already and you’re not going to take a stand?” When we would have conversations about this, June would say, “In the face of evil, you’re going to be neutral?”

For Paulo and I, on the other hand, our work was simple. We just had to write down the reports we got from the two-way radio and indicate if the report was verified or not. Simple clerical work. We would get relays from other the radio stations of PFCB, and we would write “verified” if the relay was confirmed by the one who reported, or others who would report the same thing. If the person on the other end of the two-way radio was unsure, that’s how we would know the report was unverified.

But June would tell us that the report could still be considered unverified even if it came from a trusted source. But there was no surefire way of knowing because in our headquarters, we were blind to whatever happened outside. We had to use our own judgment and trust the whole network. We believed in our stability. The network was so complete that we even had our own parallel quick-count of the ballots. But we were also tabulating the poll results of the elections. We had a computer room. It tried to be that comprehensive. Along with all of this, we had to trust our instincts.

I won’t over-sentimentalize. My role was to get messages from other members of our team in the field, write them down legibly, and relay to June Keithley-Castro, who was the voice of the revolution. Simply that, I was an errand boy.

At the time, there were reports of cheating, violence, and discrepancies. COMELEC declared Marcos as the winner, while NAMFREL declared Aquino as the true winner based on its counts. The fact that we operated in Veritas with June, who, like Fr. Reuter, was known to be anti-Marcos, ruffled some feathers among tenured broadcasters. Suddenly, there was this June Keithley who wasn’t a journalist, all of a sudden getting air time. Because it was unusual, and because of our network and June’s personality, she would dare say things that ruffled some feathers and make them go, “That’s too strong! That will get us into trouble.” This created an uneasy relationship between us and Veritas. A week after the elections, we were kicked out of the station.

This was when Fr. Reuter stopped relying on Veritas. He thought it was the time to take a stand. The prevailing notion at that time was, “Dinadaya na tayo. Ginagago na tayo. There’s so much poll violence already and you’re not going to take a stand?” When we would have conversations about this, June would say, “In the face of evil, you’re going to be neutral?”

radyobandido2.jpg After Veritas went off air, there was no outlet to get the message out and report the unfolding rebellion, says Gabe Mercado. Responding to Fr. James Reuter's call, Gabe (bottom right), along with his brother Paulo (bottom left) reactivated the June Keithley (top) routine. Illustration by JL JAVIER; photo from "PEOPLE POWER: AN EYEWITNESS HISTORY"

February 22, 1986, a Saturday, was the day of our sportsfest in school. I participated, but many other students were absent, to witness the unfolding press conference of then-Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and former president Fidel Ramos (who was the AFP Vice Chief at the time), announcing their withdrawal of support from the Marcos administration. As Ramos and Enrile took the mutiny to Camp Aguinaldo, Cardinal Sin, over Veritas, called on the public to support them.

Shortly after, the Veritas transmitter in Bulacan was attacked by military forces. It went off air. But we found out eventually that it was the repeater that was actually bombed. The network could have continued broadcasting but it was the management’s decision to stop. Fr. Reuter was very angry at this.

It was very much on the record that it was Veritas’ decision not to step up during the most crucial time. It had to be remembered that nobody trusted Enrile — no one. Ramos was okay, but we couldn’t quite know because he was related to Marcos; he was a cousin of Marcos. So them calling a breakaway was so suspicious. Before Cardinal Sin’s announcement, nobody wanted to go out and help them.

After Veritas went off air, there was no outlet to get the message out and report the unfolding rebellion. So it became urgent to have another radio station. At that point, we were home from the sportsfest, and Paulo and I got a call from Fr. Reuter, basically saying, report for duty. We were reactivating the June Keithley routine.

On the night of the 22nd, they were looking for a radio station to again embed June, Paulo, and me. Our first choice was DZRH. DZRH at the time had their studios and transmitters literally next to our house. They were our neighbor. When we were called to do it, the assignment was: go next door. Perfect. Paulo and I could do it. When we got there, the station was surprised at the sight of June. Apparently, there was a misunderstanding. They did not want her to be there. The station’s management said, “This is doom. I’m not going to be on the receiving end of Marcos’ anger.” And so we left. We stayed in the house for a while. Fr. Reuter then pulled some strings and said “Well, we have another option,” which is DZRJ.

DZRJ was handled by anti-Marcos opposition forces, and was even said to have been under Enrile’s control. It was also close to Malacañang. It was not secure. When we got there, we found no emergency escape routes. We were told that Enrile’s forces were guarding the area, but we never saw them. They were probably hidden.

At the station, adjustments were made to tweak the frequency. It was bandit, rebel radio. So we called the show “Radyo Bandido.” The name just came up.

Marcos gave a press conference saying that he would take out our station. It was a threat. Of course, my parents worried, and wanted me and my brother back. To this, Fr. Reuter said, “Your children have the chance to die as heroes. Let them die as heroes.”

As people were out in EDSA, we were on the top level of the tower of the DZRJ building, a flying saucer-like attic atop a spiral staircase, broadcasting the revolution for 14 hours. I took shifts with by brother, and I was asleep during most of the exciting parts. June was on air the whole time.

As the tension rose all over the city, Marcos gave a press conference saying that he would take out our station. It was a threat. Of course, my parents worried, and wanted me and my brother back. To this, Fr. Reuter said, “Your children have the chance to die as heroes. Let them die as heroes.” It was really more of his decision than ours at that time. We were very obedient soldiers. He then sent nuns to the station, and they all stood as barricades at the spiral staircase. Basically, it was a human shield. If Marcos’ forces came, they would have to kill the nuns first before us.

On the morning of the 23rd, somebody called our open telephone line. Sounding very credible, he said, “I saw Marcos leave.” We cross-checked with another source, who confirmed. We aired the news, and found out 30 to 45 minutes later that we were wrong. We had to issue a frantic appeal. Apparently, it was a ruse; it’s to get people off EDSA and make them go away.

 

 

I don’t remember being unusually afraid at the time. It was the same fear that you would have before an important basketball game, an important role where you will act and sing. But it was real that we were told that we could die. A lot of it was adrenaline. A lot of it was “We’ve gotta do this. I’ve got a job to do. I’m gonna do it.” I was 13 years old; my brother was 15. You are probably at your bravest between 13 and 15. We did it out of childish ignorance. At 13 years old, everything is exciting, and everything is an adventure. At 13, you have nothing to lose.

Some sentimentalize the experience and say, “Wow, child hero.” I hated that. I don’t think I possess any supernatural powers, any special courage, special skills, or special knowledge. It was just that I rose up to the challenge. I was just at the right place at the right time. And if I consider myself a hero, I do it in the same way, as one of my most-quoted teachers would say at that time, “I come from a country of a million heroes.”

— As told to Alyana Cabral, with quotes from Gabe Mercado’s interview with Fernando A. Austria Jr.