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Greeks Take Daily Dramas to the Radio

THE WORLD

Activism: Callers are bringing their bureaucratic messes to a crusading talk show host who solves problems on the air.

July 22, 2001|ELENA BECATOROS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ATHENS, Greece — Problems with the local water supply? Trouble getting your pension? Mail carriers not delivering the mail?

Where do you turn for help?

Many Greeks battered by a brick-wall bureaucracy and indifference by businesses are finding a new solution: a crusading radio show.

For an hour every weekday afternoon, private Skai radio is open to callers caught in administrative mazes or consumer nightmares. The host then goes to work. He pleads, badgers--and sometimes bullies--officials into dealing with the problems. And, of course, it's all on the air.

"My show is based on all those incidents of irrationality that we meet in our daily lives," says Manos Tsilimidis, host of "Skai is You."

The show is more than just a popular gripe session. It underlines how Greeks are increasingly turning to the media to challenge a governmental system with a well-deserved reputation for being unresponsive and inefficient.

It also reflects a shift by media away from the traditional dominance of political reporting toward consumer and public affairs issues.

In a small office overlooking the sea, Tsilimidis chain smokes as he answers call after call before his show.

He speaks to a caller who says the social security services are making him travel 100 miles just to get a prescription for medicine.

"I'll call you back when we're on the air," he tells the elderly man. "When I do, tell me all this again, expressing all the frustration that you feel."

Nikos Dimou, a social commentator and writer, sees the program as a symptom of the "dysfunction of the state and its institutions."

Recent polls say public confidence in the long-governing Socialists is at an all-time low. A public ombudsman's office opened in 1999 has been overwhelmed with complaints.

Last year, a gunman who hijacked a busload of Japanese tourists in Greece demanded to surrender to a popular television chat show host instead of police. The man left the bus only when the journalist appeared.

The grousing may be nudging government leaders to do something. An experimental "one-stop center" opened in early July in central Athens, where staff deal with state agencies on behalf of citizens.

But for the time being, Tsilimidis receives about 150 calls a day, mostly concerning state services: social security, the water company, local administration.

Results can be quick.

"When they hear they're going on the air, all the problems are solved," Tsilimidis says with a grin, stubbing out another cigarette in the overflowing ashtray.

Just as his show gets started, a man calls to complain that a large pile of garbage has sat for years on a street corner in the western suburb of Nikaia.

"No garbage truck has passed by in three years," the caller, Angelos Fiskelis, says, adding that his repeated appeals to local authorities have gone unheeded.

About 15 minutes later, Nikaia's deputy mayor is on the line.

"I'm heading to the spot right now," promises Costas Kalamitsis. "We received your complaint. The rubbish collection has been scheduled."

Tsilimidis' show and other similar radio programs enjoy high ratings--and both officials and the public seem well aware of it. Even some of the most complex bureaucratic problems seem to melt away as soon as those responsible hear the issue being dissected on the air.

Tsilimidis recalls one show where a woman complained of being verbally abused by a post office worker when she protested about long delays in her mail delivery. Over two programs, Tsilimidis tracked down the worker and made him apologize on the air.

But not everyone responds quite so positively. Tsilimidis has received a number of threats and frequently faces hostile officials during the show or while researching a story before the program.

The best solution, he says, is just shouting back. "If you raise your voice, they lose their bearings," he says.

In a perfect world, programs such as these wouldn't exist, Tsilimidis says.

"I disagree with this show, because in a democracy it shouldn't be needed," he says. "But I also respect people's right to disagree with what they have to put up with. So I do the show."

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