Longtime host of Haitian radio show turns focus to earthquake recovery

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 18, 2010; B01

Just before 10 p.m. Saturday, a Maryland state highway engineer sat down in the DJ's booth at WPFW, a tiny radio station on a narrow side street in Adams Morgan.

His name, in official traffic and engineering circles, is Jean Yves Point-du-Jour. But on Saturday nights, sitting in front of an old, dusty soundboard, he becomes Yves Dayiti, host of "Konbit Lakay."

For 26 years, from 10 to midnight on 89.3 FM, Dayiti has brought the sounds and news of Haiti, his native country, to thousands of Haitians in the Washington area.

On Saturday, he was supposed to have the night off. He was supposed to be visiting Haiti.

"But here I am," he said as he opened the show. "We have a lot to talk about tonight."

This was probably the biggest show of his radio career, coming days after an earthquake had flattened the most populous area of Haiti, including the block in Port-au-Prince where he grew up. He assumed -- and a sudden spike in interest from the mainstream media affirmed -- that he would be speaking to a much broader audience.

"It is only in a time of disaster that people know we exist," he said in an interview before going on the air.

But Dayiti's weight in the Haitian community is such that his first guest was U.S. Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.). Dayiti has never feared to use his influence, criticizing the Haitian government and describing what he says is neglect of his native country on the part of rich global powers, such as the one based on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

On the phone with Edwards, Dayiti called the $100 million that President Obama pledged to rebuild Haiti "a first step," adding, somewhat sharply, and not as a question: "We can get more than that."

On the show, Dayiti talked with Haitian leaders from Miami and other parts of the United States. He spoke in English, in contrast to most Saturdays, when the program is mainly in Creole. Organizers of relief efforts provided Web site addresses and phone numbers. If the program sounded more like an urgent late-night infomercial rather than the usual offering of Haitian hit tunes and political debate, Dayiti didn't seem to mind.

Dayiti, 56, came to the United States as a student, ending up at Morgan State University in Baltimore. He worked as a dishwasher and has used education -- receiving three degrees -- to build a professional life.

He got the radio show, a volunteer gig, as other hosts often do, starting low on the totem pole. Through fellow Haitians, he had heard that WPFW, a listener-sponsored, noncommercial station, needed extra hands. He answered phones and had some on-air appearances that led to "Konbit Lakay."

On Saturday, Dayiti, wearing a yellow shirt and mustard-colored tie, pulled his show notes out from a black plastic shopping bag tucked under the soundboard. As he chewed gum, his headset bopped in and out from his ears. In addition to playing host, queuing up music and quizzing guests, he answered a 1970s-era telephone with "WPFW!"

The thermostat in the announcer's booth was set to a balmy 77 degrees, but Dayiti didn't break a sweat, even when callers engaged in the eternal scourge of talk radio: leaving their radio on too loud in the background. Dayiti just shouted: "Listen to me, not the radio! Turn it down!" Most of the time, this did not work. He never hung up on anyone, though.

One of the few calls in English came from a woman who had been sitting in the station's lobby, listening to the show earlier with other members of the Haitian and Caribbean communities. On the air, she said, "I think I forgot my purse."

Dayiti told her, "You're on the air."

During the show, Dayiti kept his expressions of disdain for the Haitian government to a minimum, tossing a few light barbs here and there. But earlier in the evening, when he was a guest on "Caribbeana," the station's long-running program of island music, news and culture with Von Martin, Dayiti was less restrained.

"People built homes where they shouldn't have been built," he said. "There are no building standards. . . . This disaster was foreseen. It was waiting to happen."

He blasted "the leadership that brought us to the position we are in," and he looked ahead to the rebuilding: "I'm going to fight to make sure my country does not become an experiment. We have to do it right. Either they kill me, or it works."

On Tuesday, he goes back to work as a traffic engineer.

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