A New Sensibility for Radio en Español

ArticleMaria McFarland Sanchez-MorenoComment

A woman sings, mourning the loss of her daughter, after playing a twisted game of truth on Peruvian television. A once powerful president of Honduras laughs about being deposed and deposited on a Costa Rican airstrip in his pajamas. Musicians remember how they created space for their heavy metal subculture in 1980s Cuba. Two writers—one Colombian and one Argentine, who share the same name—finally meet and discover they are also bound by their looks, and their past. A Colombian community describes its relationship to the nameless dead that regularly float down a river. These are the voices that Radio Ambulante has started to bring to listeners across Latin America and the U.S., usually in their native Spanish. In the process, the project is slowly transforming Latin Americans’ understanding of what radio journalism can be. 

“Ambulante” can mean traveling or itinerant, but is also a reference to the street vendors, or “ambulantes,” who hawk anything from ceviche or juice to t-shirts and toy cars in many Latin American cities. It’s an apt name for a radio project that—perhaps for the first time—is offering innovative material not to any one audience in any one country, but to multiple audiences in multiple countries, over many different radio stations, and online via podcasts.

When wife-husband duo Carolina Guerrero and Daniel Alarcón conceived of Radio Ambulante in 2012, it wasn’t obvious that it would work. Their goal was to bring long-form true-to-life narratives, in the style of This American Life or Radio Lab, to Spanish speakers in the Americas. But someone from a major Spanish-language news outlet warned Guerrero that their project was doomed to fail, because at least in the US, Mexicans are only interested in Mexican stories, Peruvians only in Peruvian stories, and so on. “We always thought that was a myth,” Guerrero said. Guerrero is Colombian, and Alarcón is Peruvian-American, and their friends come from many different countries, including Argentina, Chile and the United States. They were constantly swapping stories, and couldn’t care less what country they happened in. Radio Ambulante is “like having someone in your house telling you a story,” Carolina added. “The fact that the story came from another country or in another accent shouldn’t make it any less valid.” If anything, Guerrero and Alarcón thought it would make the stories more, not less, interesting.

Carolina Guerrero & Daniel Alarcon

Carolina Guerrero & Daniel Alarcon

But there was a lot of work ahead before Guerrero and Alarcón could put their idea to the test. At the most basic level, they needed to learn how to do radio. Guerrero’s background was as a promoter for cultural and social projects. Alarcón was increasingly known as a brilliant young novelist, featured by The New Yorker as a promising writer under 40. Neither of them had significant radio experience. But friends and journalists they asked for advice replied with encouragement, and answers to such basic questions as: “ok, now what equipment do we use? What microphones and recorders?” They discovered, a website aimed at channeling new voices and work to public radio, which offered them tools and a community. Leaning on friendly and online advice, Alarcón supervised production of Radio Ambulante’s first few stories. And soon, they were able to recruit Martina Castro, a Uruguayan journalist and managing editor at KALW News in San Francisco, to help them out as a senior producer, even while she kept her day job.

A May 2012 Kickstarter campaign got 600 backers and the funding to support Radio Ambulante for a year, and to pay producers for their stories. If you don’t pay in journalism, people don’t take you seriously, and given the amount of time and work it takes to produce these stories, Guerrero said, they were always clear on the need to pay for them. But almost immediately they ran into another wrinkle. Latin America has a long tradition of written non-fiction narrative, known as crónica—think Gabriel Garcia, Elena Poniatowska or, more recently, Gatopardo and Etiqueta Negra magazines—but that tradition has never made the leap to radio. Radio journalism is wildly popular, but it mainly consists of short segments about the news, humor or running commentary. “Producers are not used to stories longer than 2 to 3 minutes. This isn’t hot news, and if you tell them that you’re going to spend 6 months producing a story, they think it’s ridiculous,” Guerrero said of her first interactions with some radio outlets. 

Daniel Alarcon

Daniel Alarcon

The lack of familiarity with this style of journalism in the region also made it hard for Radio Ambulante to find people who knew how to pitch and produce the types of pieces they wanted. Journalism schools in Latin America teach radio journalism, without focusing on the long-form, personal, vivid storytelling that Radio Ambulante was after. That means that, especially at the beginning, they had to spend enormous amounts of time editing scripts submitted usually by print journalists who were, of course, very attached to their writing. But many of them were eager to learn. Peruvian writer Gabriela Wiener, one of the first to run a piece (Everyone Returns) in Radio Ambulante, later described the process fondly in a column in La República (Peru): “And there I was in front of a microphone of a rented studio in Barcelona, with an original script that over radio would have taken some 15 hours. I recorded thousands of hours, and we edited savagely.” She was delighted with the experience.

Guerrero and Alarcón invested an inordinate amount of energy in training their producers, one by one. They put together a handbook for producers who wanted to make a pitch. They talked to producers about how they needed good voices to narrate the stories, and a narrative arc—not just a subject or a news item. It makes no sense to pitch a story if the producer hasn’t even spoken to the main character, Guerrero recalls explaining, because everything turns on the character’s voice and ability to tell a good story. That’s just how radio works. 

But remarkably quickly, Guerrero says, the idea is catching on. Producers and writers in the region are increasingly curious and interested in submitting pitches, and each time the pitches are better. 

Guerrero and Alarcón have also grown their team. Full-time Colombia-based project manager and editor Camila Segura has joined the San Francisco-based Guerrero and Alarcón. They have additional editors in Chile and Puerto Rico; Martina Castro helping part-time in San Francisco; a program coordinator and a community manager based out of New York; and the support of experienced consultants like Mandalit del Barco and others. They’re now up to one episode a week, alternating stories with interviews on topics as diverse as the World Cup, drug-related violence in Mexico, and a blogger’s journey from chemically straightening her hair to learning to love her natural curls.

Not that it’s been easy. Guerrero remembers the first few months of last year as particularly grueling. In February 2013, they hosted a fundraising event for Radio Ambulante in New York, selling a few hundred tickets to a live radio conversation by Alarcón, along with authors Francisco Goldman and Junot Diaz. At the time, Guerrero was heavily pregnant and bedridden, so she organized the whole event from the couple’s San Francisco home. A little over a month later, at 11:00 p.m. the night of March 21, Alarcón sent in the final correction to his latest critically acclaimed novel, At Night We Walk in Circles. The next day, Guerrero gave birth to their son Eliseo and went on maternity leave. Throughout, Radio Ambulante continued its regular production schedule.

Funding is also an ongoing challenge. Through a partnership with Public Radio International’s The World, Guerrero and Alarcón have a budget to cover some of their programming, and they have some foundation support. They’re considering running another Kickstarter campaign next year, though getting support from Latin America, which doesn’t have the same tradition of philanthropy that exists in the US, and where people aren’t as familiar with online giving, has been difficult. For the first Kickstarter drive, for example, they had to send messengers to Peru and Colombia to collect funds, with the bulk of the support coming from the United States. They’re looking at a variety of options for more stable funding: finding underwriting and sponsors, or possibly creating a subscription service.

Still, so far, their hard work seems to be paying off.  In addition to Public Radio International, they’ve built partnerships with BBC Mundo, and a network of Spanish-language radio stations in the U.S., known as Radio Bilingüe, which often run their material. The Night Walk, a story they produced in Spanish, with reporter James Spring, about the simulated border crossings conducted in a small town in Hidalgo, Mexico, ran in English in This American Life in March. 

But what about the original challenge? Are Latin Americans really interested in hearing stories from other countries? There’s no definitive answer yet, but initial signs are positive. Radio Ambulante now counts a total of about 100,000 listeners on all platforms. Of those, 75 percent are in the U.S.—which, with more than 37 million Spanish speakers, according to the Pew Research Center, rivals many Latin American countries in the size of its Spanish-speaking population. Guerrero says they were surprised to find that a lot of their U.S. listeners are using Radio Ambulante’s podcasts as educational tools, as they offer challenging, culturally intriguing stories to English-speakers learning Spanish. Radio Ambulante is also developing substantial audiences in Mexico, followed by Colombia and then—to everyone’s surprise, since Radio Ambulante doesn’t offer Portuguese content—Brazil. There are certainly gaps in reach in Latin America. Guerrero points out with a laugh that they have more listeners in Egypt than in Guatemala. But the real test of their audience will come over time, as they start to invest more resources in distribution with local stations.

Meanwhile, this fall, Guerrero will be starting a Knight International Journalism Fellowship at Stanford, to create an online toolkit for independent radio producers in Latin America, in the hopes of stimulating Spanish speakers to create their own podcasts in Radio Ambulante’s style. “You open I-Tunes and see so many podcasts in English, but in Spanish there are so many human resources, and so much talent. . . .” There’s no reason we shouldn’t be seeing the same level of production in Latin America, too. Especially, Guerrero stresses, when radio is such an important, pervasive medium. “Radio keeps you company during your commute, while you make coffee, while you bathe, or if you’re driving a long distance at night.” While news radio can keep you informed, the type of stories Radio Ambulante puts together have a different kind of meaning. “This type of radio offers you a lovely form of companionship,” Guerrero says. “In Latin America, we need more of that.”

All photos courtesy of Radio Ambulante.