Intro from Jay Allison: Transom is dedicated to bringing new and various voices to public radio, no experience required, and this quote from Camila Segura and Silvia Vinas of Radio Ambulante is right up our alley: "Until we came to the US, the idea of using radio as a tool to tell relevant, incisive, entertaining stories with news value — this notion was brand new. We heard it in English first, and thought: we want to do that. But we also share this: both of us joined Radio Ambulante with almost no practical knowledge of how to make radio."
Amen. Camila and Silvia write about how they work on the show (They've never met in person!), why they're doing it ("We want to tell stories that complicate your idea of Latin America"), and they bring samples of their work. You'll be surprised by who is listening and where they're listening. Be inspired by their storytelling.
For the first time ever, we’re also offering a translation of this manifesto in Spanish. And, we’ll be collaborating with Radio Ambulante in the coming year to translate more of Transom’s resources. (Por primera vez, también les ofrecemos una traducción de este manifesto al español. Y este año estaremos colaborando con Radio Ambulante para traducir más recursos de Transom. )
Coming To Radio
Though we started working at Radio Ambulante at different stages in the project, the two of us — Camila and Silvia — have a lot in common. For starters: we both came to the United States to study literature; we were both introduced to American public radio in our twenties; and both fell in love with the storytelling style of shows like This American Life and Radiolab. And like many Latin Americans and Latinos who’ve heard programs like this, we both had the same thought: why doesn’t this exist in Spanish?
Let’s generalize for a moment: the Latin American radio landscape is very different from what exists in the US. There is no NPR. Sure, you might have news programs, but they rarely feature reported pieces. You might hear analysis, or more likely opinion, but stations don’t tend to send reporters out to get the deeper story. For the most part, shows like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, or Fresh Air — shows that bring high production values to the day’s events, shows that assume their listeners are informed and engaged — do not exist in our countries. Chile, where Silvia went to high school, has no public radio. For Camila, born and raised in Colombia, public radio meant that classical music station she never listened to.
Until we came to the US, the idea of using radio as a tool to tell relevant, incisive, entertaining stories with news value — this notion was brand new. We heard it in English first, and thought: we want to do that. But we also share this: both of us joined Radio Ambulante with almost no practical knowledge of how to make radio.
This is not an exaggeration. We could write hundreds of words listing all the things we didn’t know, all the things we needed to learn. We didn’t know how to use a digital audio recorder. We didn’t know how to hold a mic. We’d never used editing software or written a radio script. In fact, we’d never even seen a radio script! The only thing that connected us to this kind of radio was countless hours of listening to NPR, Radiolab and This American Life.
And us, don't forget about us!
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And this is one of the things we’re both grateful for: working at Radio Ambulante has been an intensive on-the-job training. We’ve had the opportunity to learn while producing exciting work from countries all over the region. And we’ve learned in an unorthodox setting. See, Radio Ambulante is not your typical organization. We don’t have a physical office — our staff is spread out over a dozen cities across the US and Latin America. In lieu of side-by-side cubicles, or a shared conference room, we have Dropbox, Google Drive, Slack, and Skype.
We’re a hybrid organization: a Latin American journalism project with roots in the United States. We’re inspired by American public radio, and yet our work is in Spanish. We’re trying to tell stories from an entire region, with very few resources, and for that reason, we’ve had to be nimble, creative and efficient.
The structure of our project and its personality has a lot to do with our goals, our first and most important being this: to tell complex, real, and nuanced Latin American stories in sound.
Which brings us to a question…
How does Latin America Sound?
Well, we know what it doesn’t sound like (at least not to us): The breeze sifting through slowly swaying palm trees. Old men playing dominoes in the park. Salsa. Carnaval. Sábado Gigante.
See, this may be the Latin America you’re picturing in your mind:
(You can’t imagine how difficult it was for us (the whole Radio Ambulante team) to decide on a photo for this.)
But this is also Latin America:
(From “When Havana Was Friki”)
(From “Renuncia Ya” — Guatemala)
(From “We Are Builders” — Argentina)
Obviously, we’re half-kidding in order to make a point. There are plenty of places across Latin America where you can see those palm trees you dream of every winter; and there’s nothing wrong with dominoes or salsa. As far as Sábado Gigante… Well, it’s been canceled, so…
Thankfully, there is more knowledge of Latin America than there used to be, for sure, but everyone on the staff has dealt directly with some of the ignorance many Americans have about our region. Silvia has been asked: what part of Mexico are you from? (The Uruguayan part.) And someone asked Camila: Do you have cars in Bogotá? (Far too many, amigo. You should see our traffic jams!) What about rainbows? (She was actually asked this once, while living in Pennsylvania.)
What we try to do is break these tropes and look for stories that go further.
When we did a story about music in Cuba, it wasn’t about salsa — it was about rock.
When we explored organized crime in Buenos Aires, our story was about the Korean mafia.
Alejandra: They didn’t speak Spanish or English, so I thought I was acting like a tourist guide…I was accompanying them to the Ezeiza Airport so I can help them with everything there, do all the paperwork, go through customs, the passport, and goodbye, have a good trip and that’s that…
Camila: Alejandra found it strange.
Alejandra: Because first of all, why were they in Argentina? I asked them, “So you came to Argentina, what did you see? etc, etc…did you go to the cemetery of Recoleta, this and that, and they hadn’t seen anything…which is super fishy — And then, I realized they didn’t look like Chinese men who have the luxury to travel…one can tell easily by the way they speak Mandarin…so I felt everything was…not looking good…
Camila: At Ezeiza, Alejandra gets off with the Chinese men, and the rest stay in the car waiting for her. Everything went well, easy. She accompanies the Chinese while they go through customs, until they get on the plane, and then they leave. But everything seemed somewhat disconcerting to her.
Alejandra: So when I got to the car, I asked them, I asked the Korean guy and the Korean man, “So, what is it? Tell me…the truth,” okay? And the young guy was sitting there all quiet, sort of looking at the clouds, and the man tells me, “Look…this is a very important job, seriously, because we are helping the Chinese,” etc. etc…
Camila: That is to say, helping them immigrate illegally to the United States. And Alejandra, according to the Argentinean, was the one who could help them. But of course, they never refer to it as illegal. They would say something else: facilitate the trips.
Alejandra: That’s right “facilitating,” that’s the word he used. Facilitating. I am not dumb, maybe naïve, but not dumb. That’s when I realized: Oh no, what I am doing is trafficking, right?
When we did a story about a Mexican immigrant, it was about his role in the Mexican version of the MTV show Pimp My Ride, called Tunéame la Nave.
This is by design: we want to tell stories that complicate your idea of Latin America. We look for stories that surprise us.
And we try to do the same for stories about Latinos in the US. If Latin Americans are thought to live trapped in a García Márquez novel, then Latinos in the US have an entirely different, but equally simplistic, set of tropes to overcome — either the dangerous foreigner or the helpless victim. Those of us who live or have lived here in the US know that both of these visions are incomplete and unfair. The real world of Latin Americans and Latinos is far more complicated, and thankfully, more interesting.
For example, in “The Ballad of Daniel D. Portado,” producer Nancy López (now with Snap Judgment) tells the story of a self-hating, pro-deportation Latino activist called Daniel D. Portado, a caricature created by cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz. This was in 1994, in the midst of a poisonous political debate about immigration in California, but sadly, this fake character is still relevant more than 20 years later.
In “Finding the Words,” we told the story of a person that didn’t want to be defined as either male or female, and how that legal fight played out in Mexico and in the US.
These are just some of the more than 50 stories we’ve produced since 2012 (by the way, we provide English translations so non-Spanish speakers can also hear our stories). We’ve also partnered and collaborated with some of the shows we most admire (This American Life, Radiolab and Reply All), and with print outlets like The New York Times Magazine. Our audience in the US demonstrates that there is a hunger for the Spanish-content that we create.
Okay, so reading this, you might think that our audience is made up solely of Latinos. And yes, people who watch Univision may also listen to Radio Ambulante. But they are not the only ones. Not at all.
So Who Listens to Radio Ambulante?
For the first couple of years, we were frankly so busy learning to produce the show that we never had much time to look into who might be listening. So we did what everyone does: we made assumptions. We figured they were young, mostly Latin Americans living outside the US, probably in cities where Internet and mobile usage was relatively high. Then two years ago, we decided to invest in finding out. Our most recent audience survey showed us we were right about a few things: 60% of our listeners are 26 to 45 years old. And we were wrong about others: many in our Latin American audience, even those who owned smartphones, reported they listened on their desktops.
But, we were most surprised to find that our audience fell into one of three groups:
1. The obvious one: Latin Americans, living in their home countries. Most are just now discovering this type of audio storytelling and narrative journalism.
2. The other one you might expect: Latinos living in the US. Most are bilingual; many are the first in their families to attend college, and they feel underserved by the major Latino media outlets. When it comes to audio storytelling, before Radio Ambulante, these Latinos — like us! — had to turn to English-language shows like This American Life.
3. The one you’re probably not expecting: Non-Latinos — Americans with no family connection to Latin America, who are not native Spanish speakers. These are people interested in stories about Latinos and Latin America, who may be learning the language, or speak Spanish already. To our surprise, this group makes up about 25% of our audience, according to our latest survey. This type of listener has a hard time finding high-quality Spanish-language content about Latin America in US media, so they’ve turned to Radio Ambulante to fill that void.
In total, over 60% of our audience lives in the US. Surprised? Honestly, we were too. This is a group of both non-Latino listeners and Latinos that no one seems to be paying attention to, particularly in the world of podcasts. They’re young, they’re connected, they’re engaged with two cultures and two languages, and almost no one is offering them what they’re looking for. (Yoo-hoo, advertisers and underwriters! We can be reached at email@example.com. Bueno, bonito, y barato!)
Like most independent podcasts, we’ve turned to crowdfunding, foundations, sponsors and individual donors to fund our work. We’ve produced live shows (four so far, more to come) and taught workshops across Latin America. But unlike some English-language podcasts with similar listenership, podcast networks or big public radio stations have not yet picked us up. We get it: our content is in Spanish, and the assumption is that in the US there is no audience for it. But there are 55 million Spanish-speakers in the US.
Does the fact that we speak Spanish mean we can’t be the public in public radio?
We get emails from our listeners all the time, and often we hear stories like this one: a young listener, who’s English dominant, living in the US, will tell us he or she listened to an episode of Radio Ambulante with their grandmother, who only speaks Spanish. They’ll tell us what the experience meant to them, and how grateful they are.
This means the world to us. It’s part of why we do what we do.
Back in 2011, when Daniel Alarcón and Carolina Guerrero were launching the project, they often heard this: “It’s not going to work. Colombians are only interested in stories about Colombia, and Mexicans only want stories about Mexico.”
But that isn’t true. If shows like This American Life, Radiolab and others have proven anything, it’s that good stories are universal. And after four years, we know for certain that Latin Americans and Latinos in the US are eager to hear this type of radio storytelling — even if it’s not about their native country.
There are still a lot of challenges ahead. We want to continue growing our audience, identifying talented producers across the region, and producing stories that might otherwise not get told. All of that costs money, and as with most audio projects, one of the primary challenges is simply keeping the lights on. We’re working hard on that too.
But we’re here. We’ve not only survived, we’ve thrived. We’ve created an audience hungry for narrative audio journalism in Spanish. We’ve won prestigious awards and are working on ambitious new projects like our online radio production “school” Escuela Radio Ambulante as we prepare to launch our fifth season.
As for us, Camila and Silvia, we have a much less ambitious goal — to make 2016 the year we finally get to meet in person.