Podcasts emerge to educate and empower Latin American communities about COVID-19

While the pandemic becomes part of people’s daily lives all around the world, media outlets and individuals are creating podcasts to educate their communities about COVID-19. Podcast creators from Brazil, Chile, El Salvador and the United States are taking different creative approaches to personalizing their audio content around COVID-19 and explaining the pandemic in ways that are easier for audiences to understand.

As of May 15, 2020, there have been 306,530 deaths and 1,739,010 recoveries worldwide due to the coronavirus, while in Latin America there have been 25,799 deaths. The effects of the pandemic extend beyond the numbers and into other societal factors. In Latin America, these include militarized quarantine, government inaction and discrimination against minority groups that complicate public safety. Even as some nations begin to flatten the curve and people return to the streets, the fear of a second wave of the coronavirus is still prevalent. With so much complexity surrounding knowledge of COVID-19, the public risks misinformation and greater dangers.

To dispel these fears and empower the public, journalists and healthcare professionals are turning to podcasts to reach more listeners and engage them more effectively. Whether the listener is exercising, enduring traffic or stuck at home in quarantine, podcasts are simply a click away. They also have distinct storytelling techniques such as pace, music choice, voice tone and sound effects that lure readers in.

The Knight Center spoke with Agência Mural in Brazil, healthcare workers from Chile, Salvadoran initiative Temporada the Leonas and CNN en Español to learn how they are embracing podcasts and personalizing COVID-19 content to their own genres and styles.

Brazilian podcast covers quarantine from the outskirts of São Paulo

One day before Brazil’s biggest state, São Paulo, began its quarantine on March 24, the team at Agência Mural launched its podcast Em Quarentena. Agência Mural is a digital news website whose mission is minimizing information gaps and contributing to the deconstruction of stereotypes about the peripheries, or outskirts, of Greater São Paulo.

The podcast was born after Agência Mural discovered through a study by online network Avaaz that over 110 million Brazilians believe in fake news, with WhatApps as the main tool being used to propagate misinformation. The “podcast [Em Quarentena] was born with a focus on the messaging platform, because the content is sent straight to your inbox,” Vagner de Alencar, director of journalism at Agência Mural, told the Knight Center.

Em Quarentena focuses on the quarantine experiences of various communities in relation to larger themes, such as the lack of water in favelas or womens’ lives with their newborn babies. As Alencar put it, the podcast centers around experiences, information and resources about the coronavirus. Podcast episodes are released daily on WhatsApp and other platforms from Monday to Friday with episodes averaging under 10 minutes each.

Alencar noted that the podcast aims to “inform and offer resources,” citing an episode about the rise of domestic violence cases during quarantine where women narrate their experiences. “At the end of the episode, we talk about websites and phone numbers that women can call to report domestic violence,” Alencar said.

The podcast team at Agência Mural is composed of three people and they all share the workload while still focusing on certain tasks. Alencar is the podcast host, while Anderson Meneses, the business director at Mural, focuses on editing the content. Of the 76 correspondents at Mural, reporter Ana Beatriz focuses on the production process.

Dealing with complex topics, the trio makes sure that the conversations in the podcast are casual and simple to understand. Before they hit record, Alencar said that the team asks themselves, “Would we normally say this word?” If they wouldn’t use the word in an everyday conversation, then they omit it so that listeners don't lose comprehension. They also ask their interview subjects to explain technical matters in a more clear and simple manner.

They bootstrapped the podcast using limited financial resources, and just last month, in April, the podcast amassed 13,000 listens while the amount of WhatsApp subscribers increased to 650. Given that growth, they have secured two months of funding from Instituto Unibanco and partnered with local radio stations. More importantly, listeners are enjoying the show. Besides receiving feedback via email and WhatsApp, Alencar noted that, “One listener sent us a message saying ‘I love hearing your podcast because it's as if you are right next to me. I wanted to hug you! And I enjoy the manner in which you explain things.’”

Healthcare workers create podcast for surviving quarantine in Chile

While Chile is recognized as having one of the best healthcare systems in South America, three healthcare professionals, through their time in the education and healthcare field, still noticed that “there exists an important gap between health discussions and the community,” said podcast co-host Javiera Menay. In the midst of the pandemic, they created a podcast that would equip communities with the knowledge necessary to take care of their own health.

Launched on April 4, 2020, the podcast Cuarentena en el mejor sistema de salud del planeta (Quarantine in the best health system on the planet) covers a range of healthcare topics, such as sexual reproductive health and mental health, and uses the pandemic to contextualize the information. For example, the fourth episode features a nutritionist and discussions about food sovereignty, the body’s physical features and nutrition recommendations to take into account during quarantine.

The first seven episodes in the first season average around 30 minutes and include a spoken opinion piece alongside interviews with healthcare professionals. Past guests include an obstetrician, occupational therapists, psychologists, doctors and a medical student. In the second season, “our idea is to continue in the context of the pandemic. We’re interested in expanding the spectrum of what health means. We want to have a variety of invited guests and not just invite healthcare professionals, but also include people from the political world and the academic world to amplify the understanding of participation in healthcare,” Menay told the Knight Center.

Podcast production is led by healthcare workers who are graduates of Universidad de Chile. Javiera Menay and Cristian González take lead in narration, while Jonathan Troncoso edits the content. All three alternate between preparation of the script and editorial for each episode. Universidad de Chile is helping promote the podcast through an initiative titled #ChileCuentaConSuUniversidad where the school considers various projects from alumni and students and shares them through the institution’s social media accounts and website.

Menay indicated that they “chose to use more informal and colloquial language” during their interviews and that their audience consists of a younger public, starting with university students and growing to older populations. The team focuses on targeting young adults to spark their curiosity and encourage them to keep learning about the healthcare field. This was also a motivation behind choosing the podcasting format, since the audio productions are popular among millenials and Gen-Z populations. Moreover, the team has observed that its content is attracting older academics and other healthcare professionals to tune in.

In the end, the team is invested in “the participation of communities inside the discussions about health...so that they can empower themselves and take care of their own health,” Menay said.

Salvadoran digital magazine devotes special podcast series to women’s stories during the pandemic

Alharaca is a Spanish word meaning exaggeration or hype. According to El Salvador’s Alharaca digital magazine, which deals with gender and feminist issues, the word is often used to devalue womens’ feelings and opinions. The publication is turning that on its head, using the term instead to provoke and vindicate.

The magazine was founded by women of Salvadoran descent who are living in different parts of the world. Under Alharaca, they have a podcast titled Temporada de Leonas, which was created to “discuss important and transcendental topics in a way that any person would want to hear and be comfortable hearing,” Carolina Bodewig, co-creator of Temporada de Leonas, told the Knight Center. Episodes deal with topics focused on feminism and gender, including provocative discussions around regretful mothers and women’s soccer.

In context of the pandemic, they are releasing a seven-episode special series for the podcast that is based on another project from Alharaca called Cartas del Coronavirus (Coronavirus Letters). In the project, the magazine’s writers, dispersed across the globe, write letters to each other in a friendly and casual way, explaining how the pandemic is affecting their daily lives. CEO of Alharaca, Laura Aguirre, explained, “We invited our collaborators to write letters. At the beginning it was Alharaca’s four founders writing to each other as friends. We wrote a little about our experiences at the beginning of the pandemic. From that, an idea came about to create a special series where we invited the rest of the collaborators to write in different contexts through an epistolary format, how it was to live during the pandemic.” All the writers are originally from El Salvador and are now based in places like Spain, Germany and the United States.

The project was originally published on Alharaca’s website, but the letters are now being read on the podcast by the writers themselves alongside analysis surrounding the pandemic. With episodes spanning from 20 to over 30 minutes, listeners are provided with firsthand accounts and discussions of womens’ experiences across the globe during the pandemic. While most writers from Alharaca are involved in reading their letters, Aguirre and Bodewig are in charge of editing and production aspects of the podcast.

When Aguirre and Bodewig were both living in Mexico City, they attended a feminist stand-up comedy show and Bodewig recounted that she enjoyed the way that feminist topics were being presented, "Without sounding like they are trying to teach you a lesson, without sounding like they are scolding you, without sounding boring." It became the inspiration behind the vision of both Alharaca and Temporada de Leonas.

With the special series for the podcast, they hope to explore gender and feminist topics in the context of the pandemic, all while staying true to maintaining Alharaca as a medium for provocation and vindication.

Simplifying complex healthcare topics for a general audience in Latin America and the U.S.

Communities around the world are expressing concerns after hearing unverified myths about the coronavirus, like that COVID-19 was created in laboratories or that everyone will die from the disease. The podcast, Coronavirus: realidad vs. ficción (Coronavirus: reality vs. fiction), from CNN en Español, aims to counteract the spread of this kind of misinformation and disinformation.

At the forefront of the podcast is Peruvian Dr. Elmer Huerta, a collaborator with the media network for over 20 years, director of the Cancer Preventorium at Washington Cancer Institute at MedStar Washington Hospital Center and former President of the American Cancer Society.

According to Huerta, the podcast was born out of the need for reliable and relatable content for the Hispanic population in the United States and Latin America. “The Latino community and the Spanish-speaking community in North America as well as South America need information that has special characteristics. First, that it is based on science and evidence. That is very important. The second is that they are told the information in a way that Latinos can relate. Using Latino examples, Latino words, Latino cases, and that it isn’t just translated from English,” Huerta told the Knight Center.

CNN en Español proposed the podcast idea to Huerta not only because of his experience with educating the Hispanic public, but also because of his previous work with radio and podcasts for Peruvian radio network RPP. Now, he writes the script and produces daily episodes averaging around five minutes each for Coronavirus: realidad vs. ficción.

A recent episode explores the new mysterious disease that has been detected among children, most of whom have tested positive for COVID-19. Huerta dedicated an episode to explaining the symptoms and recommendations to parents if their child were to show symptoms.

To communicate complex scientific topics to the public, Huerta uses lessons learned over his 30 years of experience in the healthcare field. “The method that I use is to not use scientific words. Never. And if I use them, I explain them, their significance. The second thing, is that in my mind, in my imagination, when I write a podcast, I imagine in my head that I am speaking to someone that has not finished 3rd grade of elementary school,” Huerta explained. In this way, he is able to simplify complicated phrases and topics into digestible content that everyone can understand.

Besides imploring people to consume information based on science and evidence, Huerta encourages everyone to look into more podcasts of other topics of interest. He emphasized, “I think people will fall in love with them and that they’ll be great companions during your free time.”


*José Luis Martínez was born in El Salvador and raised in Houston, Texas. A student at the University of Texas at Austin, he has previously interned in social media with the Knight Center for Journalism at the Americas, worked with Austin’s El Mundo Newspaper as a videographer and is currently managing social media and podcast production for Central American News. He is working towards becoming a foreign correspondent in Central America or work in newsroom product management. He loves salsa, hard rock music and enjoys to learn about philosophy and oceanography.

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