Radio Ambulante gains wider audience for Latin American stories by joining NPR as its first podcast in Spanish

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  • November 16, 2016

By Kris Seavers*

Award-winning podcast Radio Ambulante, which uses audio storytelling to share reports and anecdotes from Spanish-speakers across the Americas, has been picked up by non-profit media organization NPR as the U.S. public radio network’s first Spanish-language podcast.

Here we tell the stories of Latin America and Latino communities in the United States, stories that you will not hear elsewhere,” said executive producer Daniel Alarcón, in the Nov. 15 announcement of the new distribution partnership with NPR. “We go throughout the continent, throughout the region, from the most remote towns to the most complicated cities. To tell the stories that move us, that make us laugh. Every week we have a new story, a new portrait of what it means to be Latino and Latin American today.”

As an independent program, the podcast already reaches more than a million listeners. Beginning Nov. 22, the show will release new episodes weekly on the NPR One app and wherever podcasts are available, according to an NPR press release.

“There are more than 50 million Spanish speakers living in the U.S., and we too are part of the ‘public’ in ‘public radio,’” said Alarcón, according to the release. “It’s exciting to be part of NPR, helping it sound a little bit more like America.”

Alarcón, a Peruvian-American novelist, and Carolina Guerrero, a multimedia journalist from Colombia and Radio Ambulante’s CEO, started the program in 2011 and sought to use audio as a format to share stories of Spanish-speaking people.

The pair developed the concept for the podcast after Alarcón produced a radio documentary for the BBC in 2007 about Andean immigration. He conducted interviews in English and Spanish in the mountains of Peru, but was disappointed when the final copy of the story excluded many Spanish-speaking voices, Guerrero wrote in 2014 for the blog Sounding Out!

“Daniel was left with a question: what if there was a space for those voices on the radio waves? What would it sound like,” Guerrero wrote in 2014 for the blog.

The pilot season of the podcast was funded by a Kickstarter campaign that raised $46,000 from 600 backers in two months.

Four years later, there are more than 60 episodes of Radio Ambulante that depict the lives of people from El Salvador, Uruguay, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Chile Mexico, Argentina, the United States, Peru, Guatemala and other Spanish-speaking countries. While all of the episodes are recorded in Spanish, most of the transcripts have been translated to English. In 2014, the program won the Gabriel García Márquez Journalism Award for Innovation, a prize recognizing great Latin American and Spanish-language journalism.

The multinational team of producers and editors is spread across multiple continents. Alarcón and Guerrero, who are married, live in New York. Producer and editor Silvia Viñas lives in the UK, while producer and editor Luis Trelles lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and senior editor Camila Segura works from Bogota, Colombia. Other members of the production team, as well as the journalists who report the episodes, are located across Latin America.

The topics discussed in the episodes include education, health, immigration, LGBTQ issues, music and sports. On the Radio Ambulante site, episodes can be filtered by country, time and topic. Additionally, each episode lists the journalists who worked on the episode and the country where it was produced.

The episode, “The Soldier and The Lieutenant,” which aired in August, told the story of two Argentinian soldiers who forged a friendship as combatants in the 1982 Falklands War and reconnected 29 years later.

Another episode titled “Yadira, Javier and Lucía” that aired in February 2014 shared the experience of a transgender Nicaraguan woman living with her Mexican wife in San Francisco.

In May, the station aired “240 Birds,” an episode about Juan Pablo Culasso, a blind man from Montevideo, Uruguay, who spent his life trying to navigate the limited education resources available to him in his home country — and who has found success as a sound engineer. The episode, produced by Nausícaa Palomeque and Martina Castro in Uruguay, begins with a vivid description of Juan Pablo’s personality.

“Juan Pablo Culasso doesn’t have any problem talking about his blindness,” Alarcón narrates. “He can even laugh about difficult situations he’s been through.”

Guerrero said since they create journalistic content out of Latin America, it can be difficult for the producers of Radio Ambulante to find material that isn’t seeped in human rights, or “sad stories.”

“Radio Ambulante is complex, funny, surprising and sometimes sordid,” Guerrero said in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. “I’m really interested in the humorous, more adventurous. There is an arc, a beginning an end and a climax. It’s nonfiction. Finding those stories sometimes is hard.”

Guerrero said she and the other producers of the show “try to appeal to many people and collect Spanish-language storytelling.” Guerrero said they learned through conducting research that 64 percent of their listeners live in the U.S., 34 percent live in Latin America and the remaining 2 percent are scattered all over the world.

Of the U.S. listeners, half are Latinos. Guerrero said this last group is not used to hearing the accents of their home countries because much of Spanish-language media is presented in a “plain accent,” or an accent without a regional distinction.

“What we understand is they never had a show that could connect their roots so personally,” Guerrero said. “In general, people are very grateful to have a show like this, to connect to their parents’ groups of origins.”

Earlier this year, the producers from Radio Ambulante began publishing classroom curriculums to address the 30 percent of their listeners that are non-Latinos, but learning Spanish. The curriculum uses the podcast as a learning tool for improving Spanish-language listening skills. The journalistic platform offers more nuance for learning a language and culture than a textbook, Guerrero said.

“Far too often, textbooks resort to a superficial and monolithic treatment of race, diversity, social justice, inequality in Latin America and do not make space for students to see the variety and the complexity of the people and cultures that make up Latin America,” education coordinator Barbara Sawhill wrote in a blog post.

Guerrero said she hopes the Radio Ambulante curriculum can eventually be monetized to help fund the podcast, which is now funded primarily by grants.

“We have been very underfunded,” Guerrero said. “Our ambition is never our funding. We are a nonprofit organization, but we have a mind of a startup…We have to be creative.”

Radio Ambulante’s new season begins on Nov. 22 and is available on the NPR One app and other sites and apps where podcasts are available. The Current reported that NPR "has no plans to offer Radio Ambulante to member stations as a broadcast show."

*Kris Seavers (@krisseavers) is an undergraduate journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the course Reporting the Americas. She plans to pursue a career in multimedia journalism after she graduates in May 2017. 

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.