Traditional radio faces new competition in Latin America: Podcasts from digital native media arrive on the scene

This story is part of a series on Innovative Journalism in Latin America and the Caribbean.(*)

When you’re stuck in rush hour traffic, there are few options to release stress. The most common technique has been to turn on the radio and distract yourself by listening to music, a newscast or a talk-show. Today, however, traditional radio faces new competition: more and more people turn on their smartphone and listen to their favorite podcast through their car speakers.

The podcast is a tool that offers narrative and audio possibilities other formats cannot. News media are aware of this and know that a well-produced podcast can create a very close connection with the listener.

In Latin America, more and more digital native media are experimenting with podcasts to add audio to their news coverage or to have more direct communication with their audience. However, this tool is still in its first stages in the region. Proof of this is that traditional radio programs that load their content into podcasts are still leading the lists of the most popular podcasts.

“There are a lot of people who have been doing podcasts for years in Latin America. What we have not seen much yet is the use of the medium in journalism, using all the tools it offers. The sound and narrative possibilities still have to be exploited far more,” said Carolina Guerrero, director of Radio Ambulante, a project that produces Spanish-language podcasts for Spanish-speakers in Latin America and the United States. The organization travels the continent in search of stories to be shared in the form of audio documentaries.

Last year, Radio Ambulante, which was created in 2011, became the first Spanish-language podcast producer to make an alliance with NPR in the U.S. Its productions reached 1.5 million plays in 2016.

Among the most notable proponents for the use of podcasts is the Colombian site La Silla Vacía (The Empty Chair), which launched a podcast in 2015 to complement its opinion section “La Silla Llena” (The Occupied Chair), in which experts discuss various topics.

“We needed a space that was not necessarily written for a society where radio is very established. The idea of ‘La Silla Llena los Domingos’ (The Occupied Chair on Sundays) is to make debates, but not the classic kind where we invite someone from the left and someone from the right, but conversations between sectors that normally do not interact,” program presenter Eduardo Briceño, who trained with Radio Ambulante on podcast creation, told the Knight Center.

La Silla Vacía allied with a specialized podcast producer, Akörde FD, which is in charge of the technical part of the production, while the site assumes the editorial part.

La Silla Vacía's opinion section is funded by different organizations interested in the issues being discussed. For example, discussions on rural issues are sponsored by foundations related to the agricultural sector. That has allowed them to publish 63 podcasts with more than 120 guests. Each podcast reaches an average of 700 downloads, although its most successful program –a debate on the popularity of Bogota Mayor Enrique Peñalosa – obtained 2,890 downloads.

Each Sunday, the program is published on Soundcloud, and from there it is loaded to iTunes, Stitcher and La Silla Vacía’s website. Its strategy on social networks consists of publishing the podcasts on Facebook and Twitter during peak work traffic hours in Bogota, which is the most popular city for the podcast.

“People hear the radio in the car. At the time when people leave the office, we Tweet the podcast so they can listen to it on the way home, in the car or in Transmilenio  [public transport]. We try to make programs of less than half an hour so that they can be heard during a single trip,” Briceño said.

Although La Silla Vacía knows that the podcast is still an incipient medium in Latin America, it is also aware of the advantages it offers compared to traditional radio.

“It’s not just about sharing the files that are produced on the radio and uploading them to Soundcloud, but about making a 100 percent digital product. Although it is very similar to what is done on radio, for a podcast you have more resources of time, you have no advertising, and you can do many other things,” Briceño added.

Because it depends on the news of the day, traditional news radio offers fewer and fewer genres of great depth. And that’s an area of opportunity that podcast creators are taking advantage of. In February, Peru’s investigative site Convoca launched its podcast section in response to the need to address those genres and issues that are not covered frequently in AM or FM radio.

“We work on stories, reports, long-form, profiles, which are sub genres that have been abandoned for the immediacy required by traditional radio to inform in the moment. We want to tackle issues like anti-corruption, human rights, the environment, organized crime,” Karla Veleznoro, director of Convoca Radio, told the Knight Center.

The journalist, who has six years of experience in radio, trained the Convoca Radio staff, which is made mostly of college journalism students.

The first podcast, published Feb. 22, featured an interview with Sergio Moro, the Brazilian judge who jailed powerful people implicated in the Lava Jato corruption case. The episode received more than 1,000 plays in two weeks.

Convoca Radio intends to publish one or two weekly podcasts to dominate the tool. The podcasts are currently financed by the site and don’t generate extra income so Convoca hopes to eventually become a center for production and training on new ways of narrating stories in radio in order to make their own podcasts more sustainable.

“You must take advantage of the tools that technology gives you today to be able to make new ventures. There are issues that journalists would like to explore and sometimes we cannot because the day’s news won’t allow it. And podcasts are an opportunity to do it,” Veleznoro added. “Technology gives you the opportunity to touch on those issues that people should know about.”

Podcasts permit a very direct connection with the public. According to Radio Ambulante, media outlets that know how to take advantage of that connection can create strong loyalty from their audiences, which becomes an important factor for obtaining financing.

“Whoever listens to a podcast regularly does not do it because they simply come across it, but because they choose to do it. That intentionality is reflected in long-term loyalty and allows media to know who is listening to them and to interact with them. These niche audiences become a great asset when it comes to seeking sponsors,” Carolina Guerrero said.

A good example of this is Súbela Radio, a pioneer in Chile in the world of online radio. It was born in 2011 as an attempt to offer content that traditional media in that country were not offering, taking advantage of internet tools along the way. Their programs are also available as podcasts on iTunes and iVoox.

“We wanted to offer a more direct language, more interaction with the audience. We put together a group of people related to the world of culture to cover certain niches of the audience who did not find much information in other places,” said Juan Manuel Margotta, Súbela Radio founder, to the Knight Center.

Thanks to good public relations work, Súbela was quickly positioned with their audience and currently has 160,000 unique users per month. The podcasts of its programs –which focus on topics ranging from news to music, movies and horoscopes –reach an average of 80,000 monthly downloads on iTunes and iVoox. The podcast of their show “Café con Nata” is the third most popular on the podcast charts in their country.

Although traditional advertising also has a place in the production of audio over the internet, advertising agencies are increasingly leaning towards branded content as a business model.

“Brands are asking for content generation. That has led us to have to offer products that have to do with what the brands are interested in,” Margotta said. “Today advertising in digital radio is much lower than traditional radio advertising. Digital radio must maintain a lightweight infrastructure, without operating costs of traditional radio. It would be very dangerous to be a very heavy machine.”

The creation of podcasts is not limited to journalists or media companies. The platform is so accessible that anyone with a microphone and internet access can create their own. With the right content and language, a single-person podcast can successfully compete with big media outlets.

Such is the case of “Azul Chiclamino,” the weekly podcast from Mexican engineer and writer Rodrigo Llop, which, a year after it launched in February 2016, is the second most downloaded news and politics podcast in his country, ahead of programs from radio and journalism stars like Joaquín López-Dóriga or Denise Maerker.

Inspired by Steven Dubner’s “Freakonomics” and “El Larguero” from Spanish channel SER, Llop saw an opportunity in the podcast to share his ideas about news, politics, culture and entertainment in a sarcastic and humorous way, and to share them with the world.

“My idea was to move what I had been writing for many years to a concept that would fit the podcast. The podcast does not easily receive any content you have. It is a very particular format and you have to get a good handle on that format,” Llop told the Knight Center.

The writer, who also has a formal job at a telecommunications company, devotes eight hours each week to creating his podcast, from selecting and researching topics to writing the script and recording.

While Llop invested in basic technical equipment and editing software to make “Azul Chiclamino”, he believes that the real key to making a podcast is a good script.

“If you do not have a script, you are completely navigating in absurd ideas. The podcast has to be very dynamic, the message has to be very clear, very forceful, because there is always someone who has new content,” explained Llop, who relies on Twitter and Instagram to promote his episodes.

Although he achieved an average of 1,500 downloads per episode in the podcast's first year – mainly in Mexico, Latin America and the United States – Llop does not earn any income for his podcast. Although he has approached some brands, he has not found a strategy to capitalize on his product.

“There is no literature that tells you how to make a podcast, there is so little information about podcasting, and yet it is such a rich platform with so much potential that it impresses me,” Llop said.

With all the advantages of podcasts and the success of some digital media outlets in this field, the tool still has major limitations in Latin America, especially for those in places with limited internet access. According to Carolina Guerrero of Radio Ambulante, mobile data plans are still not very accessible in some Latin countries, so building podcast audiences like in other nations will remain a challenge.

While there is a lot of interest from Latin media in creating podcasts, there needs to be more training on the narrative and informational possibilities of that tool.

“We still need to invest in development and experimentation. But I would not say that we are late in Latin America, but rather just in time. It’s a great time to launch podcasts in different formats and to build new audiences,” Guerrero concluded.

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.