Veteran radio journalist María Martin honored for 40 years in U.S. public radio and for training journalists in Latin America

Clouds covered Antigua, blocking the view of the city’s ever-present neighbor, the volcano known as Fuego. After two days of tremors and explosions in the colonial city, news reports said activity was slowing down.

Fuego’s eruptions have been constant over the past several years.

“It always reminds us that it is not sleeping,” said María Martin, a veteran radio journalist honored on Nov. 19 at the University of Texas at Austin for her forty years in public radio and many years of work in Latin America to train journalists.

For the last decade, Martin has lived in Guatemala, traveling around the country and to Uruguay, NIcaragua, Mexico and Bolivia, to train journalists and community members in radio production through her nonprofit, the GraciasVida Center for Media.

Martin, who was born in Mexico and also grew up in the United States, has been in radio since she started her career in Santa Rosa, Calif. as a volunteer at KBBF, the first Latino-owned and operated community radio stations in the U.S.

“I started off as a volunteer at a time when there was very little media that spoke to the Latino community and so I was very called by this particular radio station that was doing what no other media was doing and that was reflecting a community to itself and to the rest of the community that was trying to build bridges of cross cultural understanding,” Martin said in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

That work of building “bridges of cross cultural understanding” continued when she eventually created LatinoUSA and GraciasVida.

After KBBF, Martin created Spanish-language radio newsmagazine California En Revista, edited the Latin American News Service in El Paso, Texas and joined National Public Radio (NPR) where she worked to mainstream Latino issues into news coverage.

In 1992, she left her job as NPR’s Latino Affairs editor and founded LatinoUSA, an award-winning English-language radio newsmagazine that focuses on the U.S. Latino community as well as Latin America.

She left the University of Texas at Austin, where LatinoUSA was taped, in 2003, in part, to move to Guatemala and produce the 26-part bilingual radio documentary series Después de las Guerras: Central America After the Wars. Martin had previous experience covering the conflicts in the 1980s in Nicaragua.

Martin said the project “tried to reintroduce the reality of Central America to a U.S. public radio audience at a time when people had forgotten about Central America ten years after the end of the wars. At that particular point in time, the fastest growing segment of the fast growing Latino community was the Central American community. And people were like, well, why are these all these Salvadorans, Guatemalans here? And so I wanted to put that into a historical context.”

An international team of reporters and producers worked on the project, which continues to air on public radio stations. Martin produced an update in 2011 “to revisit the reality of Central America” after the 2009 coup d’état in Honduras.

The series looked at communities in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico and Honduras, and explored questions of democracy and peace, violence, legacies of military control and violence, immigration, poverty, U.S. foreign policy, gender, indigenous communities, political oppression and freedom of expression.

In addition to producing her own reports, Martin has traveled around Latin America to train professional and citizen journalists in radio production. Before she moved to Guatemala in the early 2000s, she had been a presence in the region, advocating, mentoring and educating about radio journalism.

“The medium of radio has been particularly important throughout Latin America and in Latino communities in [the United States],” Martin said.

For Martin, radio is accessible and “it relates to a local reality, the community’s reality, in a way that television and other mediums, even, can’t.”

In contrast to other media, radio is less expensive to produce and communities can start stations more easily. Consumers can take portable radios to work. Broadcasts link listeners to a wider world, inform audiences about community services and serve as a means of validating identity and experience. Radio is interactive: people can call in or visit stations. And very importantly, radio speaks to listeners in their own language.

Martin has instructed journalists on electoral coverage, in multimedia and radio production and digital skills training. The Knight Center, the International Center for Journalists and the U.S. Embassy have assisted her in some of these trainings.

Recently, she conducted a workshop looking at the use of radio novelas to educate people about gender violence.

During her career as a journalist and instructor, Martin has communicated difficult and complex issues in an effort to connect people and increase understanding.

When asked how she gets people to trust her and share their stories, she said she communicates that the most important thing for her is to tell their story without violation or betrayal.

“I tell my students that when people tell you their stories, they are giving you a gift, they are opening up their hearts and their souls and you have to let them know that you appreciate that, in whatever way it is,” Martin said.

At the celebration in her honor on Nov. 19, students, colleagues and friends extolled the lessons she imparted and the path she paved for young Latino journalists, especially those in public radio. Her legacy will be present at the University as she has donated her papers and archive to the Benson Latin American Collection.

Martin is a past Fulbright and Knight fellow. She is also a board member of Youth Radio and a National Association of Hispanic Journalists 2015 Hall of Fame honoree. She continues to mentor and train journalists in the United States and abroad.

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.