Reimagining Latin America’s Most Beloved News Source

Radio Ambulante co-founder and executive producer Daniel Alarcón talks to NACLA about the radio program’s journalistic lineage, the new immigrant reality, and stories that blow borders to bits.
February 16, 2015

Daniel Alarcón

Radio Ambulante is an award-winning podcast and audio series co-founded by novelist Daniel Alarcón in 2012. Described by many commentators as a Spanish-language This American Life, Radio Ambulante publishes stories from “everywhere Spanish is spoken,” reaching as many as 60 thousand listeners world-wide per episode. They feature “uniquely Latin American stories,” from a Mexican father’s battle to regain custody over his U.S.-born children, to a community in Colombia that provides full burials for anonymous corpses it pulls from its river’s shores, to the personal reflections of the late President Hugo Chávez’s interpreter. As the only Spanish-language program of its kind, Radio Ambulante won the Gabriel García Márquez Journalism Prize for innovation in September 2014.

Though currently run by a small and creative staff working around the clock with up-and-coming producers from around Latin America, Radio Ambulante was co-founded by Alarcón and executive director Carolina Guerrero. Alarcón is a writer across genres, themes, and borders, with work published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Etiqueta Negra, and anthologized in The Best American Non-Required Reading in 2004 and 2005. He is author of At Night We Walk in Circles (Riverhead Books, 2013) and Lost City Radio (Harper’s, 2006). Alarcón was a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program in Spring 2013, and has served as writer-in-residence at Mills College and the California College of the Arts.

Last Spring, María Ospina, professor of Romance Languages and Literature at Wesleyan University, specializing in contemporary Latin American culture and film, sat down with Daniel Alarcón on behalf of NACLA. They discussed Radio Ambulante’s journalistic lineage, the new immigrant reality, and stories that blow borders to bits.

María Ospina: In terms of the U.S. media landscape, Radio Ambulante is often compared to This American Life. You’ve also mentioned that it is a specifically Latin American project. What makes Radio Ambulante specifically Latin American?

Daniel Alarcón: Well, first of all, the language. For us it was a priority to create a space to celebrate language, Spanish, as a communicative tool. It is important for us to tell Latin American stories and Latino stories in their language of origin, from the inside, not like NPR, where westerners are looking at Latin America, salvaging stories and bringing them—no, we work from the inside, from the community, with local journalists. And we wanted to offer those journalists what we have, which is access to certain technologies, and influences from certain programs that are exceptional, such as This American Life, Radio Lab, American Radio Works, or Radio Diaries. These are programs that have taken journalism to a level that is close to art.

We have a crónica boom in Latin America that a lot of people have commented on and that many celebrate, and rightly so. I mean great cronistas from all of our countries, great magazines, these mediums that did not exist 15 years ago, from Mal Pensante to The Clinic in Chile, MX in Mexico, Anfibia in Argentina, Etiqueta Negra, and many more. But until now there hasn’t been this boom in radio, which is both interesting and surprising given that the radio is the most traditional and most loved medium in the whole continent. So I think we arrived at just the right time. It’s a way of looking at Latin America that hasn’t existed until now.

How do Radio Ambulante’s stories relate to the transnational language of media? I’m thinking in particular of commercial television, where what is highlighted is a language that favors speed and rapid sequences, and whose end goal is often advertisement.

Well, we begin from the vantage point of literature. I don’t come from radio, much less from commercial radio. I’m a novelist, and for me Radio Ambulante is a narrative experiment in how to tell and create stories that can reach a mass audience without losing quality, sophistication, investigative rigor, or depth. We wanted to create a style of radio that didn’t yet exist in Spanish elsewhere, but that was nuanced, understanding that all stories have contradictions, that the world is complex. I think about the work of Ryszard Kapuscinski—a buddy of the late Gabriel García Márquez—and how one can read him and not know if the work is literature, non-fiction, chronicle, testimony, or poetry. Our best stories will leave the listener with a feeling of having read a great novel, but with the added value that the stories are true, that these are people who have lived, are living, and are the protagonists of the stories they’re narrating.

You’ve talked about the figure of the ambulante, or street vendor, in other interviews. It brings up the idea of mobility, travel, the itinerant. The radio, ever since it emerged as a technology in Latin America in the 1920s, has served the idea of the consolidation of nation-state projects, in each nation differently. But obviously your project is a transnational and diasporic project that wants to map not only relationships between people in different countries, but also the movement of people. How do you see Radio Ambulante building a new version of territory, or a new idea of Latin America as a space, given that the stories produced are transnational in their nature?

Now more than ever there is a sense of regional identity. I’m not talking about the Bolivarian dream necessarily, but simply of a reality that comes from cultural and economic interchange, human interchange. I mean there is a huge community of Peruvians living in Chile, there is also a group of Colombians who have moved to the north of Chile and are wreaking havoc there with conflicts emerging between the two cultures. Argentines are everywhere, Colombians as well, and there’s the great route of Central Americans who pass through Mexico towards the United States. Not to mention, of course, the millions and millions of Latinos and children of Latinos who live in this country, in the United States, who are more connected than at any other point in history to their countries of origin. When I moved here with my family when I was three years old, it was impossible to know what was happening in Peru. That’s no longer the case. Now I can look at my Twitter and I know exactly what is happening in Lima and in the great capitals of other countries. I can call on Skype, on WhatsApp, and I can talk to people in the whole region. For my parents and their generation, that was impossible. We’re no longer talking about the kind of immigration that means closing a door and a chapter of your life and moving on to a new stage. Now we’re talking about something much more fluid, more subtle—a transition. I believe that we need to create media that represent that new reality of the immigrant.

At Radio Ambulante we tell stories from wherever Spanish is spoken. If someone proposes a story about the Nikkei, the Peruvians living in Japan, great, I’d love to produce it. We were researching a story about a group of a few dozen Colombian women living in Tehran, that finally we couldn’t produce, but the story is fascinating—about Colombian prostitutes who go to Dubai and Iranian men who go there, fall in love with the women, and take them back to Iran with them. It’s time to open the lens, it’s time to find those stories that complicate the idea of nationality, because those ideas of closed borders where what is happening in Ecuador has no relevance in Venezuela, and what is happening in Colombia has no relevance in Chile—that’s over.

There’s also a growing shared conscience among journalists, and here as well we have to mention the great teacher Gabo, because one of the perhaps most unexpected impacts of the great career and trajectory of García Márquez is the founding and creation of a shared culture between a generation of journalists. They all went to study with Gabo, with Kapuscinski, with John Lee Anderson, Alma Guillermo Prieto, and so on, and they all went back to their countries to create magazines. So now we have these mediums, which are, on top of everything else, publishing works from their friends in other countries. In a magazine like Etiqueta Negra they publish work by Argentines, Chileans, Colombians, Mexicans, Spaniards. And that’s very important, I belong to that. I worked at Etiqueta Negra, I studied with Julio Chang, and I think that he influenced me tremendously, taught me that regional gaze, something that I was more than ready to accept because I also had the same vision after being raised in the Untied States.  

Tell us a little bit about the pedagogic project behind Radio Ambulante. You have an extremely comprehensive set of production guidelines on your website and you give regular trainings to aspiring radio journalists. You also accept stories from people who aren’t necessarily part of a community of established journalists. Up to what point are you also interested in democratizing the places where journalism is made?

Well I’d say that the majority of the stories that we have produced in Radio Ambulante come from people who may have some experience in journalism, but have never produced radio before. You’re not going to teach a journalist of the caliber of Gaby Wiener how to write, but you can teach her how to record audio, you can teach her how to project her talent and her voice—so unique—into another genre, because radio is a little bit different than writing for a magazine.

We give talks in journalism schools in Latin America, by Skype mostly. We already have a first generation of people who have worked with us for the first and second season. And what’s more, there is more exchange than ever among Latinos, I mean gringos of Latino origin, who are going back to their countries, with their knowledge of radio, to produce. I started doing radio without knowing anything either and it can seem intimidating—the microphone, the machine, the whole ordeal—but it’s not. It’s something you can learn in one day. I mean, the basics: press play, record. It’s easy. What’s not easy is the narrative talent and knowing how to tell a story, knowing how to structure it.

From your perspective, what are the most important stories coming out of Latin America today that a progressive, U.S.-based publication like NACLA should be covering?

To begin with, the denationalization of Dominicans of Haitian origin in the Dominican Republic is terrible. It could potentially create a situation like South African apartheid or Israel-Palestine, taking a whole group and removing their rights suddenly.

Also Venezuela. The left here in the States has a really complicated relationship with Venezuela’s reality: On one side we applaud when someone like Chávez reveals and denounces things that we all know are true about the United States. On the other hand they are in a very heavy crisis, where the basics of life are going to shit, there is a lot of violence among civil society, terrible levels of murder, and it’s gotten worse since Maduro. It’s probably going to be Maduro’s own people who will bring him down.

The other thing that interests me a lot is Peru. I was born there, and it worries me—a lot has gone unnoticed in Peru because the economy has grown. Beneath the growth, right below our noses, there is a mini narco-state that is beginning to bloom. In a department called Ancash there’s now talk about a mafia that has usurped the state apparatus, using money from mining and drug trafficking. Basically a mini-state within Peru. And because the country is so centralized, in Lima they hadn’t realized that there was a mafia there that was killing journalists, silencing them, intimidating them, but now it’s finally blown up because they killed a journalist who had outside contacts.

Finally, with last year’s World Cup and the upcoming Olympics in Brazil, there is a great bet that Brazil will consolidate its status as a middle class country. The growing economy in Brazil has also come with a certain cost and it’s not for nothing that there were those big protests last year, and I’m sure that next year there will be more protests. And well, among all the mafias of the world, there with the Vatican, is FIFA and the International Olympic Committee. Those are the biggest gangsters of all.

Where is your listenership now, and where are you working to expand it?

It’s exciting to see how the numbers have been growing in the last year and a half, exciting to see where we’re being listened to. If you put together all of the Americas, 65% of our listeners come from the States. I think that those communities that are listening are mostly immigrants, like me, like you. Also second generation immigrants. There are lots of people who prefer to talk in English but who understand Spanish perfectly because they speak it with their parents. The country that listens to us second-most is Brazil. Through our partner BBC Mundo, we have an audience that is probably more Latin American than the ones who come to our own webpage. But the way to create an audience that is more Latin American is also to reach those small stations, the university ones, the community ones, directly. We also know that there are many people who listen to Radio Ambulante in the States because they want to learn Spanish. A community of Spanish language learners in universities, high schools. We know this because they write to us and let us know they are using Radio Ambulante in the classroom. The fact that the percentage of online listeners is relatively lower in Latin America means that we have a lot of outreach to do. But the fact that we have a good U.S. audience makes me proud.

María Ospina is assistant professor of Romance Languages and Literature and Latin American Studies at Wesleyan University, specializing in war, violence, and memory in contemporary Latin American culture and film. She was coordinator of the participatory media project “Cartas de la Persistencia” launched in Colombia in 2008. Translated by Constanza Ontaneda.

Read the rest of NACLA's 2015 Winter Issue: Mapping the Moment

Tags: Radio Ambulante, radio, borders, transnational, migration, This American Life, identity, Latinos

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