When Jimmy Gutierrez got involved in public radio in college, something clicked into place. A self-identified Chicano from Milwaukee, Gutierrez was drawn to journalism because he “didn’t trust the people telling stories about the neighborhoods and communities” he grew up in.
That distrust extended to Gutierrez’s editors and superiors, and he questioned if journalism was really what he wanted to do. On a tip from a school counselor, he decided to try public radio.
When a horrific school shooting occurred in his city, Gutierrez found that audio reporting allowed him to tap into the story in a different way. “It was really cathartic to talk to and hear people, rather than just reading about their stories,” Gutierrez said. “I think the voice translates so much, and it felt like a totally different experience to share.”
Gutierrez later became a managing editor and podcast producer at LWC Studios, where he was proud to produce work that represents Latin American identities and communities.
Over the past few years, podcasts—in both Spanish and English—centered on Latinx communities have gained popularity in the United States, tapping into a diverse population connected by a shared language. Home to roughly 53 million people who speak Spanish, the United States has the second largest Spanish-speaking population in the world after Mexico. Often, popular Latinx programming speaks to a shared sense of identity that transcends political and geographical boundaries.
While online and print coverage of Latinx communities has been declining in recent years at big-name media outlets in the United States, innovative audio programming is on the rise. A recent report by Edison Research shows that the number of monthly Latinx podcast listeners in the United States has increased 44 percent over the past year alone. Of those listeners, 38 percent tune in to podcasts to stay connected to their family’s country or region of origin.
Latin America has a long and enduring radio tradition. Younger people, however, are turning more towards the increasing accessibility of podcasts, both as listeners and creators.
“The thing with Latin America is that we all grew up listening to radio. Audio is not something new to us,” said Silvia Viñas, the host and co-founder of the Spanish-language news podcast El Hilo. “So finally, people are realizing that this is a very important market.”
Increasingly, traditional media outlets are investing in this emerging market, with Latinx and Spanish-language audio catalogs being produced by the Washington Post, CNN’s CNÑ, and NBC Universal’s Telemundo. According to Gutierrez and his LWC colleague Paulina Velasco, who have both worked on the popular podcast Latina to Latina, that wasn’t always the case.
“As far as being in newsrooms, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard: ‘Why does this matter? Why should I care?’ when we’re talking about Black and brown people,” said Gutierrez.
After becoming disenchanted with print journalism, Gutierrez landed on podcast production as a space where he can use his creativity to craft stories that contribute to his community. Although he has since left LWC, Gutierrez appreciated being part of LWC’s mission-driven team, which both challenged and celebrated his identity.
LWC is a women-owned digital media company that explicitly centers social justice in its business model and content. Founded by the award-winning journalist and entrepreneur Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, the company’s tagline is “erasing the margins.” According to Gutierrez, engagement with themes of identity and justice was “ingrained in everything we do.”
Velasco, a senior producer at LWC who is based in Los Angeles, had similar experiences in public radio before making her way into the podcast industry. Velasco is Mexican American and said her efforts in past jobs to promote more Latinx programming fell on deaf ears.
“LA is 50 percent, maybe 51 percent Latino, and I struggled to get more traditional media outlets to invest in the Latino community. I found that in the podcasting world there was more opportunity for that,” she said. “So when I got to work on Latina to Latina I was like, Yes! There is an audience, there is so much to talk about.”
Latina to Latina, an interview-based podcast hosted by MSNBC anchor Alicia Menéndez, features conversations with successful Latina women about “making it, faking it, and everything in between.” Velasco feels it’s important to produce content about Latinx communities that is not exclusively centered on narratives of struggle.
“Not every story about Latinos needs to be about migration,” said Velasco. “We have such a way of siloing things. If you talk about a Latino community it’s usually a really heartbreaking story. That is important, but having a show like Latina to Latina about professional entrepreneurs means treating people as experts in their full selves and not just focusing on their identity.”
When the highly successful podcast Radio Ambulante was launched in 2012, co-founders Daniel Alarcón and Carolina Guerrero were told that it would never be a success. Drawing off a rich tradition of the Latin American “crónica,” or longform nonfiction storytelling, Radio Ambulante was created as a Spanish-language version of This American Life, the popular WBEZ radio show and later podcast hosted by Ira Glass. When trying to pitch the idea, Alarcón and Guerrera were told that Mexicans were not interested in stories about Colombia and Colombians were not interested in stories about Brazil.
The podcast, now in its 11th season, has resonated with Latinx communities throughout the United States and Latin America. In 2014, the show was awarded the Gabriel García Márquez Prize for Innovation in Journalism, Latin America’s most prestigious journalism award. It then partnered with NPR in 2016 to expand its reach.
“One of the core ideas of Radio Ambulante from the beginning,” said Alarcón in a September interview for the MacArthur Foundation, “has been that geographical boundaries or political borders may be real, but cultural and linguistic boundaries are completely fluid.”
Today the show has more than 6 million downloads a year, making it one of the most popular Spanish-language podcasts in the United States. In 2020, in response to listener demand, Radio Ambulante launched a weekly news podcast in Spanish called El Hilo, or “the thread.” Viñas, who has worked as a producer at Radio Ambulante since 2013, serves as the executive producer and co-host of El Hilo, alongside El País América’s special projects editor Eliezer Budasoff.
Viñas was initially drawn to Radio Ambulante’s in-depth storytelling in the narrative tradition of the crónicas and found that the podcast filled a much-needed gap in the audio world.
“I really loved radio and started listening to This American Life, Radiolab, those shows that are the masters of storytelling in audio,” said Viñas, who is from Uruguay and now lives in London. “I wanted to listen to something like that in Spanish but it didn’t exist.”
With El Hilo, Viñas and Budasoff are once again pioneering the realm of Spanish-language podcasts, this time with in-depth reporting on a weekly breaking news story from Latin America. While Silvia sometimes misses contributing to months-long reporting projects at Radio Ambulante, she feels that El Hilo carves out a unique space that falls between long-form audio journalism and breaking news. El Hilo’s metrics show that around 40 percent of listeners are in the United States, with other top countries including Colombia, Peru, Mexico, and Spain.
Reporter/Producer for WNYC Studios Alana Casanova-Burgess is also pushing the boundaries of audio storytelling. In La Brega: Stories of the Puerto Rican Experience, a seven-part podcast series co-produced by Futuro Studios, Casanova-Burgess combines narrative storytelling, investigative journalism, and what she calls “bespoke” translation to convey stories “about and by Puerto Ricans.” While La Brega speaks to a Puerto Rican audience, Casanova-Burgess has found the show resonates well beyond the island and its diaspora. Far from being an explanatory series on Puerto Rico, it delves into historical and cultural threads that shape the Puerto Rican imagination today.
“Almost immediately, we had this overwhelming response from listeners who felt really connected to the content and to the voices they were hearing,” Casanova-Burgess said. “We started seeing listeners from India, Israel, Canada, all over the world who were enjoying the fact that the stories were compelling even if they had not been attracted by learning about Puerto Rico specifically.” Casanova-Burgess said the show struck a chord with people living in formerly colonized societies, who saw something of themselves in Puerto Rico’s struggle for autonomy and recognition.
A challenge that Casanova-Burgess faced early on was how to navigate the multilingual nature of the series. Rather than attempting a direct translation, the La Brega team opted to repeat interviews, re-write narration, and largely re-create the story for separate English and Spanish-language versions. “I’m really proud of how we negotiated the dual language aspect,” Casanova-Burgess said, adding that “making this anthological series in the way that we did pushed the boundary for the medium.”
In terms of the future of Spanish language and Latinx audio media, Casanova-Burgess, Viñas, Gutierrez, and Velasco all see the medium moving in positive and innovative directions.
“I think the main thing we've seen this year in particular is a lot of stories that are just good,” said Casanova-Burgess. “If they’re about a ‘Latinx’ experience, that may be interesting to us, but it’s also just a compelling story. I don’t think it’s about siphoning off a Latinx audience as much as it is about opening up that experience to more ears and eyes because it’s good content, a really good story.”
Aside from a focus on Latinx audio listeners among big-name outlets, a number of independent audio production companies have launched in recent years, including Futuro Media, founded by multimedia legend Maria Hinojosa; Adonde Media, founded by Radio Ambulante co-founder Martina Castro; Studio Ochenta; Sonoro Media and LWC Studios. Many of these initiatives are led by strong Latina women founders, CEO’s, hosts, and visionaries. At LWC Studios, Velasco and Gutierrez see real dedication to a breadth of mission-driven programming—from talk series, to longform narrative, to pop culture and docu-series—that transcends geographical boundaries.
“I think the future is really, really bright,” says Gutierrez. “There’s a lot of growth for us to own our own stories, and that is a future I’m excited about.”
Julianne Chandler is a writer and educator based out of Cochabamba, Bolivia. Currently, she is a MA candidate in Latin American and Caribbean Studies and Global Journalism at New York University. Her research interests include autonomous feminist articulation in the Andes, defense of territory, and Indigenous cultural affirmation.
Editor's note: this article was updated on March 8 to reflect that Jimmy Gutierrez no longer works at LWC Studios.