Half the Radio Ambulante team gathered in Colombia. Left to Right: engagement editor Jorge Caraballo, editorial intern Maytik Avirama, CEO Carolina Guerrero, senior editor Camila Segura and producer David Trujillo.
It is a very good time to work in podcasting. Since the success of Serial, podcasts have gone from being a vague mystery to the general public to a near obsession among many people. Unfortunately, though, this medium is very monolingual (in the United States, at least). There’s only one non-English show that has really managed to become a success: Radio Ambulante.
While it may not have as large an audience as shows like Radiolab and This American Life, Radio Ambulante has managed to create a platform for long-form, emotional journalism for Latin Americans. Hosted by Daniel Alarcón, the show is based in New York City and has producers and journalists spread throughout North and South America. The show won the prestigious Gabriel García Márquez Prize for Innovation in Journalism in 2014, and it was acquired by NPR in 2016, which has been a boon to its visibility in the United States. Topics covered range from the underground punk and metal scene of Cuba in the 1980s and ‘90s to a terror-filled story of a massacre in a Venezuelan prison.
Though the show is very Spanish-language focused, Radio Ambulante offers tools for those learning the language, including transcripts in both Spanish and English. They also provide resources for teachers use the show in the classroom.
Babbel sat down with Radio Ambulante CEO Carolina Guerrero to talk about the creation of the show, the relationship between English and Spanish, and the importance of telling Latin American stories in their native language.
BABBEL: First, what do you do as CEO of Radio Ambulante?
GUERRERO: I run basically all the operations, sustainability of the project, finances, management. I’ve been doing this since we started Radio Ambulante six years ago.
BABBEL: Why did you start the podcast?
GUERRERO: I think it was a frustration, and a need. It was kind of a spark. Daniel and I are married, but we were dating at the time, and we used to talk about radio shows. This American Life and Radiolab, all those types of shows. We were listening to an episode and were like, “Oh, yes, this is great.” And then we talked about how frustrating it was that there was nothing like that talking about stories from Latin America. So Daniel would say, “Oh, I always wanted to do This American Life in Spanish for Latin America, but I’m a novelist, I don’t have time for it.”
A couple of years later, in 2011, I was looking to start a project that related to storytelling. I was convinced that I was doing something related to commentaries, or like, journalism, journalists, females. I don’t know, I had a couple of ideas, and he came to me and said, “No, why don’t we do this thing on the radio.” And I knew what he was talking about, and we were having coffee in San Francisco before picking up our son at school, and he said, “OK, you do the interpreting, and I’ll do the narrative part,” and I said, “Yes.” That night we sent the signal to many journalist friends in Latin America, and the next morning we had our inbox full of story ideas.
BABBEL: How do you cover so much of Latin America while being based in the United States?
GUERRERO: I supervise everything from here, but Radio Ambulante exists because technology exists. We have a senior editor in Colombia, another editor in London, because she continues to move around the world. When she started working with us five years ago, she was in Santiago, and now she’s in London. We have one reporter in Puerto Rico, one new editor in Costa Rica, and we have grown the operation in Colombia. I don’t know why, because it wasn’t intentional. Now we have an engagement editor in Medellín, and another reporter in Bogotá, and we continue to work with freelance collaborators around the continent.
The Radio Ambulante team is scattered around the world, but every Monday they hold a meeting on Zoom. From the left, starting at the top: senior editor Camila Segura, CEO Carolina Guerrero and executive producer Daniel Alarcón, editorial assistant Luis Fernando Vargas Vega, editor Silvia Viñas, producer Luis Trelles, engagement editor Jorge Caraballo, program coordinator Andrea Betanzos, reporter David Trujillo Patiño, and editorial intern Maytik Avirama.
BABBEL: Since you started Radio Ambulante six years ago, do you think the situation of Spanish-language media has improved?
GUERRERO: We hope so. When we created Radio Ambulante, we established as a nonprofit organization because we thought it was the easiest thing to do, and we didn’t know what we were getting into. And I’m so glad, because otherwise we wouldn’t have done it. It has been too much work, so we wanted to make sure that we could raise grants and all that, because we were bringing these voices to the airwaves and finding new talent in Latinoamérica. But also, we wanted to see Radio Ambulante replicated soon, and we were expecting that to happen, and this is not happening.
BABBEL: Turning to more recent events, do you think the treatment of Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria has anything to do with the perceived language divide?
GUERRERO: I think, I’m gonna say it like this, but I think some ignorance. Learning that many Americans don’t know yet that Puerto Rico is part of the United States. But OK, you can’t know, but I think there is definitely a generalized racism lately, and I think that is a rejection of certain communities. A journalist once told me that people consider Puerto Rico “the bastard colonies of the United States,” and I think what is happening now is showing that disdain for that island.
Anyone who has met a Puerto Rican has seen that Puerto Ricans are the nicest people on Earth. They are so great, and half of the population is within the continental United States. I’m very surprised by the government, but I’m also glad that there are many people fundraising for Puerto Rico. I’m not sure if it’s a Spanish-language problem. You go there and everyone speaks English, and they consider themselves Americans. They are just mostly Democrats. So, I don’t think in this case it’s a language barrier, I think it’s just simply some people in this country don’t want any Latinos, period.
“I think when people speak about Latin America, they think it’s just one whole thing, but we are so many different cultures and people. I think this is the beautiful part of Ambulante.”
BABBEL: There does seem to be some sort of language divide. For example, recently President Trump decided to imitate a Latino accent when saying “Puerto Rico.”
GUERRERO: When we were raised in Latin America we had to always consume media in English. Even if you had voiceovers on TV, you needed at some point to study English. We were forced to learn a language. I can’t understand why they are so afraid of learning other languages, and of other culture. I speak four languages. With my charm, and my accent. But I really regret that I didn’t take time before my kids and my marriage and my work to learn more languages and travel more. And here is this president that goes on TV, and he does that, and it’s so shameful, because it shows how narrow he is.
For people like us who wanted to learn about the world, for someone to make fun of trying to pronounce a language properly is very small. And I understand so many people didn’t have opportunities to learn languages, but it shows a lack of respect for humanity and a lack of celebration of life. I don’t know. I have two kids here who are completely bilingual, because they’re grown in the United States. They correct my accent in English constantly. I can’t deny that sometimes I feel if I take the car and I travel with them and we’re speaking in Spanish at the diner, I’m sure people will start saying things to me, and I don’t know what I’m going to respond to them.
BABBEL: How do people respond to your use of Spanish to tell the stories on Radio Ambulante?
GUERRERO: We receive a lot of comments that we don’t speak proper Spanish. Not many, but some from teachers. Many Americans who teach Spanish as a second language say, “Oh, you have an accent.” One thing that is beautiful about Radio Ambulante is that we take advantage of the common language that is spoken by many people, and we identify ourselves as an American podcast that happens to be in Spanish, or a Latin American podcast that is based in New York. We use this to connect people and understand and learn what we have in common and what makes us different. I think when people speak about Latin America, they think it’s just one whole thing, but we are so many different cultures and people. I think this is the beautiful part of Ambulante. We tell the stories of Latinoamérica, and we consider the United States a Latinoamericano country because there are more than 50 million people who speak or understand Spanish.
I think language can break these physical barriers, and these cultural barriers are very permeable, and this is what a language does.The language is what makes Radio Ambulante come to life. We keep original accents. We embrace the accents of people who grew up here and don’t speak Spanish perfectly. Sometimes people think the host is forcing the “b” and the “v,” and we’re like “No! It’s just in Chile they talk like that.” In the United States, yeah, some people can’t write Spanish perfectly, but they are bilingual. We appreciate the language and how people use it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.