Carolina Guerrero and Daniel Alarcón, the co-founders of the “Radio Ambulante” podcast, started the nonprofit out of their home in Oakland, California in 2012. They wanted to tell longform stories from Latin America in Spanish.
“We didn’t know anything about radio or producing radio, so we had to learn,” Guerrero said during a conversation with Alarcón, her husband, at the Nieman Foundation in late February.
The first season they produced three episodes and had a total of 7,000 listens. “I didn’t take a salary from ‘Radio Ambulante’ for four years,” Alarcón said. “We were fortunate to be able to have other ways to earn money, but we were working insane hours to do this.”
In the early years they were funded mainly by grants. Their big break came in 2016 when NPR became the exclusive distributor of the podcast and growth skyrocketed. Now they have more than 150 episodes, with a total of 18 million downloads. Eighty-two percent of listeners are between 18 and 44 and there are more than 150 listening clubs in 20 countries, including Uganda and Sri Lanka.
In addition to the weekly narrative Spanish podcast, there is Lupa, an app for Spanish learners, and “El Hilo” (“The Thread”), a weekly Spanish podcast of news and analysis. With the expansion has come a broader name, Radio Ambulante Studios, and enlarged ambitions. Up next is the selling of film and television rights to their Spanish-language journalism.
Based in New York, the nonprofit now has over 20 staff members in more than 12 cities across Latin America, Europe, and the U.S. The executive producer of “Radio Ambulante,” Alarcón was born in Lima, Peru and grew up in the States. He teaches longform audio journalism at Columbia Journalism School. Guerrero, a 2015 JSK Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, is CEO. A native of Colombia, she has lived in the States for about 20 years.
Guerrero and Alarcón were interviewed by Natalia Guerrero, Carolina’s sister and a 2020 Nieman Fellow. Edited excerpts:
On why Latino stories matter
Alarcón: Political borders are real, but cultural and linguistic borders are fluid. You can put up whatever wall you want, but Latinos and Latin Americans are an integral part of the United States, just as United States is an integral part of Latin America.
With 50 million Latinos in the United States, we do consider this to be a Latin American country. If you tell a great story, it doesn’t matter what language it’s in or what country it’s from, people will respond to it.
The political situation around Latinos and the rhetoric around Latinos in the United States has made a lot of people realize just how vital our work is. When we do a story about immigration in the United States, when we do a story where we cover raids or we just did a piece about the shooting in El Paso and about the relationship between Juárez and El Paso, we get great feedback, and deep and often very moving engagement.
I’m thinking specifically about a story that we did in Nashville. There was this incident last summer where ICE came to arrest a man. They asked him to get out of his van. He didn’t. He called his wife. His wife called an activist. The activist called a bunch of other people. Within minutes, there were dozens of people who came, including neighbors who are not Latino, many African American neighbors from the community, and they locked arms. They human‑chained around the van and protected him so that ICE couldn’t arrest this man.
Our reporter went down there a week after this happened, interviewed all the neighbors and, because of the language, got some of the most insightful and interesting reporting within the community of Latinos in Nashville. No one had done the kind of in‑depth reporting that we were able to get. For example, the one Spanish‑speaking Latino city councilman for that neighborhood turned out to have been an Argentine refugee who had lived through the dictatorship and had seen people disappeared, his own family. For him, this was like being re‑traumatized to see that happening now in his adopted country where he had come fleeing that kind of violence.
On the range of stories
Alarcón: We’re not the newscast on NPR. We are much more like a long‑form piece you might read in The New Yorker or a story you might hear on “This American Life.” We’ve done stories investigating the punk rock scene in Cuba, the lost orphans of a landslide in Colombia, and the students in Chile who took over a university building and burned all the receipts of their debt and what happened as a result. There’s a law in Chile that says if there’s no paper proof of your debt, you don’t owe it. What happened in the aftermath of this weird act of student rebellion?
The story this week is about a young girl from Brazil who is banned from playing soccer on a boys’ team, even if there’s no girls’ team for her to play on, and her legal fight to have the right to play soccer. We’re always trying to cover a wide range of stories.
In terms of investigative reporting, the orphans’ stories are a great example. We did a big piece about unregulated and clandestine plastic surgeries in Colombia where we were able to get incredible access to a victim of one of these clinics.
On partnering with NPR
Guerrero: NPR gives money to “Radio Ambulante” in return for our exclusive relationship, meaning we don’t distribute our content with anyone else. It doesn’t cover the whole operation of “Radio Ambulante,” but it helps us. It’s a win‑win situation because NPR wanted to serve more Latinos.
Alarcón: It’s a seal of quality because “Radio Ambulante,” literally for years was Carolina and me and a few colleagues in our basement. A lot of foundations were very interested and intrigued. Everyone thought it was cool and they could see that our audience was growing. Still, they were like, “Hey, how do I know it’s any good?” Then NPR is on there and they’re like, “OK, it must be pretty good.” That’s a huge thing. When we were looking for partners and there were other organizations that were interested in partnering with us, it came down not so much to money but to shared journalistic values.
On media for Latinos
Guerrero: Many media outlets who want to serve Latinos and reach that community still don’t understand that for Latinos in the U.S., if you create content that is culturally relevant, sophisticated, and high quality, it doesn’t matter if it’s in English or Spanish. We don’t want to be classified. Latinos are able to navigate the duality of their identities. They don’t have to choose.
In our case, the kind of journalism that we do is very personal so we use Spanish. It would lose too much in a voice‑over. When I grew up listening, for example, to the BBC on the radio, I would hear a voice-over, not the voice of the protagonist.
On audience engagement
Alarcón: To put out an episode of “Radio Ambulante,” and then to have people get together spontaneously on their own to listen to it and then discuss it is an astonishing level of engagement that feels great. It’s very much organized by listeners for listeners.
Guerrero: It’s easy to create a very close relationship with those people in our community who are subscribed to our WhatsApp number.
Alarcón: We use WhatsApp both to distribute and to create content. We were in the middle of mixing an episode when there was a big earthquake in Mexico City. To complement the sound our sound designer recorded from all over his neighborhood in Mexico City, we asked our listeners both on social media and directly on WhatsApp, “Tell us where you were when it struck.” We were able to make an incredible sound collage of voices showing the panorama of Mexico City at that exact moment when the earthquake struck.
Guerrero: In November we started our membership program that allows our listeners to become members and enjoy perks. We have virtual coffees with members. We have stickers and wallpaper that you can download. We raised $50,000 between November and January. For us, it’s very appreciated. It’s voluntary because all the content is free.
On an educational side business
Guerrero: We realized that the 20 percent of the audience who are not native speakers mostly are people who use “Radio Ambulante” to get closer to Latin America and to improve their Spanish. We discovered that people love our content because it keeps the original accents. It offers interesting stories but it is not easy Spanish. It’s Spanish that is real.
The experience on our website was horrible because, usually, we posted our audio and had transcriptions and translations, but it was not possible to read at the same time that you listen. You can imagine how frustrating that was. Still, people were persisting.
We saw an opportunity to serve them better and build an extra source of revenue. We partnered with a technology company a couple of years ago, and created a product. In November we launched Lupa, which is an app for Spanish learners. All our episodes are there, segmented and cut into very small lessons that allow listeners to slow the speed, select vocabulary, read the translation while listening, and read the transcription, among other features. Lupa is $10 per month. For students, $6 per month.
On financial survival
Alarcón: The last thing I want to add to that is that there is no magic solution to the revenue problem. I’m not good at business. What I have learned is this: There is no one solution to suddenly making journalism easy to sustain, but our goal is not to get rich, although that would be great, our goal is to be sustainable, grow, and fulfill our mission. Not all the stories work, but when they do, it’s magical.