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July 13, 2012, 12:30 p.m.

Radio Ambulante wants to drive narrative journalism in Latin American radio, via the web

The project is betting on new platforms to bring back an old tradition: listening to audio stories.

Latin America has a long tradition of telling stories — and it used to have one of listening to them on the radio, too. For decades, “radionovelas” (radio soap operas) were a huge success across the region, but the rise of TV supplanted radio for broadcast storytelling. Radio is still big in many Spanish-speaking countries, but it’s dominated by music and live talk shows.

Radio Ambulante wants to bring those days back, but with a twist. The project’s goal is to catch the people’s ear with narrative journalism, not fiction. “It is a project to tell stories from all Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America, where people listen to radio every day,” Daniel Alarcón, one of its founders and a renowned writer himself, told me.

In other words, it’s trying to create a product that sounds like This American Life and Radiolab, a format rarely found on radio programming in Latin America.

To change that landscape, Radio Ambulante is betting on the web. It raised some of its initial funds via Kickstarter — $46,000, beating its goal by $6,000 — and it’s crowdsourcing reporters and stories.

“Without the Internet and without all the digital tools available now, Radio Ambulante wouldn’t exist,” Alarcón told me. The web, he explained, allows production to take place across multiple countries while maintaining low costs. “On the distribution side, it is very important also,” he said.

However, the web is not the only channel Radio Ambulante wants to be on. Alarcón’s ultimate ambition is to broadcast its content on radio stations across Latin America. The idea is to build sort of a syndication network of narrative radio journalism. “Latin America is a continent of narrators and storytellers, and for us it was obvious to put such oral tradition together with radio, and adding journalistic rigor to the mix,” he said.

The first episode of Radio Ambulante, which became available May 15, reflects that intention. The 50-minute-long program is dedicated to stories about moving:

  • A man relives the 26-day trip he made from Perú to New York, hidden in a ship, in 1959.
  • A woman tells the story of a friend returning to Perú, her home country, after years of living in Barcelona, Spain.
  • Reza revisits his first day as an immigrant in a North Carolina high school and remembers how saying a forbidden word let him blend in with the crowds.
  • Manuel Zelaya, former president of Honduras, describes intimate details of the day in 2009 he was ousted by the army and what happend during his two-year exile.

“Mudanzas” is the first of four shows Radio Ambulante plans to produce this year, one every two months. For now, the content is available at the project’s site or in iTunes.

When it comes to its audience, Radio Ambulante wants one that is “transnational and greographically diverse.” Alarcón emphasized that they are not only aiming at Latinos living in the U.S. “We are going to build an audience along the way. With digital platforms, we don’t need just one big market — we can have small niches in different cities,” he explained. As part of those efforts, Radio Ambulante is exploring distribution in the U.S. and alliances with radio stations in Latin America, Alarcón said. “Not everyone has an iPhone or a phone that allows to download audio. That’s why radio stations are very important for us.”

There’s nothing concrete yet, but Alarcón hopes the second season will be aired in different radio stations throughout Latin America, in 2013. “This year, the priority is focusing on producing high-quality content.”

To ensure the quality desired, Radio Ambulante is making use of a network of contributors, especially with experience in radio. Journalists and producers like NPR correspondent Manadalit del Barco and This American Life contributor Annie Correal advise the editorial team on various things from technical issues to creating the show’s sound aesthetic.

Helping me helping you

Collaboration plays a key role in a small operation like Radio Ambulante, which is based in Oakland, California, and wants to cover all Latin America on a budget. Producers invite story pitches on their site, including those related to upcoming episode themes. (The next episode is about names, so they’re asking for good tales behind aliases or surnames.) A Soundcloud dropbox lets you submit finished audio if you’d like.

Another form of collaboration is working with Latin American magazines specialized in narrative journalism, like Etiqueta Negra (from Perú) and Anfibia (from Argentina). When a reporter needs to travel for a story and there’s not enough budget, Radio Ambulante share expenses with the publication and they run the story adapted to its particular platform. Some stories originally produced for Radio Ambulante will end up having a magazine version, too, and vice versa.

The last but certainly not the least form of collaboration is donations. However, Alarcón is aware that won’t keep the project alive. For 2013, Radio Ambulante plans to produce 10 episodes, which requires an estimated budget of $450,000.

Alarcón knows that the audience has to grow in order to lure investors and commercial partners. Since the project was launched with a pilot in February, the site has had 20,000 visitors. “It’s not our goal,” he acknowledged, “but is it a good start. We want to have thousands of downloads.”

The biggest challenge so far, though, has been to learn and to teach a new way of storytelling. “We are based on long tradition of narrative journalism in Latin America — the small detail is that we are doing it on radio,” Alarcón told me. “We’re driving a new tradition.”

POSTED     July 13, 2012, 12:30 p.m.
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