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Esta Vida Americana, and Other Public Radio Dreams in Spanish

Daniel Alarcon | Photo: May-Li Kohe/Library Foundation of Los Angeles
Daniel Alarcon | Photo: May-Li Kohe/Library Foundation of Los Angeles

In 2003 I took a trip to Chicago, a sort of public radio pilgrimage, to attend Ira Glass's Third Coast public radio festival. Hundreds of "This American Life" acolytes attended, people who wanted to do and some who were already producing narrative, intimate radio storytelling.

The incorrigible Latino ethnocentrist in me looked around, looking for any Latino, one Latino. Maybe there was a crypto Latino here and there. Sadly, that public radio community was a Latino free zone. Well, I figured, Latinos aren't attracted to public radio. Engineering, pre-med, and business are more practical college majors. Good for them.

Nine years later, I'm happy to report that there a fair share of Latinos taking part in the radio storytelling renaissance, fed by programs like "This American Life" and "Radiolab."

The Peruvian-American novelist Daniel Alarcon is leading one of the charges through an effort called Radioambulante, a sort of "This Latin American Life" in Spanish. He'll be in L.A. today at the L.A. Public Library to talk about it. In the first podcast you'll find the age old story of an exiled Latin American leader, a Spanish speaking immigrant who befriends the African American kids at a South Carolina high school and cautiously navigates the "n" word.

He's been listening to public radio for most of his life, going back to growing up with Peruvian immigrant parents in Alabama.

"We had to speak Spanish at home, in the house, and my father heard my sisters speaking English with a Southern twang and was sort of horrified, and then we started listening to NPR," Alarcon said in an interview from his home in Oakland.

The growth of public radio has been fed by the decline of commercial radio news stations and the new media upheaval at newspapers.

With Radioambulante, Alarcon and a group of veteran writers and radio producers wanted to go deep into the Latino roots and bring to the ear stories that take place in Latin America and in the U.S. because public radio isn't creating permanent spaces for these introspective stories about Latinos.

"National Public Radio is dismayingly white, and I think they know that and we all know that. That's not news. The question is what are they going to do about it," he said. Well, airing a Spanish language program on English language radio may be out of the question but Radioambulante does showcase what creative storytelling, and good radio craft can do with Latino stories.

Radioambulante seems to be taking advantage of a perfect storm. Among the large number of Latino college graduates, there are many who want to be journalists, many who grew up on public radio, Ira Glass, and other radio. And they want to tell the stories of their own neighborhoods, their own tias, tios, and their loosening grip on the country and language of their parents and grandparents. Digital consumer technology is making it easier for anyone to become a radio producer.

Organizations like Youth Radio in California, NPR's training unit (that's been a constant presence at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists conference), and schools of journalism are giving more of these motivated Latinos the critical ingredient, the analytical tools, and the storytelling formulas, to fashion compelling stories.

Regionally the work of radio producer Sara Harris (my partner in creating the RadioSonideros collective in 2004), the hundreds of radio stories I've produced since that first story on the band Tijuana No in 1995 for KPBS-FM, the Latino USA radio program, and the work of many other Latino radio producers around the country are the de facto segments of a virtual "This Latin American Life."

Alarcon's acclaimed 2007 novel "Lost City Radio" was based on a radio program he heard on trips back to his native Lima, Peru. There was one in particular, a show in which relatives of people who'd disappeared called in, looking for their loved ones.

Alarcon said he loves the similarities between radio and the novel.

"You have that voice in your ear, you have someone whispering a story to you, it's intimate that way, it relies on your imagination to fill in the blanks, just like a novel does, just like a story does," he said.

In DIY tradition, Alarcon and his crew didn't find the radio program they wanted to hear, so they set out to create it.

Poet and KPCC Reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every week on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and the overall sense of place, darting across LA's physical and psychic borders.

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