JSK Fellow talks about winning prestigious Latin American award for media innovation

A team led by 2015 JSK Fellow Carolina Guerrero has won the Gabriel García Márquez Award for Innovation in Journalism for Radio Ambulante, a bi-weekly podcast that broadcasts long-form Latin American stories from anywhere Spanish is spoken.

Guerrero is executive director of Radio Ambulante, which she co-founded with her husband, novelist Daniel Alarcón, who is executive producer. She is the Knight Foundation Latin American Fellow in the 2015 John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships program.

“It’s a tremendous honor for our entire team,” Guerrero said.

“It’s a validation of our efforts, and an inspiration to continue pushing ourselves to do more and do better,” added Alarcón. 

As a JSK Fellow at Stanford, Guerrero is exploring ways radio journalists can benefit from new technologies that make production and dissemination easier and more affordable.

Venezuela Decoded, a project of several JSK alumni, was also short-listed for the award in innovation, one of five categories in Latin America’s most prestigious media competition. Winners in each category receive $15,000.

‘A new concept in radio’

Judges described Radio Ambulante as a new concept in radio, using network resources rather than radio transmitters to distribute content and a nonprofit, contribution-based business model. Radio Ambulante, which works with a community of storytellers and radio producers around the world, was commended for its “impeccable” journalism and narrative and technical quality comparable to that of the “highest level in the radio world.“

The annual Gabriel García Márquez Award encourages the pursuit of excellence, innovation and ethics consistent with the ideals and inspiration from the work of Gabriel García Márquez.  The winners were announced Wednesday evening in Medellin, Colombia.

We spoke with Guerrero recently about the award and her hopes for the future. 

Q&A with Caroline Guerrero

How are you planning to use the prize money?

Simple. The prize money will be used to pay production costs. We’re still a young project, and most of our budget is used to pay our staff and producers. It makes sense to continue working.

How can this important award can help you with the continuing expansion and development of Radio Ambulante?

For our team, it’s a tremendous honor to be the winner of this award. It’s a validation of all the effort we’ve put into this project since we launched three years ago. Back then, we were avid listeners to this long-form narrative radio style that we could only find in English; and we had the desire to hear our own stories in Spanish. We saw an opportunity, and knew that we could make it happen. But many people in the U.S. media, as well as in Latin America, didn’t believe there would be an audience for this kind of content. So we decided to invest our time and money to prove that there was one. This prize demonstrates that our instincts were right. We hope to use this as a stepping stone to get more investment, and to build more partnerships around the continent.

What do you see as the most important challenge you face with Radio Ambulante in the next months or year?

Radio Ambulante’s most important challenge is to get the project completely funded so we can build capacity. That means increasing the frequency of our production, identifying more stories from producers across the region. Our audience is hungry for more content, as are the partner radio stations who distribute our show in Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, and Colombia. In order to accomplish these goals, we need to refine our business model, capture an even wider audience, and develop the ancillary projects that will help us be sustainable in the mid- to long term.

How many listeners did you have in the beginning? How many you have now, on average, to each podcast?

We launched in May, 2012, two months after having completed a successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. We raised $46,000 from more than 600 backers in 20 countries. So we took that as a prototype, and consider those donors our first core audience. Since then, we’ve produced 3 seasons of content, though we didn’t have very good analytics until midway through the second season, when we moved our content to SoundCloud.

One of the many benefits of this platform is that now we’re able to have detailed information as to who our listeners are. So, for example, we’ve learned that from May 2013 to May 2014, the number of listeners (across all platforms) has multiplied 50 times. We went from 2,000 listens per month to almost 100,000. Our partnership with the BBC Mundo, which was signed at the end of the second season, gives us an additional 18,000 to 40,000 unique visitors to their website per episode.

This growth is very encouraging, of course, and inspires us to keep working.

Today, 65% of our listeners are in the U.S., and 27% in Latin America, the rest in Europe and the rest of the World. But that information may change depending on the episode. Some stories go viral for one reason or another: our most listened-to story was reported in Chile, but more than half of listeners were in Brazil. We chalk this up to simply the magic of the Internet.

We know that our audience is young – 84% is under age 45. We know that nearly half of our U.S. listeners are Spanish language learners. We know that many are just discovering us. It isn’t uncommon for a new listener to go back and hear the entire catalogue, proving again that there’s a hunger out there for the kind of content we’re producing.

You mention the United States as among the Latin American countries you want to include. What do you mean by that?

We began Radio Ambulante because we recognized a need for more stories from Latin America. But, along with Co-founder and Executive Producer Daniel Alarcón, I felt that there was something unique about the situation of Latinos in the U.S. In particular, that we were exposed to the stories of Latinos from all across the region. It gave us a sense of the connectedness of Latin America, and of the important role that the U.S., with its 50 million Spanish speakers, plays in the regional dialogue.

When we invited our other co-founders, Annie Correal and Martina Castro, to be part of this project, they felt exactly the same.

As we see it, the United States is a Latin American country, and the cultural borders are very fluid.

Radio Ambulante is bringing stories about Latinos and Latin Americans that you rarely hear on American airwaves, and at the same time, we’re bringing different voices from the continent to other countries. I think that we, as Latin Americans, are learning how similar we are, and also what our differences may be, shattering stereotypes in the process. We feel that the human voice, and personal stories, are the best way to connect us as human beings.