Podcasting in Mexico: Quality or quantity?

It seems incredible that in a country with such a long oral tradition as Mexico, the podcast continues to be a niche product that’s only listened to by those who manage to find a good show in a streaming directory. The problem is that once they get there, the few options all sound the same. It’s a simple equation: Without truly original offerings, there will be no audience. The opportunities are endless.

By Erick Yañez Navarro

The first time I heard the word “podcast” was in 2005, when I became a devoted fan of El podcast de Olallo Rubio, whose eponymous host I didn’t know at that point, despite his 10 years working at the defunct station Radioactivo 98.5 FM. Olallo caught my attention for the same reasons that perhaps led to his firing and the success of his podcast: He’s funny, uninhibited, controversial, and incredibly creative with the microphone.

For five seasons, released between 2005 and 2010, he criticized the Mexican government, the mass media, and social inequality through pure flashes of sonic brilliance. In 40-minute episodes, Olallo Rubio and his colleagues blended opinion with fictional situations in a stream-of-consciousness narrative style: One moment they were parodying presidential campaigns, and the next they were giving lessons in rock. At the start of every episode, Olallo Rubio always greeted different countries across the globe and boasted about being atop the iTunes charts.

Looking back, in spite of Rubio’s detractors, I think you have to start any conversation about podcasting in Mexico by talking about the success of El podcast de Olallo Rubio. In a short time, he achieved what is today a major challenge for any producer: Obtain funding and a loyal audience. The truth is that Rubio was in the right place at the right time: His base of radio followers allowed him to climb the ratings as soon as iTunes released its fledgling podcast directory in 2005. Brands like Motorola and José Cuervo became sponsors as soon as they saw the opportunity. It seemed like the perfect promise that the podcast would become the future of radio; an emerging medium with infinite conversational, creative, and — most importantly — commercial possibilities. So, what happened in Mexico?

From FM to streaming

Few projects came out at the same time as Rubio’s, in 2005. The most salient case is Dixo Media, a platform formed by other members of Radioactivo 98.5 FM, which remains active today. Its founding members (Leonardo Labertini, Rafael Jiménez, Dany Saadia, and Fernando Benavides) have careers in digital marketing, and from the start, they conceived of Dixo as a lucrative business that would work based on sponsorships and strategic partnerships. To date, it has produced more than 12,000 shows and has reached a million monthly downloads. Dixo podcasts that have been running for years include Capitán Pada, which is about comics; El club de los 21, covering current events and pop culture; the Podcast de Fer Tapia and more recently Bestiario, directed by Risco and Marion Reimers (who, in fact, got their start at the same radio station I did: Concepto Radial at Tecnológico de Monterrey).

However, I doubt that any of those shows have been as much of a true watershed as El podcast de Olallo Rubio, which brings me to a marketing phrase that we’ve heard ad nauseum and that few of us have managed to understand and replicate: “Content is king.”

Listening to a segment of a radio program made for a massive audience is very different from crafting an audio file that speaks to a segmented public, with production as sophisticated as you want it to be. The podcast can have its own language — it’s very different from a program with an open-mic or magazine format, which is what most fills Mexican feeds. A podcast listener wants to find something that doesn’t sound “like traditional radio,” which might be why these programs haven’t had the success they hoped for. Rather, they are made for mass audiences, just like their counterparts on the radio waves.

Although everything Dixo offers is original, their podcasts are made according to a structure that’s been proven infallible again and again: the aesthetic and discourse of a traditional radio program. This is, clearly, because this content is produced by hosts and journalists from broadcast radio who continue replicating the styles we’re accustomed to. And we won’t even mention all those well-known programs uploaded directly to a feed (just as they aired on FM radio) and erroneously called “podcasts”!

Alternative platforms

Today, the kind of content that tops the charts in Mexico is produced by major media outlets (MVS Radio, Prisa Radio) or by journalists and producers who started independent projects with a very traditional view of the sonic medium. For starters, we could name Martha Debayle, León Krauze, or Enrique Ganem, who owe their success not only to their existing base of followers, but to the financial backing that comes from their continued collaboration with large media companies.

However, the most prominent podcasting model in Mexico is based on platforms, meaning projects that acquire various shows to facilitate their production. One of the most successful is Así como suena, created in 2016 by a team of reporters coordinated by Carlos Puig from Grupo Milenio and Paco Arriagada from Casette. Their collaborators are people who have worked in the mass media, as demonstrated by one of their most successful programs: La Chora Interminable, hosted by the famous editorial cartoonists Trino (José Trinidad Camacho) and Jis (José Ignacio Solórzano).

What’s interesting about Así como suena is that its shows have adopted a way of presenting information that sounds a lot like the storytelling on public radio in the United States, or projects like Radio Ambulante, in which they harness the virtues of the podcast to lend intimacy to the stories. There are podcasts about life in Mexico City and the journeys its inhabitants embark upon (Crónicas Chilangas and México inhumano), about people who have achieved extraordinary things (Genio y figura), and about music (Bandas que te interesan). Although these podcasts stand out for avoiding conventional styles, they are almost like mini-seasons that don’t have more than five episodes.

Another notable initiative is Puentes, which has more than 4,500 hours of podcasts in Spanish on its site. The platform was created in 2014 by Evaristo Corona “El Golfo,” “Ruzo” and Julio Martínez, who had already worked in traditional radio at stations like Radioactivo, Órbita, and Reactor. Their site, with more than 35 shows, covers themes such as sports, books, film, music, and even science news; shows like La voz de la calle, which interviews people in vulnerable situations, or Mándarax, hosted by Leonora Milán and Alejandra Ortiz. Puentes has its own online store and opportunities for advertisers.

Olallo Rubio didn’t abandon the podcasting scene, and in 2016 he launched Convoy, a streaming audio service that’s unique in Latin America because it costs money, $2.65 USD per month. Just like a Netflix-style subscription service, the project is betting it will be able to fund itself by offering exclusive content through an app. El podcast de Olallo Rubio produced another two seasons there, but it remains to be seen whether he can equal the reach he achieved when the show was free. Perhaps the Mexican market isn’t ready for models like this.

Independent podcasting

Platforms are a double-edged sword. While they represent a conscious initiative to produce more podcasts in Mexico in a sustainable way, their production teams (most of which are replicas of the traditional style of making radio) are limited to a few collaborators, and few offer opportunities for independent creatives to pitch new projects. Convoy opened a call for pitches called “Piloto” a while back, but they haven’t done it again since. By not opening up to independent proposals (and by excluding external producers, scriptwriters, editors and creatives), the platforms are curbing opportunities to create a podcast industry or market in Mexico that’s truly bidirectional, creative, and sustainable.

I’d like to quickly review the case of a podcast network that has a loyal audience and has found the means to continue producing: Nawtico. BarcadeVG, a podcast about video games founded by Miguel “Asher” Sandoval, is distributed primarily via YouTube and Soundcloud, and it stays afloat thanks to Patreon. Asher also founded Ya Te Digo Podcast, distributed by Mixlr, and later through iTunes and Soundcloud. These two programs, along with La Hora Racional and Radio Pitero, form part of the content “network” Nawtico that, while some might call it amateur, establishes an alignment and empathy with its audience that has resulted in more than 6,000 downloads per program.

Of course, one would expect more names of Mexican podcasts to show up on the charts, but the truth is that only the productions that have maintained regularity and have also known how to obtain the resources to subsist (often through crowdfunding) appear there. Some notable examples are: Autopsia de la Psique (paranormal), Hijos de la web (current events), and Se regalan dudas (sexuality).

Productions from universities and institutions

Audio production by public radio stations, academic institutions, and cultural organizations is vast, but it continues looking to traditional radio as the principal broadcast medium and to the podcast only as a supporting medium. However, it’s here that I’ve discovered the most creative approaches, which are also backed up by robust research.

For example, all the audio produced by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) can be found on their website, Descarga Cultura UNAM, where radio plays, literature, and science content prevail. Also available for download is Resistencia Modulada, a set of nine programs produced with the support of UNESCO’s International Fund for the Promotion of Culture. It’s directed by Diego Ibáñez and produced by a group of 20 young people, most of them students or alumni of UNAM.

Speaking of public funds, one with great relevance to the artistic community in Mexico is the National Fund for Arts and Culture (FONCA), awarded by the Secretary of Culture. One of my favorite fiction series was created thanks to this program; it’s called Invasión Hertziana, produced by Octavio Serra in collaboration with Radio UNAM and Ibero 90.9. Unfortunately, this science fiction project only produced a dozen episodes, and not all of them are available online, despite their quality and the inclusion of big names like the actor Daniel Giménez Cacho. It was also thanks to FONCA that I could continue the production of Psicofonías Podcast, a fictional audio horror series.

Countless audio creation efforts come from these types of institutions. Given this sea of content, the need for a forum to recognize it and make it visible has long been evident; 20 years ago, the International Biennial of Radio was founded, an initiative of Radio Educación, which is an arm of the Secretary of Culture. The contest allows entries under two categories that are, in my opinion, outdated: radio “professionals” and “non-professionals.” The impact of the contest on the community of podcasters in Mexico, if any, is doubtful. Although there are numerous traditional radio producers who have won the Biennial and later moved over to the podcast ( Fernando Benavides of Dixo, for one), the truth is the event has faced budget cuts, and still needs to work on talking about podcasting as a medium.

Some conclusions

There is little data about how many Mexicans listen to podcasts. The Mexican Internet Association, AMIPCI, says that 35 percent of internet users do, but it groups “download podcasts” with other multimedia activities in its 2016 consumer habits survey. The 2017 Pod Survey doesn’t shed much light on the subject either, with little participation from Mexico in the sample. The podcast continues to be a niche product in Mexico — and those familiar with it refer to programs made by journalists and opinion leaders who have monopolized the offerings to such a point that podcast directories seem like an extension of what we commonly listen to on the radio.

It’s a tough game. To begin talking about a podcasting industry in Mexico (or a healthy scene, at least), business models must be created that allow for steady production without sacrificing quality. Depending on public funding is scary, because those funds are finite and they jeopardize the continuity of the podcast. Crowdfunding seems like an option, but support is usually limited to a single program or project. Sponsors and advertisers are the pillar of many platforms, but you need high numbers of downloads before that becomes an option.

However, this is the first step for the independent podcasters of Mexico to be able to create sustainable projects, ones that also showcase a commitment to the medium of sound and stir up that aforementioned creativity. There is no audience if there’s nothing on offer. We need to diversify that offering, provide content that breaks the conventions of traditional radio. Likewise, we need new contests, forums and festivals where these efforts can be seen and rewarded. I think the infinite potential of the podcast lies in the content — that’s the key to taking it beyond the business of just a handful of people, and being able to build an audience in Mexico.

Today we have a few opinion leaders topping the charts and creating platforms that, oftentimes, impede the entrance of new actors. Mexico does have a small community of independent podcasters, and it needs to find the magic formula for producing quality content with the right funding strategies to become visible.

José Erick Yáñez Navarro // Podcaster@s Collaborator

Degree in Communication and Digital Media. He has developed a variety of audiovisual and multimedia projects, including music videos, short films, documentaries, corporate videos, and animation for digital cinematography. He has been a host and producer of audio projects in digital media. He is a founding member, managing producer and scriptwriter for Psicofonías.

@pateerick // psicofonias.com.mx