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Join the Club: How Radio Ambulante Podcast Listens to Its Community

by Jelena Prtoric

Listening Club Guatemala. Credit André Asturias

Every Monday evening, from 7–9 PM New York time, people meet online to listen to the podcasts together. Mid-April, a group of women in Chile and Peru organized an online listening event around a podcast episode about the Cholita — the indigenous women of Bolivia — climbers. Every Saturday at 10 am, Brazil time, podcast enthusiasts from all over Latin America are invited to join online listening events.

They don’t listen to just any podcasts. All of them connected around stories of Radio Ambulante, a Spanish language podcast launched in 2011 and distributed via the US public radio network, NPR, since 2016.

Democratic Listening Experience

Listening Club. Photo by Radio Ambulante

The podcasts are usually referred to as an ‘intimate’ medium. We mostly listen to them with our earphones on. We create a special bond with the host whose voice is present in our ears — we might even think of them as a friend that we are meeting up every week or so. So, turning podcast-listening into a public experience is not an opportunity many podcast creators have explored.

But Jorge Caraballo, Radio Ambulante’s growth editor, thought that communal listening could create a stronger bond between the members of their community. “I think that the human voice is essential to create empathy, and to focus the attention not only on the data we journalists present, but also to connect with very deep and layered emotions that are part of a broader human experience,” he says.

The idea of listening clubs originated from a Club de Podcast Facebook group that Caraballo launched in January 2018 so that listeners could gather to talk about the podcast among themselves. He’s always liked the idea of journalism as a non-hierarchical relationship between the content creators and the audience.

“Journalism was always owned by few people who were able to pay for the resources, for the production of information. This created a vertical relationship in which some people consume what others are reporting and publishing,” says Caraballo. “I’ve wanted to use all the possible tools to make journalism more entertaining, more appealing, more participative,” he explains.

Caraballo joined Radio Ambulante in 2017 when the team launched their second season with NPR. They wanted to grow in the audience, but first and foremost keep their faithful audience happy. Caraballo, therefore, decided to turn every weekly episode into a conversation that would allow the listeners to learn about each other and Latin America in general.

“I have been doing it for almost four years, and it is fascinating to see how people react when they realize they deal with a media organization that listens to them. For us, this is not a pose, a posture,” ensures Caraballo.

The success of Radio Ambulante was facilitated by the fact that there is a strong tradition of narrative and radio journalism in Latin America. “Radio has been the most powerful media to spread the information on a very unequal territory (…) Radio is the most democratic media, as it is easier to consume radio journalism than digital journalism,” Caraballo explains.

Today, their Listening Clubs (Clubes de Escucha), are present in 50 cities all across the world (although the largest part of them are still in Latin America). While Radio Ambulante Listening Clubs are organized solely by the podcast team, Listening Clubs can be organized independently by any listener of the podcast. The format is simple — participants get to know each other, listen to an episode together, discuss it afterwards. Most of the times, there are follow-up activities, and some of the clubs become a recurrent event.

Listeners are also provided with a Manual for organizing Listening Clubs, put together by the podcast team. The manual explains how one can choose the right venue for the meeting (it was drafted in pre-Covid 19 times), provides the organizer(s) with the ideas on how to moderate the conversation and a template for coloring or drawing pages for the participants, which should help them focused — and off their mobile phones — during the listening session. According to the figures published on Radio Ambulante’s website, out of 200 participants interviewed, 88% said “that the Listening Clubs allow them to have a deeper understanding of the stories,” 84% stated that “the clubs help them have conversations they can’t have in other spaces,” and 91% participants agreed “that the quality of the communication is higher in the clubs than on social media.”

Changing of the Narrative about Latin America

The Radio Ambulante Team

Radio Ambulante’s team engages with the community in other ways, too. For instance, they regularly receive pitches from their listeners. Pitches are displayed on their website so that the other listeners have the opportunity to vote for their favorite story. The episode Narco Tours, about the tourist tours designed around Pablo Escobar’s life that are nowadays offered in Medellin, Colombia, was pitched by a listener and voted for by the community.

Caraballo and his team are also constantly monitoring their listeners’ feedback on social media. “Sometimes we make changes and clarify certain points thanks to their comments. We are signaling all the time that we want to be transformed by people’s feedback. Of course, we keep our high journalism standards, but I think that these two things are not mutually exclusive — you can have high journalism standards and be open to what your listeners want from you,” Caraballo points out.

In order to learn about their audience’s needs, every week they publish a survey in which they ask the listeners about the type of stories they’re hoping to hear. “People told us they didn’t want to hear the same stories time and time again — stories about Latin America as a place of drugs, violence…They wanted something more uplifting that presented a region in more fun, entertaining way,” says Caraballo.

This doesn’t mean that Radio Ambulante shies away from discussing politics, social issues or topics such as drug trafficking or gang violence. For instance, We Interrupt This Broadcast is a story about journalists covering and denouncing the abuses perpetrated by the Daniel Ortega administration in Nicaragua; No Cure Needed tackles the topic of so-called treatments to ‘cure’ homosexuality in Ecuador and Mothers of the Desert tells a story about women going to the desert to find their children and missing relatives who disappeared in Mexico, amid actions against drug traffickers.

But they are also zooming into other, less ‘dramatic’ events in the continent’s history. Take for instance Pigcracy, a story about pigs of various colors that started appearing on the walls of the city of Guayaquil, in Ecuador in 2004, triggering panic in the society. Or the story about the Beatles coming to Argentina to appear in a local television program at the height of Beatlemania, in 1964 (The Boys with Bangs). Or check out The Extraterrestrials, a throwback to the broadcast of an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds — the story of the supposed Martian invasion on Earth — in 1949 by Radio Quito, that turned the Ecuadorian city upside down.

When the founders of Radio Ambulante first explored the possibility to start a podcast aimed at a broader Latin American community, they got the feedback that “a regional narrative podcast didn’t make sense.

“Fortunately, they didn’t listen to that, and Radio Ambulante has proven to be a bridge between different cultures. Even if you are not from the continent, but from a European country for instance, when you hear our stories or read the script, you’ll realize these are stories about what it means to be a human,” Caraballo says.

Today, in order to appeal to non-Spanish speakers, Radio Ambulante also releases English and Spanish transcripts of each episode on their website. They also partnered together with Jiveworld, a self-study language learning method, to create Lupa — an app that helps improve the Spanish of non-native Radio Ambulante listeners. The app allows the users to adjust the degree of difficulty to their level by showing them the translation of certain words, allowing them to get a real-time translation or set the speed they want.

In September 2019, Radio Ambulante also launched a membership program through which their audience can support them financially. “A big part of our annual budget is not covered by NPR, so we wanted to see if our community would support us in this way as well. The perks and benefits we offer through the membership program are symbolic, so the people that support us are doing it because they really like the show. Now the membership program accounts for about 30% of our budget,” Caraballo explains. He also stresses out they have no intention of putting their content behind a paywall and exclude non-paying members from accessing their stories in the future.

It is hard to gauge if this close relationship that Radio Ambulante has fostered with its community could influence how the same people feel about the media in general.

Caraballo said that they never asked this question. However, he recalled receiving an email from a student that was part of the membership program. They wrote that they would not be able to support Radio Ambulante anymore, due to financial constraints. “They said they wanted to support a smaller podcast, and could not support both. But they also said we taught them the power of journalism. I think this is our value — people are more aware that they can support the journalism they value and consume, they feel more engaged,” Caraballo says.

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Stories published by the team of the Center for Media, Data and Society at the CEU Democracy Institute.

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Center for Media, Data and Society

Research center for the study of media, communication, and information policy and its impact on society and practice. https://cmds.ceu.edu/

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