Radio Ambulante: A Radio that Listens
Welcome back to the final article in our three-part series, Radio de Acción. Special thanks to you, our readers, and to editors Jennifer Stoever and Neil Verma at Sounding Out! for hosting this addition to a burgeoning field of Latin American critics and producers who are changing the way we hear radio as history, as theory, and in practice.
Over the past several weeks we have tried to bring you into the multiple worlds made possible by radio in Latin America. If you missed our previous posts, please find Alejandra Bronfman’s stunning history of radio in the Caribbean here, and Karl Swinehart’s fascinating study of Aymaran-Spanish radio here.
Both of these critical approaches set the stage for Carolina Guerrero’s extraordinary work with radio in the Americas. An executive director and co-founder of Radio Ambulante—a program that fellow co-founder and novelist Daniel Alarcón calls “This American Life, but in Spanish, and transnational”—Guerrero’s post takes us behind the scenes of her show to consider how the sounds on radio come to life for us as listeners, and the significance of hearing someone’s words in her or his own voice and language. For more Radio Ambulante after you finish reading and listening to Carolina’s post, please visit their website and download their podcasts.
–Guest editor Tom McEnaney
In late 2007, novelist Daniel Alarcón was hired by the BBC to produce a radio documentary about Andean migration in his native Peru. He spent 10 days traveling around the country, from the highlands to Lima, conducting interviews in both English and Spanish, talking to a wide range of people with very personal stories about migration. But when Daniel received the final mix from London, he was disappointed to find that the editor had privileged the English language voices, and left out many of the most compelling Spanish language storytellers. Daniel was left with a question: what if there was a space for those voices on the radio waves? What would it sound like?
Over coffee in San Francisco in January 2011, Alarcón and I decided to create that space, inspired by US public radio shows like This American Life and Radiolab, which had no Spanish counterpart. We knew that poignant, fun, surprising, unique, sometimes sordid, sometimes romantic, absurd and incredible stories we often heard in Latin America were out there, just waiting to be reported. We knew that they would make great radio. And we knew there was an audience—in Latin America and the US—that wanted to hear it. The result became Radio Ambulante.
We began by asking many of our print journalist friends in Latin America to share stories with us. We sent them links to stories from some of our favorite American radio programs, and then contacted a few bilingual independent radio producers here in the US, and asked them for advice on the basics of radio production. Many directed us to Transom.org, which was an absolutely essential resource.
In March of 2012, we launched a Kickstarter campaign. All we had was an idea and a sampler with less than 45 minutes of audio—and still, we managed to raise $46,000 with the support of 600 backers. The success of this campaign was a huge confidence boost, and we knew we were on to something. We used this money to produce our pilot season.
Since then, we’ve worked with more than twenty different producers in more than a dozen countries. These are the characters that emerge from Radio Ambulante stories: a transgender Nicaraguan woman living with her Mexican wife in San Francisco’s Mission District; a Peruvian stowaway telling his harrowing tale of coming to New York in 1959, hidden in the hold of a tanker ship; the Chilean soccer player who dared challenge the authority of General Pinochet; a young Argentine immigrant to North Carolina, trying to find his way through the racially charged environment of an American high school. Taken together these voices create a nuanced portrait of Latino and Latin American life:
PERSONAL STORIES FOR ALL EARS
Now in our third season, we’ve been working hard to create a group of trusted producers and editors across Latin America; people we can turn to with an idea, people we know we can trust with our limited time and resources; reporters we can send to Cuba, send to Honduras, send to Venezuela, and be certain they’ll come back with usable tape, and a good story. We want these first time producers to become long-term contributors.
That’s the case of Camila Segura, Radio Ambulante’s current Senior Editor. She had no prior experience as a radio producer when she reported her first story for us in 2012. That piece, El otro, el mismo (The Other, The Same) is about two men, one Colombian, one Argentinian, who not only share the same name, but who look almost identical. From this coincidence, the story becomes something much stranger, funnier, more subtle, and ultimately quite moving:
We want the listener to be able to relate and identify with the characters, to feel what they feel. A good Radio Ambulante story should be universal and shouldn’t have an expiration date.
One story from our first season captures this universal quality. In 2011, River Plate, one of the most famous soccer clubs in South America, was relegated to the Argentine Second Division. This event shook the entire nation, and anyone who listens to this story could relate to the sadness and pain that the protagonist is feeling. Two years later, the story still has that raw power:
HOW WE SOUND
Martina Castro, Senior Producer, has designed most of Radio Ambulante’s sound, finding the balance between music and sound effects in order to support the voice of the main characters. As she explains,
There are many kinds of pieces that make it to Radio Ambulante. Sometimes the story is focused on one person and their experience: something that happened long ago. Like with Mayer Olórtegui in Polizones (The Stowaways), and the story of how he and his friend Mario jumped aboard a ship headed to the United States. There is no substitute for a dynamic storyteller like Mayer. He not only recreates moments, sometimes even imitating the sounds of what he heard, but he remembers the emotion of what happened, and really feels deeply what he is talking about, like when his voice breaks up at the mention of saying goodbye to his friend Mario.
Other, more symphonic, multi-voiced pieces provide a different kind of production challenge. The script must showcase the many characters, while giving the listener enough grounding so as not to get lost. A particularly successful example is our award-winning piece “N.N.”, about Puerto Berrio, Colombia, by reporter Nadja Drost. Nadja gathered recordings of this river town, and conducted interviews with many locals, always focused on the issue of the floating, anonymous dead and the town’s strange relationship with these bodies. The music in a piece like this is only meant to support those real-life sounds and characters, and a repeated melody serves as a ghost-like echo of the dead, those voices we never hear.
We use music carefully to shift the mood, to mark the end of a section, and to alert the listener that something new is coming. The music is also meant to break up chapters of a story, give us a moment to reflect on what we just heard, or to indicate when something is about to change. There are examples in Yuri Herrera’s “Postcard from Juárez,” produced by Daniel Alarcón. It tells the story of Diana la Cazadora, or Diana the Hunter, a vigilante who set about killing bus drivers in one of the world’s most violent cities, allegedly as revenge for years of misogyny and sexism.
In this particular story, we were able to do something that the English version (produced for This American Life) could not: read in the original Spanish the letter that the supposed killer sent the local Ciudad Juárez newspaper explaining her actions. We had this read by Lizzy Cantú, a Mexican journalist who’d worked with us before, and then distorted her voice, to give it that dark ambience. The listener is supposed to feel the grim violence in those words: the desperation.
In three seasons producing the show, we’ve learned that the craft of radio comes from listening, and that the most challenging aspect of producing radio is not in the technical details of recording those voices or sounds, but in the story itself.
The most basic building block of a good radio story is a good interview. The technical aspects of gathering sound are less important than phrasing the questions to get vivid, almost filmic answers, full of details that set the scene.. As Executive Producer Daniel Alarcón explains,
We ask our reporters to push interviewees to describe scenes in great detail, to unpack moments. Our interviews can last two hours or more, and many are surprised that we go so in depth. We like our reporters to circle back, and then circle back again, so that we’re sure we’re getting the most vivid version possible of a given story’s crucial moments.
We ask our reporters to write colloquially, to imagine they’re telling the story to a friend at a bar. It’s important to have immediacy in the language, an expressive tone that can seem almost improvised, even when it isn’t. The emotional impact of radio is that it feels as though a secret is being shared. The script and the production should always be in service of this intimacy.
Before a script is final, it’s shared with other editors on the team around the globe (California, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Chile), mixed, edited, soundtracked, and refined through hours of collective work online.
While creating our own sound and storytelling style, Radio Ambulante is constantly experiment with different formats and looking for new ways to interact with our listeners. We’ve done three live radio shows, in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. In addition, we’ve produced two English Language specials, and partnered with writers and animators on hybrid multimedia storytelling. With our partners at PRI, we’re developing a new interview series, and are working with Latin American universities and media outlets to teach more journalists to use radio. Our hope is that Radio Ambulante’s success will mean more innovative radio work in Spanish, and more experiments in the possibilities of bilingual radio.
Carolina Guerrero is the Executive Director of Radio Ambulante. Before getting into journalism, she was a promoter for cultural and social projects, creating a bridge between organizations in three different continents. She has worked with public and private institutions in several countries, for which she has designed and overseen festivals, art exhibits, teaching workshops and fundraising events. Carolina is a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University 2014-15. She is the proud mother of León and Eliseo. (@nuncaduermo)
All images courtesy @radioambulante on Twitter
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Hello, Americans: Orson Welles, Latin America, and the Sounds of the “Good Neighbor”
And now, we interrupt this broadcast for a message from Guest Editor Neil Verma: At 9:00 pm on July 11, 1938, the Columbia Broadcasting System unfurled a plush Tchaikovsky concerto to welcome 23 year-old wunderkind Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater troupe to national airwaves for a show destined to become the most famous dramatic radio anthology ever aired.
The Mercury Theater on the Air came with hype. Welles was fresh off a streak of innovative stage adaptations of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Shaw’s “Heartbreak House,” and Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” pledging in a New York Times article to “treat radio with the intelligence and respect such a beautiful and powerful medium deserves.” A jab at his rivals? Maybe. Legends tell of 17-hour writing sessions, of rows minutes before airtime between Welles, producer John Houseman and composer Bernard Herrmann, of sound men abusing baskets, watermelons, toilets, lawnmowers to make audio. Time described Mercury’s ambition as “bounded north and south by hope, east and west by nerve.”
Welles was by then a radio veteran, the hero of The Shadow and impersonator of newsmakers from Sigmund Freud to Fiorello laGuardia on The March of Time. Hundreds of extant recordings link Welles to rousing Norman Corwin pageants, Columbia Workshop experiments, strident war shows like Ceiling Unlimited, buffoon turns on the Jack Benny and Fred Allen Shows, picaresque Harry Lime adventures, dense thrillers on Suspense, romances on Lux Radio Theater, diplomacy on Hello Americans, and on and on. Welles gave radio new forms, as radio informed his filmmaking profoundly – the sound of Citizen Kane (1941) the characters in Mr. Arkadin (1955), the vocals in Touch of Evil (1958) the theme of F is for Fake (1974). Welles invented a cinema that is, among other things, a kind of radio play you can see.
Mercury (and the Campbell Playhouse it became) undertook plays like “Dracula,” “Treasure Island,” “The 39 Steps,” “Rebecca,” “Jane Eyre,” and “The Magnificent Ambersons” and dozens of others. But none would be remembered were it not for the “War of the Worlds,” adapted from H.G. Wells’s novel by Howard Koch. In October of 1938, WOTW aired to six million listeners, hundreds of thousands of whom misheard it as news. The “Panic Broadcast” became a series of fables: listeners treated for shock in Newark; families on Boston rooftops watching the fires of New York in the distance; an Indianapolis church service interrupted by a parishioner telling congregants “you might as well go home to die;” bomb threats and a police raid on CBS headquarters. Three quarters of a century later many agree with the New York Tribune’s Dorothy Thompson, who declared the Invasion “one of the most fascinating and important events of all time,” but the meaning of that event also feels unclear, growing more ambiguous with time. Today, the alien invasion is itself increasingly alien.
To confront that issue and to open Mercury to new kinds of critical practices in sound studies, Sounding Out! is partnering with Antenna over the next six months to bring you a 12-part series entitled From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio after 75 Years. I’m honored to serve as Sounding Out!‘s Guest Editor. We’ll be bringing you authors who engage aesthetic, historical and political aspects of Welles’ radio work with a depth and intensity unusual in Welles studies.
That’s especially true of this inaugural post by Cornell Comparative Literature Professor and SO! contributor Tom McEnaney, who has been working on a book project involving radio and the “neighborhood” of the Americas. I’m thrilled welcome Tom’s nuanced and provocative take on Welles’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and his Hello, Americans program, and I hope it will encourage you to stay with us as the series unfolds.
Like Welles, we’ve got a few tricks up our sleeve. Stay tuned. — nv
When WNYC’s Radiolab aired their live celebration of War of the Worlds five years ago, the odd laugh line was reserved for a moment at the start of the radio play when an announcer interjects “now we return to the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra.”
Raquello, as the Radiolab team makes clear, didn’t exist, and his “orchestra” was just an anonymous phonograph recording of the famous tango “La cumparsita.” Welles apparently chose the song for its “tedium,” hoping it would make believable the lunacy to come. That the music of the Southern Cone set up listeners in the United States for the greatest hoax in history might have been yet another of the inside jokes Welles left us to listen for.
The sounds of Ramón Raquello and the settings of some of Welles’s most famous films—The Lady From Shanghai (1947); Touch of Evil (1958)—remind us how Latin America, and its relationship to the United States, fascinated Welles in the late 30s and 40s. Five years after War of the Worlds, he began the final episode of his CBS program Hello Americans by recalling the show’s mission: “It is important for the people of this hemisphere to get better acquainted, and the Mercury [Theater] has been given the job of helping out with the introductions.”
An artful propagandist, Welles told Nelson A. Rockefeller, FDR’s head of Inter-American Affairs and Welles’s boss at RKO studios, that radio and film were the best way “to sell South America to North America.” Between 1938 and 1943 his technical innovations in film and radio, in addition to a 1942 stint as a “good will ambassador” to Latin America, created for him by Rockefeller, were meant to convince U.S. audiences of FDR’s claim in his first inaugural that the United States should follow the policy of the “Good Neighbor.” Whether listening, watching, or reading his work during World War II, Welles’s U.S. audiences were constantly reminded that they were residents of the Americas, rather than an exceptional and isolated America.
To assess the aesthetics and politics of Welles’s engagement with Latin America, it’s worth returning to the October 30, 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds. Presented as a live news report of an alien invasion on the East Coast of the United States, War of the Worlds sent its mass audience into hysterics, proving to Marshal McLuhan that radio was “a tribal drum,” capable of calling forth the “archaic forces” of “the resonating Africa within” (301). The primitivist and racist logic in McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964) sought to explain away the irrationality he (and his Frankfurt School forebears) identified as the enlightenment’s dialectical twin by exiling it to Africa. In this, he might have merely followed Welles’s Mercury Theater, which aired a production of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness a week after War of the Worlds, thus linking an allegory about fascism (and radio’s dangerous complicity with irrational politics) to a Conrad adaptation that critic Michael Denning calls “a fascist parable” exalting “power for power’s sake” (376).
Yet these radio works concern themselves with fascism from very different narrative and social positions. While War of the Worlds depicts an alien invasion, his Heart of Darkness describes a journey towards the alien racial Other, presenting listeners with what had become by 1938 the more mundane miracle of radio—to bring them close enough to hear Kurtz’s haunting repetition: “the horror, the horror.”
Welles, who plays both Kurtz and Marlow in the conversation that leads up to these climactic lines, depicts here the seductive power of his own voice, able to encapsulate the story’s most important characters, and, as Kurtz, to impress even himself, as Marlow.
“Mr. Kurtz,” Marlow / Welles says with awe, “is a remarkable man.” Repeating a line heard throughout the play, Marlow’s words are slyly deflated when they are echoed, with a tone of critical distance, in the voice of one of the ivory company’s employees, a voice that stands in for the listening audience, and encourages their own distrust of Marlow’s naïve faith in Kurtz’s lust for power.
Meanwhile, the play tells a complimentary story of proximity and distance: as the boat moves back down the river, the music shifts from tribal drums to spiritual laments to a meandering jazz saxophone, tracing, in basic and exoticist fashion, a capsule history of African diasporic music.
One year later, Welles also attempted to adapt Heart of Darkness as his cinematic directorial debut for RKO, shifting the frame narrative to New York City, while planning to shoot on location in Panama, where expansion had begun that year on the Panama Canal to allow for the transportation of US warships. For this project, Welles planned a first-person camera technique, mimicking his radio work with first person address. The Mercury Theater’s program, originally named “First Person Singular,” placed listeners on the scene. In film the technique became even more immersive, plunging the audience into uneasy, inescapable identification with Marlow’s point of view.
The first person in Welles’s screenplay combines Heart of Darkness’ journey into alien territory with War of the Worlds’ alien invasion—the sense that the audience was under attack. Forced to look out through the eyes of the imperialist adventurer Marlow, the audience surprisingly became the object that everyone in the film watches. The technique could prove threatening to the predominantly white and male movie audiences in the United States of 1940, as Welles planned to enlist 3,000 African American actors to play the so-called natives on the shores of the river—2500 more black extras than worked in Hollywood at the time. When the audience fell under the black gaze in the Canal Zone, where African American men increasingly worked as part of the defense industries, the story’s imperialist theme would have pointed back to the United States’ own racist working conditions, revealing the nation’s complicity and subordination to the imperialist pursuit whose destiny is the primitivist conditions it creates.
RKO rejected Welles’s screenplay, as they did his later documentary project, It’s All True, which sought to transform his 1942 trip throughout Latin America into a tale that fused “the story of samba” with “the story of jazz” to situate African American and Afro-Brazilian musical cultures at the heart of Pan-American culture. Welles soon repurposed the material from It’s All True for a radio program entitled “Hello Americans” that attempted to complete the shift in representation towards a more lateral and dialogic notion of adjacency, positioning U.S. and Latin American culture on the same plane. The means to make these introductions included interviews with and recordings by musicians from Cuba, Brazil, and Mexico, historical tales about Montezuma, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Benito Juárez, Atahualpa and others.
In the show’s most experimental section, Welles simultaneously reinforces and mocks the idea that radio’s ability to collapse distances and transcend borders makes it the medium to communicate the idea of neighborliness.
Transporting his audience to “a clay hut somewhere in South America,” Welles introduces a small family in which the son, Juan, builds radios at a new factory, and his father, José, listens to the device. Once the broadcast begins, the listening audience within the frame—Juan, José and his mother—share the same space as the audience listening to “Hello Americans.” All listen together as a broadcast voice introduces Roosevelt’s inaugural address, then Roosevelt’s recorded voice announces his policy of the Good Neighbor, and finally static interrupts Roosevelt’s voice, and a German accented voice takes over to complain about “the republic of the Jew Franklin Roosevelt.” When José comments that the broadcast seems strange, his son Juan answers, “Oh no, they’re all like that. Señor Schmidt at the factory told us it’s uh, it’s because we’re closer to Germany.” Then, a musical curtain falls and Welles returns to reassure his audience that “Juan has learned. Today he works in another factory and he’s a member of the Latin American Confederation of Workers.”
The passage distinguishes between voices—José, Juan, the US broadcaster, Roosevelt, and the German propagandist—and reflects the imagined proximity implicit in Roosevelt’s idea of the Good Neighbor. But the technique also reveals how “Señor Schmidt” and his countrymen take advantage of the geographical confusion made possible by radio’s transcendence of borders to imply that Germany is actually more of a “neighbor” than the United States. These types of confusion between imagination and reality had once launched listeners into panic, but now Welles steps in to calmly and condescendingly reassure the audience that Juan “has learned.” Learned, that is, to join the left leaning Confederation: an untenable statement on US radio less than a decade later.
And yet, the unnamed obstacle impeding both foreign transmissions is language itself. Because everything filters through English, with accents marking the space between Spanish and German, Hello Americans imagines Pan-Americanism through one language alone. Radio’s monolingualism highlights one of the medium’s limitations. Whereas It’s All True could employ subtitles, and allow audiences to listen to a subject’s voice while reading what they said, radio faltered on its most medium-specific component – words.
Furthermore, while Welles imagines a “neighborhood” for all Americans, listeners lose the more radical racial politics he had once placed at the center of his Haitian Macbeth (1936), Heart of Darkness (1938), his theatrical production of Richard Wright’s Native Son (1941) and It’s All True (1942). Together these works place the African diaspora at the center of U.S., Pan-American, and world culture. They insist that the attack on fascism abroad must include a change in race relations at home. More ambivalently, they reveal Welles participating in acts of love and theft – a New Deal Kurtz, he draws the power to criticize fascist power from exoticized images of Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Brazilian, and African American cultures, supporting and appropriating the art and struggles of the African diaspora to bill himself as the cultural leader of, not just the ambassador for, Pan-Americanism.
Tom McEnaney is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Cornell University. His work focuses on the connections between the novel and various sound recording and transmission technologies in Argentina, Cuba, and the United States. He is currently at work on a manuscript tentatively titled “Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas.”
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