On the necessity of storytelling.
By Cole Cahill
The distinction between fiction and nonfiction makes sense for practical purposes. Their respective styles sort media into discernable genres; blur the lines too much and you run into a crisis of credibility. Most writers specialize in one or the other—Daniel Alarcón doesn’t.
These days, Alarcón is busy with stories grounded in truth. He’s the creator and executive producer of Radio Ambulante, a Spanish-language narrative journalism podcast featuring stories from across Latin America. He also executive produces El Hilo, a news-focused spinoff of Radio Ambulante, with VICE Media. At Columbia, he teaches audio reporting at the Journalism School. According to the MacArthur Foundation, he’s also a genius: They awarded him their titular fellowship last year.
With my Spanish comprehension just barely reaching the bar for Intermediate II, listening to Radio Ambulante is an exercise in constant rewinding and frequent Google Translating. Fortunately for me and the rest of the English monoglot community, Alarcón writes much of his fiction in English. His first published short story, City of Clowns, which ran in a 2003 issue of The New Yorker, is reportage despite being a work of fiction—the story takes place in the Lima of his childhood, told with the visceral accuracy of a documentarian. Before I even spoke to him, it was clear that a journalistic focus on communicating the truth infuses all his work, whether or not the characters happen to be real.
He managed to fit in a Zoom conversation with me last month between the start of his work day and an editing session at 9:30 a.m. We had the chance to talk Columbia, radio, and the fiction–nonfiction debacle.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue & White: You teach at Columbia Journalism School, and you also went here for undergrad. Something made you stick around; can you tell me about your experience coming here as a young adult, how your time here established your writing and storytelling, or your life in general?
Daniel Alarcón: I have, as you might imagine, quite a bit to say about this. So I arrived in New York, in Morningside Heights specifically, in 1995. I was born in Peru, but I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Like a lot of people, I had these visions of New York as a place to remake oneself, as a place to find oneself. I remember reading books about New York, the jazz scene, the hip hop scene, the writers that I admired. It just felt very much like this mecca. For me, applying to college was essentially a way to get to New York. My relationship with the city has changed, obviously. But there’s no denying the powerful attraction that a city has for a certain kind of young person. And I was certainly that kind of person.
So, I got to New York and there were a couple of things that struck me. One, my classmates generally were super smart. And that was exciting. New Yorkers somewhat disappointed me. Native New Yorkers, I felt, were somewhat provincial. And that’s something that took me a while to realize, but there’s an elitism of thinking you live in the capital of the world where you don’t have to visit the world because the world is going to come to you. That is a really strange and unique variety of provincialism that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from people living in such a cosmopolitan place. Also, the general snobbishness of New England rich kids was surprising. I hadn’t encountered that before, that variety of snobbishness.
Having said that, I loved the city. I had great professors, I made great friends. There’s a reason why I’ve come back, and a lot of it has to do with, in spite of the things that I said, wanting to raise my kids here and have some opportunities that I didn’t have growing up in Birmingham. Just at a certain basic level, the simple things of living in a city. I quite like taking the bus to school with my kid and being able to get a bagel—silly things like that. But also the intellectual community that I’m a part of here at the J-school is vibrant and exciting and it’s an honor to be a part of it. On a very basic level, to teach at your alma mater is a real privilege. And the story of how I got here is also surprising in that I was a creative writer who did journalism on the side and then started a radio project in my basement. And then five years later, I was teaching audio at the journalism school at Columbia University. That, in itself, is so wild to me. It still trips me out, you know?
B&W: Could you tell me a little more about those origins?
DA: About how Radio Ambulante started? Sure. So three little backstories. One, my father’s first job in Peru as a teenager was a soccer announcer on a big radio station in southern Peru. So we had a great appreciation for radio. Two, which you also need to know, growing up in Alabama, my father didn’t want us to have Southern accents. I think it has to do with an awareness of the power of accents to tell people who you are and his understanding that the nightly news didn’t talk like that, so you shouldn’t either. Three, we made these little radio programs for our family in Peru, and we would record these cassettes and send them by mail to our family, and our family in Lima would send cassettes back.
So I had this background and interest in radio because I grew up listening to NPR in the car by force on the way to school. I wrote a novel called Lost City Radio. The protagonist is a woman on a radio program. At the time, I was a young writer and they were taking me to festivals and whatnot. I got a call from the BBC. The BBC was like, “Hey, we read your book, would you like to do a radio documentary with us?” It was the culmination of the three sorts of family things that I mentioned, and to get this invitation was a real exciting opportunity. I pitched them a couple of ideas, they accepted one, and I flew to Lima. They sent a producer from London and we did a radio documentary and spent ten days recording interviews. When the producer took all that material and went back to London, I didn’t get a chance to edit with him. He just basically sent me a finished version a month later, and it was good. The problem was that … I’d done interviews in English and Spanish. Whenever someone spoke English—because it was for the BBC—I did it in English, or when someone spoke Spanish, I would do simultaneous translation. Almost all the interviews in Spanish had been cut, and that was a big source of frustration for me. It comes out in January 2008 and it’s fine, but I was unhappy with it. I started having this idea of “What if there was a space to do radio like that in Spanish?”
Fast forward a couple of years. A friend comes to the Bay and we have a coffee and he has this fellowship … and I was like, “How do you get one of those?” Because they give you a bunch of money to do a project. He’s like, “Oh, all you have to have is a great idea.” And I was just joking, and I was like, “Oh, I have a great idea. I want to do This American Life in Spanish.” And he's, like, “Sold!” So I go back and I tell my wife this, well, my girlfriend at the time, I was like, “You should quit that terrible job and I’ll do the editorial part and you run the business for it and we’ll just do it. How hard could it be?”
B&W: So you have your book Lost City Radio, the shows that you produce now, and I didn’t know that your father had worked as an announcer. How do you describe the power of radio or audio storytelling as a medium, one you’ve clearly continued to return to?
DA: The power of radio for me is related to the power of literature. In particular, the way we listen to the radio now—walking through the city with your earbuds on—often mirrors the experience of reading a great book where you feel like the author is whispering in your ear. It’s like a three-dimensional novel. With audio, I feel like it mimics that.
My approach in journalism and literature has always been very similar in that, when I’m writing, when I’m making something up in literature, I feel like I’m interrogating my characters. I’m interviewing them, I’m trying to understand them. I’m walking into spaces with them and trying to figure out what side they’re on, what the power dynamics of a room might be. And when I do journalism, whether it’s in print or audio, in English or in Spanish, I'm doing, or attempting to do, much of the same thing. So for me, my approach to both is complementary, and I don’t think I would be a journalist—or certainly not a good one—if I hadn’t done so many years of making stuff up.
I’ll give you another example. When we plan a big story on Ambulante, we imagine who we’re going to want to talk to. When you plan an interview, you imagine what they might say. You’re doing imaginative work in order to prepare a piece of nonfiction because you have to be prepared for what happens. You have to know what you’re looking for. You have to be prepared for surprises, of course. No doubt—you might have an idea for a story, and the story turns out to be completely different. But it’s just as likely that if you do the work of imaginary listening, of using your imagination to propel yourself in the future and try to think about what the situation might offer you, it’s just as likely that you’re going to encounter some part of the reality that you’ve already dreamed up.
B&W: What do you think producing a true story via audio gives you that fiction doesn’t? And then the other side of that—what do you think fiction writing gives you that an audio documentary might miss?
DA: I think there’s two things. Obviously in fiction writing at a very basic level, you’re making it up, although my process feels more like discovery than invention. And you can do X-rays on your characters in ways that you can’t in reportage because of the limitations of how much people trust you. In fiction, I always have access to my sources, because I’m carrying them with me. Audio is also a different beast in part because of the information that the human voice gives you. I mentioned accents earlier, pauses—you can hear someone thinking and that you might not be able to discern from reading the transcript of a statement. Certainly not the cleaned-up transcript of the interview that you and I are doing right now. You’re not going to notice when I pause or the way I talk or the way thinking sounds. You can hear that in audio, and I think that’s lovely. There’s so much information to be gleaned from those voices that you won’t get from the transcript.
B&W: I completely agree. I wanted to talk a little more about Radio Ambulante. Even though the episodes often take really different shapes, you’ve said in different words that a core idea behind the show is moving through cultural and linguistic boundaries in the Spanish-speaking world despite geographical barriers or borders that might exist. If that’s an apt description of how you see the project, how does that take shape in certain episodes you’ve done, and how does the show bring together such different types of storytelling under one banner?
DA: I think the core of your question is “What is a Radio Ambulante story? What is the mission of Radio Ambulante?” So, one, we felt, as Latinos living in the United States, that the stories of Latinos and Latin Americans in general fell into two camps. Either from the right–the dangerous brown “other,” the person to be feared or reviled. And then from the left, it was often the helpless victim, the person to be pitied. Now the reality is that if you are Latino in the United States and you live in a community of Latinos and people from different backgrounds and countries, the reality is obviously much more complicated and thankfully much more interesting. And we felt that that wasn’t often being portrayed in the stories that we were reading. In the Spanish language media, it was different, but also the Spanish language media had different commercial concerns. Diario, the Spanish newspaper in New York, or Telemundo or Univision are very different from what we were trying to do. They serve a purpose, that’s fine, but it wasn’t the kind of storytelling that we were interested in doing. With the demise of outlets like Etiqueta Negra, it also felt like there were few places for these kinds of stories. So we wanted to create a kind of tapestry of stories that was just a little bit more complicated, a little bit more subtle, a little bit more entertaining and a lot less simple. So that was one thing.
The other thing is that early on, we went to Miami for a meeting with an executive at Univision, and we told them our idea. And he was like, “Look, Mexicans only care about Mexico, and Puerto Ricans only care about Puerto Rico, and Cubans only care about Cuba, and Colombians only care about Colombia. So you’re not going to find a regional audience for these stories, because if you do a story about Colombia, they only listen to it in Colombia.” And we left that meeting really dejected, and we started thinking about it and we were like, we don't think he's right. [My wife] Carolina and I were living in the Bay Area at the time, and we’d go to parties and meet Chileans and Colombians and Mexicans and Peruvians. And people would tell stories and they were hilarious and it didn't feel to me that there was an issue of translation, it felt to me that in fact a good story had no borders. The cultural and linguistic borders were very fluid when it came to stories. So we rejected this person’s naysaying and pushed on.
And I think that’s a really important element of Radio Ambulante, which is why when you go to the website of Radio Ambulante today, you’re going to see stories from Honduras, from Mexico, from Chile, from Peru, from Colombia, all next to each other. And that’s one of the things that makes me really proud, when you get to see that. We wanted to always tell stories that were locally produced, or produced with great local knowledge, so that someone from those countries would still learn something and wouldn’t feel like they were being talked down to. But they were also inviting, so that if you have a story and it’s about Colombia, we give you enough information so that you can still enjoy it even if you don't understand the particulars of politics in Medellín or culture in Bogotá.
The other thing I think is not so much a principle but just the way things worked is we just threw ourselves into it, we learned in public. And I think if you see the arc of the growth curve and the learning curve at Radio Ambulante from the first season to more recently, the early stories were one-voice stories, we do one interview and then write around it. And now the stories are much more complicated and sophisticated and ambitious. And that is something that again I'm really proud of.
B&W: Outside of your own work, I’m curious what you find to be the most interesting or compelling public storytelling right now.
DA:I love Pop-Up Magazine, which is a live storytelling event that tours all over the U.S. I just love the hybrid format of performed-narrative journalism. I think when it’s great, it’s amazing and even when it’s not great, it’s interesting. I continue to read The New Yorker every week because it’s such a well-made magazine and well-reported, and I feel like I learn something all the time. In terms of storytelling, like film and music and even TikTok, they all have sorts of versions of this cutting-edge stuff. I’m watching Station Eleven with my wife, this adaptation of a novel that’s brilliantly adapted. I think if you look at shows like Squid Game and Succession and all these high-level novelistic, film and TV productions they are just extraordinary. But I’m also really drawn to the creativity of storytelling on these formats, like TikTok or Twitter threads that I think are so interesting because they’re so surprising. And so outside of my comfort zone—I can’t imagine ever doing a TikTok. But I think that there’s obviously a lot of sophistication there and you can find a lot of success doing it. So anyway, there’s just a myriad of ways to tell stories, and I’m excited about all of them.