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Radio Ambulante: This Latin American Life?

Radio Ambulante in rehearsal
Radio Ambulante in rehearsal
Courtesy Radio Ambulante
Radio Ambulante in rehearsal
Novelist and Radio Ambulante founder Daniel Alarcón
May-Li Khoe

Many years ago, writer Daniel Alarcón went to his parent's country and was mesmerized by the stories he heard on a Peruvian radio show. It featured relatives searching for loved ones who'd disappeared. That became the subject of his novel "Lost City Radio."

KPCC's Adolfo Guzman Lopez talked with Alarcón about his newest project: Radio Ambulante, a podcast of This American Life-style stories, in Spanish, from all corners of Latin America.

Daniel Alarcón grew up in Alabama. "We had to speak Spanish at home, in the house, and my father heard my sisters speaking English with a Southern twang and was sort of horrified," he said. "And then we started listening to NPR."

But Daniel's connection to radio came years before that--from his father. "His first job as a kid was as an announcer, calling soccer games in Arequipa, Peru," said Alarcón. "My sisters and I would gather on Sunday mornings in our parents bedroom and we would do these basically, now I think of them as radio programs, recorded onto cassettes where my dad would interview us and my mom would ask us what we've been doing in school and we would record our answers and we would mail them to Lima and our cousins in Lima would do the same thing."

Last year, Alarcón and his wife, who both live in Oakland, and several other US and Latin American collaborators began producing public radio style stories in Spanish. Soccer was the inspiration for one of the most powerful.

Last year, 110-year-old team River Plate, basically the Red Sox of Argentinian soccer, was demoted to the minor league after it found itself in the bottom of league.

In the last minutes of the last game, the team's announcer lost it, and in between calling the game, lashed out with profanities against River Plate's owners and managers. "That audio of Costa Fevre losing his mind on the air, live started making the rounds, and I was hooked," said Alarcón. "The voice is incredible, the passion behind it is incredible, the pathos."

The announcer sat down with a Radioambulante producer to reflect on what he'd done.

In another story, a South American teenage immigrant arrives at a South Carolina high school and befriends the African American kids. The teenager hears his new friends call each other the N word, and there's nothing he'd like to do more to belong than to say it too.

Daniel Alarcón says the introspective, Spanish-speaker point of view is largely absent in US media.

Alarcón's 2007 novel Lost City Radio was critically acclaimed. With Radio Ambulante, he says, he's trying to approach through radio, the magic of reading a novel. "You have that voice in your ear, you have someone whispering a story to you," he said. "It's intimate that way, it relies on your imagination to fill in the blanks, just like a novel does, just like a story does."

Adolfo Guzman Lopez joins Alarcón downtown at the LA Public Library Tuesday, June 26 for a conversation as part of the Aloud series.