The Magic of Sound: Narrative Radio in Spanish

Radio Ambulante, a radio project directed by writer Daniel Alarcon, tells intimate, human stories that go beyond the headlines.

In Puerto Berrio, Colombia, the vultures announce the carnage. Since the 1980s, hundreds of anonymous bodies have been carried down by the current of the Magdalena River, the product of armed conflict.

“It’s a floating cemetery,” says one fisherman, adding: “For one to find seven or eight cadavers in a row at night, it’s terrible.”

This is the first voice on the radio show ‘N.N.’ (‘John Doe’ in English), produced by Nadja Dorst and narrated by Annie Correal, which tells the story of the fate of the anonymous bodies. The city cemetery is full of tombs marked John Doe-no names. These are the most heavily adorned plots in the cemetery because the habitants of Puerto Berrio adopt a body, baptize it, and pray for its soul. They invent a name and offer it prayers. They have the belief that these unprotected souls of purgatory are the ones that do the most favors. The violence has slowed, and for those devoted to the John Does there’s more demand than bodies, which means some people end up sharing tombs.”Here people can’t have faith in life, so they end up having faith in death,” warns the narrator’s voice.

This radio show is part of Nombres, one of the themed episodes broadcast by Radio Ambulante, a radio program that tells Latin American stories and looks to carry the aesthetic of narrative print journalism to the airwaves. Daniel Alarcon, a Peruvian-American writer who is the author of War by Candlelight (2006) and Lost City Radio (2009), leads the project along with his wife, Colombian Carolina Guerrero .

The idea for the project was born when the BBC hired Alarcon to direct a radio documentary about migration from the Peruvian Andes to Lima. In the process of translating his piece into English and editing, the story lost important voices that gave color and character to the narrative. It was then that he decided to start a radio program that would use voices to join literate texts with a carefully constructed aesthetic.”My literature always had something of the oral to it, something about going out and talking to people. Almost all my stories have an interview or conversation at their core. There’s always a bit of journalism in my literature. The only difference is that now I have a microphone and I record it.”

The name ‘ambulante’, or ‘traveling’, is a nod to the Latin American trait of dynamism, of rummaging through things, of never staying still, and to the phenomena of migration and exile. In fact, the first themed episode, which included several stories, was dedicated to moving. The writer Gabriela Wiener, for example, tells a story from Barcelona about how her friends, now her family, decide to pack up their bags and head back to native Peru because of the crisis in Spain.

The coup d’etat in Honduras that ended the presidency of Manuel Zelaya was headline news, but Annie Murphy traveled to Tegucigalpa to dig uppersonal stories and listen to the version of the facts being told in conversations amongst friends. The stories are interesting not just because they are singular and fascinating, but also because of the production quality. Each story has evidence of careful work. The audio reigns and there is creativity in the way sound effects, background noises and voices are edited to make the narration entertaining and agile. In an era when time travels faster then we do-when information floods us, the Internet operates at a million clicks and texts are reduced to 140 characters-Radio Ambulante is an invitation to stop and listen, to let yourself be taken away by the surprise of stories that create cinematic images with the power to transport us. Paradoxically, without technology, social networks and digital tools, Radio Ambulante would not exist.

The stories that are important in this project must have an element of surprise and present a complete vision of an issue.”I’m interested in having geographic diversity, having Caribbean stories, for example, that aren’t just from the capital cities in order to make Radio Ambulante a truly Latin American project, and not just in the Bolivarian sense.”

ForAlarcon, it’s also important to pay attention the stories of the sub-cultures, those who break away from the system. In fact, right now he’s working on a story about a community of gamers, the techno-nerds in Lima, who developed computer games in the 1990s. Radio Ambulante is creative radio, and a project worth lending an ear to.

Liliana Lopez Sorzano