Summer 2005

Planting the Roots of Public Radio In Chile

‘Teaching public radio in a place where people didn’t know anything about it was a huge challenge ….’

By Doug Mitchell

Chile
For nearly 18 years I’ve worked for National Public Radio (NPR), and during much of this time I’ve trained young people in the United States who want to pursue a career in public radio journalism. In 1996, I decided that I’d apply for an international fellowship through the International Center for Journalists. I wanted to teach about public radio journalism in another country—Chile—where the students I’d be training would arrive with no real idea about what public radio is or does. In hindsight, if I’d thought more about what I was proposing to do, I probably wouldn’t have applied. I shudder now to think about what I didn’t know then compared with what I know now.

Not quite prepared but eager to try, I arrived at La Universidad de Catolica, in Santiago, Chile in March 1997. It was the first time an American journalist had come to this university to teach. At that point, I’d had only three years of teaching experience at NPR, since most of my experience in radio had been as a producer and director, not a trainer of potential radio journalists. Even so, the training projects I had been involved with had various cultural dimensions to them. At NPR we’d partnered with Black, Asian American, Hispanic and Native American journalists associations and, as part of our partnership, we’d sponsored radio-training opportunities for their student members. We would travel to different annual conference locations each year and immerse ourselves in the culture, issues and languages familiar to the communities we were visiting. It turned out that all of this training had prepared me pretty well for my overseas training mission.

Going to South America and teaching public radio in a place where people didn’t know anything about it was a huge challenge, especially in pre-Internet days. I couldn’t say to these college students, “Turn on the radio and listen to the stations below 92 on the FM dial,” nor could I set up a laptop on my desk and play public radio through the Internet. So I did the next best thing: I brought public radio stories on cassettes and tape reels to them, including a few stories NPR had done in Mexico and others with some Spanish in them, though the students spoke English.

We did a lot of listening. In the beginning, I directed them to listen for style. NPR and public radio, I explained, has a special way of telling stories, so I advised them to listen carefully for the use of sound. I had them keep an audio journal, in which they’d write the first sound they remembered hearing each morning. At first, they thought I was nuts, but the approach paid off. Over time their ability to discern sounds and think about how they could be used in storytelling became very sophisticated. These journals also helped them write copy in which sounds became a key part of the story they wanted to tell.

We spent a few sessions on recording exercises, and we also devoted a class period to doing a mock press conference in which I pretended to be an arrogant U.S. senator on a trip to Santiago to encourage the Chilean government to support multinational companies coming into the country. The students were the reporters. I used the phrase “you people” a lot in an attempt to make them furious. It worked. Even as questions were still being asked of me, some of the students started to call the United States ugly names. When the exercise ended, we talked openly about how reporters cover such an event and why it is important not to engage emotionally with the person being questioned.

Lots of learning took place that day and not only by the students. I’d done a good job at pushing them toward this behavior, but I was surprised by their intense reaction. For the final project, each student produced an “audio postcard.” The assignment: Tell me, as a radio listener, about a place in the city by using only sounds and interviews. The seniors did very well, but I quickly discovered that first- and second-year students didn’t quite understand the meaning of a deadline.

Moving Out of the Classroom

The classroom experience was only one aspect of the training. I felt that I also needed to find ways for the students to get on the radio. So I met with journalists and management of the largest radio network in Chile, “Radio Cooperativa.” I also spent time at “Radio Tierra,” a station with programming for and by women, and I traveled twice to Buenos Aires, Argentina to talk with radio professionals there.

I found out that the challenges in these countries were similar: journalism ethics, salaries and self-censorship. Let me illustrate what I mean.

In Chile, which has the highest per capita income in Latin America, journalists are often among the lower-paid workers. Television people are paid more, which is not surprising. But in radio, a medium much more important to news than TV, most university graduates are discouraged from going into it because it does not pay very well. I heard stories about people working as on-air radio journalists holding second and third jobs, some worked in radio by day and drove cabs at night. This inability to earn a living wage can also lead to journalistically unethical behavior. It shocked me to hear from journalists (present and former), as well as academic instructors, that well-known journalists were sometimes being paid by government or private entities for interviews that would go on the air or in the newspaper.

Investigative reporting was practically nonexistent, not because of money, but a lack of training in how to do it and self-censorship. This has to do with the country’s long history of military rule and political pressure. When I arrived in 1997, Chile was at a crossroads. Progressive- minded people who taught in the universities wanted to learn how to emulate the U.S. press. Yet at press conferences officials went unchallenged in their statements and news reports sounded like press releases.

As I learned more about these issues, I tried to simulate real working conditions in class as much as I could. But I also urged these students to think of themselves, in their role as journalists, as watchdogs who would ensure that those who serve in government do so honestly and openly, even though I knew that external incentives for selfcensorship were high. General Augusto Pinochet was running the military and driving around the city in a motorcade with heavily armed guards. People felt afraid, and I didn’t blame them, given the intimidation they were made to feel. But this is one reason I like working with young people: With fewer established habits to break, they are often less afraid to try something new.

Building on the Foundation

After I returned home from this training assignment, I was visited in Washington, D.C. by Sergio Gogoy, who had overseen my fellowship and teaches radio at Catolica. No one from this university had come to visit NPR before, and when he went back to Chile I gave him tapes of stories and reading material about public radio. We also talked about continuing our radio training projects and, as time went by, we exchanged e-mail. I told Sergio that I wanted to return and do more training.

In 2002, Sergio told me of a proposal he’d made through the U.S. State Department in which I would return for a three week “follow-up” visit. It had been five years since I’d been to Chile, so I was delighted to be reminded of the ongoing interest and impact my teaching had on the students at the school. In October 2003, I returned to Santiago. The university had moved from an old convent to a new, gleaming facility downtown, and when I reached the school, I found a corner office with my name on the outside wall.

For the next three weeks, I did a special evening class in radio for students, spoke to students in other classes during the day, and traveled to Valdivia, in the southern part of Chile, to a university that is producing a lot of radio theater. I talked with professionals and students. This time I brought the stories on CD’s, and we listened to NPR doing live broadcasts on the Internet. I also left with them a textbook. And on this trip I met Maria Paz Hermosilla, a student in my evening class who asked a million questions and came by my office to speak with me in her perfect English. As we talked, I wondered what she would think about coming to NPR. (It took quite a bit of work with the U.S. and Chilean governments, but in 2004 Maria Paz arrived in Washington, D.C. to intern at NPR. She is now filing reports for NPR from Chile.)

Unlike my teaching at Catolica in 1997, the university radio station in 2003 allowed the students two nights each week (one hour each night) to produce their own shows for broadcast. One Wednesday night I went to the station, and the live call-in program that night was about Chilean cinema. In the studio there were two student hosts and the film critic for El Mercurio, the largest newspaper in the country. By cell phone, two student reporters were at their locations. One filed a live report about a film festival opening in Valdivia, and the other, at a theater in Santiago, interviewed people as they went to an opening of a film. In the studio, one student ran the console, while another served as director. A third one screened calls. These students produced a piece, too, but the editing wasn’t very well done and the sound quality was lacking. But it was clear when I spoke with them that they knew what they did wrong and vowed to not let it happen again.

I was impressed with the progress I observed. As I sat in the control room that night, my mind leapt to 1997 and the hours we’d spent listening to those long reels of tape and how students struggled then to explain “high-end” radio. Now, in 2003, students were efficiently and very seriously doing a live radio show on a real radio station. At that moment, I understood that my fellowship in 1997 had been a success; the mission I’d come to perform had extended and grown beyond me.

Since my first trip to Chile, other NPR colleagues have traveled overseas to teach young journalists, and twoway exchanges have followed. What I learned in Chile and brought back to NPR also helped us to establish our “next generation radio” training program that involves young people in this country. In Chile, I’d seen how young people benefited from having a professional pay attention to them and take them seriously and push them, too. And Maria Paz’s experience also taught us about the wise investment we are making in our own radio work when we provide training in what we do and how we do it to young journalists who learn from us and then return home to file stories for our listeners.

Doug Mitchell is the lead project manager for National Public Radio’s “Next Generation Radio,” a series of internal and external training projects aimed at luring 18-34 year olds into public radio journalism and news media.

1 Comment on Planting the Roots of Public Radio In Chile
Jorge Garreton says:
January 5, 2010 at 10:43am
Thanks to Twitter I came across your article. I would say not much has changed since your first visit in 1997. The same conditions then apply today to radio journalists. There major issues with content, like for example, convicting a person despite the fact the accused has not been found guilty in open trial; always asking leading questions instead of probing or open-ended questions. The NPR sound or BBC or CBC sound is non-existent. I think your experience here is important, but the way radio is done it remains the same as you found it in 1997, even despite the fact of satellite, digital sounds. Lack of investigative reporting or docs are non-existent.

Saludos from Chile. If you come here again do look me up.
Jorge Garreton
http://www.ics.cl/icsweb/jfgp/
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