On Thursday, April 20, Staff Writer Alison Hog had a conversation with Peruvian-American novelist, audio journalist, and Columbia professor Daniel Alarcón.

Ever since I discovered the podcast Radio Ambulante, I have not been able to stop listening to its episodes, each one holding so much power and impact in its storytelling. The Spanish-language podcast, distributed by NPR, was co-founded by Daniel Alarcón (CC ’99), who also hosts and produces the series. Radio Ambulante uses narrative-driven journalism to tell overlooked or under-reported Latin American stories from a nuanced, in-depth perspective.

Besides being one of the minds behind this podcast, Alarcón is an award-winning fiction author acclaimed for his books War by Candlelight and The King Is Always Above the People, a contributing writer about Latin America for The New Yorker, and an Assistant Professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism. As a fan of his work and a fellow Peruvian in New York, I could not miss the opportunity to talk to him about everything and nothing in particular. We discussed his audio, journalistic, and writing endeavors, as well as some aspects of his personal life. Below is a transcript of the interview, which has been edited for clarity.

Alison Hog: How did the idea of creating Radio Ambulante come about?

Daniel Alarcón: My father was a radio announcer in Perú. That was his first job when he was young, as a soccer announcer calling soccer games in Arequipa, where he was born. He’s always had a love for radio. What happened was in 1997, I published a novel called Lost City Radio, which is also about radio. I was asked to do a radio documentary by the BBC, and it was a really exciting opportunity. So, I did it, and it was about the end of migrations to Lima. I went to Ancash, where my grandfather from my mother’s side is from, and what happened was that a lot of the audio that we ended up using in the final documentary, which I didn’t get to edit, was in English. I did interviews in Spanish and English, and it was very frustrating to me that a lot of the voices in Spanish were cut. So that’s when I first had the idea: how could you tell Latin American stories in Spanish? Where would you do it? I later discovered there was nowhere to do it. I started talking about this with my partner and we eventually were like, “Well, we should start it ourselves.” And that’s Radio Ambulante.

AH: Because you envisioned it being in Spanish when you first created it, who did you envision was going to be your main audience?

DA: We thought people in Latin America, people learning Spanish, Latinos in the United States. It was very broad. But we also thought people like us—my wife and I, who are interested in Latin America, who spoke Spanish at home but also spoke English, who had friends from other countries. We met new people from Chile, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Colombia, and so we thought of people like us, which ended up sort of working.

AH: Did you expect to receive the support that it has now?

DA: No, I really didn’t. I thought it was an experiment. It was very much an experiment. The goal was just to see what would happen. To try to do something new in storytelling—the intellectual and creative challenge of trying to do something new was also really important.

AH: Well, it succeeded, because now you have more than 200 episodes. What I really like about the podcast is you really focus on the human-centered side of the story. This question might have no answer, but do you have a favorite episode or one that you feel most personally connected to?

DA: I think I have a lot of favorite episodes. I don’t think I have one. You love stories for different reasons. You love them because of how difficult they were to do, and you know the backstory, you love them because of a single character or a single moment. It isn’t because of where they fit in the course of the trajectory of Radio Ambulante or the trajectory of a season. Sometimes you love them just because of a character, one single character. It’s hard for me to say. I think “Contra la gastronomía peruana” [Against Peruvian Cuisine] was a favorite of mine. I think “Nohemí,” which is a story that Camila Segura did early on. Every one of my producers has done amazing work. I’m really incredibly proud of them, and I love their work.

AH: You mentioned that it’s a very complex process, from the investigating to the producing part, and the fact that you really try to capture the voices of the people. What’s the most challenging part of the work?

DA: The hardest part of the work is when you have 15 hours of tape, and it’s a complicated story with multiple moving parts. It’s easy to get lost in tape, and then you don’t know what to do. I think that’s the hardest part. That’s the part that can be daunting and can feel like you’re lost in the forest.

AH: Alternatively, what’s the most rewarding part of the job?

DA: The most rewarding part is the live shows that we do, performances in front of a public—that, I love. Hearing the comments from people. Whenever I go out and do events, people come to me and say, “I love Radio Ambulante,” and that really means a lot. There are so many aspects of it, and just the pride of getting to be a part of this team and working with the people that I work with who are so talented, so hardworking, and so committed to the project. It’s a remarkable privilege.

AH: Radio Ambulante has grown a lot since its beginnings. How do you think it has changed since its first episodes?

DA: In the first episodes we were learning, very explicitly learning on the job. We didn’t really know what we were doing. It was very intuitive, the process, so we were working on it. As in learning in public, the stories were simpler—there might have been one voice, two voices. They were shorter, for sure. The stories now are more complicated and more ambitious, they’re better produced. My tracking is better—my tracking at the beginning was terrible. I think we’ve expanded far beyond what we thought our original goals would be. We’ve exceeded expectations everywhere.

AH: What were your original goals, compared to now?

DA: At the time, it was just to see if this was sustainable, to see if we could make it work, to see if the audience was there. All of that happened. Now, the goal is slightly different. Now, the goal is to keep pushing to tell more ambitious stories, to keep trying to cover new and important stories in Latin America, and to try to continue to surprise our listeners with voices they haven’t heard before, or issues they haven’t thought about. In this way, to introduce our listeners to the wide variety of Latin American life. That’s the most interesting challenge, not repeating ourselves, not telling the same story twice.

AH: With so many stories and so many voices, how do you decide which stories or voices are worth shedding light on?

DA: It’s a really complicated process. Sometimes we just know: the story is interesting; the story has legs. Sometimes, our producers or editors will have an intuition and they say, “Oh, we want to continue to push that.” Even if I’m not convinced, they’re like, “Let me try.” Of course, I always let them go for it. Sometimes we can’t cover an issue or a story because we’ve done it too many times. We have to be really careful about immigration stories and stories that have to do with politics from the 70s in Latin America. There are too many dictatorships stories, and our listeners are young, like you, so, how many stories about Pinochet do you want to hear? We have to be very aware of engaging our listeners, and constantly think about how we are going to help them.

AH: In 2020, Radio Ambulante Estudios opened the new podcast El hilo. Can you share a little about that new project?

DA: Well, it’s not new anymore—it’s three years old now. We launched in March of 2020, which was at the beginning of the pandemic. It was a project we’d been working on for a year and a half—we’d been piloting stories, working out formats, and ironing out the workflow. The editorial process. It’s been really exciting. It’s a great complement to Radio Ambulante because it allows Radio Ambulante to focus more on feature stories that are evergreens, that are not the news because now we have a show that responds directly to the news. So, it’s a really nice complement to the mission of Radio Ambulante.

AH: Why did you decide to continue with the podcast format?

DA: Because one of the things that we’ve always done with Radio Ambulante is talk to our audience. Always. Our audience from the very beginning said, “We want a new show.” So, we paid attention: What a Radio Ambulante-style news show would sound like? And that’s what we landed on.

AH: You’re a fiction writer, and also a nonfiction writer, and you’ve mainly spent your life in the U.S. and your books are written in English. But you mainly write about Peruvian—and more generally Latin American—culture and society because of your Peruvian background. How do you strive to accurately portray the Latin American reality when you write?

DA: When I do reporting, I strive to be accurate by reporting, by doing journalism, by asking questions, by always assuming that I don’t know enough, and by assuming that the people who know are those you have to find and talk to. It’s a great deal of humility. The process of doing journalism is sort of knowing what you don’t know. Fiction is a little bit different because it’s not what you don’t know. It’s also dealing with imagination, and you’re not trying to necessarily be accurate. You’re not writing historical fiction. Even in my books that are quite clearly parables about Peruvian life, I never say it’s Perú. I give myself the license to step away from reality when I want to and make it up. That’s really important. It’s not really whether it’s accurate or not in fiction, it’s about whether it’s entertaining, compelling, and moving. In journalism it’s different—it has to be accurate; it has to be faithful to reality to the best of your abilities. There, just going to the place, don’t take for granted that you know. Go ask, see with your own eyes. That’s what I do.

AH: In fiction, how many elements do you take from reality? How do you balance the entertaining part?

DA: I’ll be honest, I haven’t written fiction in many years. My last book of stories was several years ago now. I wrote a short novel or a long story, but it was at least eight years ago. Since then, I haven’t written fiction at all. Part of me wants to answer that question by saying that I don’t remember, but writing fiction is a very strange process. It’s very inside your head. Things happen when you’re not really paying attention. You get into kind of a trance. Sometimes the words almost feel like they’re appearing without your input. It’s a strange and almost magical process that I miss. There are other gifts in what I’ve been working on and that is great, but there’s definitely part of me that misses it.

AH: Is there a reason why you decided to step away from fiction and focus on non-fiction?

DA: It was for a lot of reasons. One was that I was having a hard time with my last novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, which I did end up finishing, but for a while, I felt like I wasn’t going to finish it. And I just started getting cool opportunities to do really interesting things. One of the things that I’ve always wanted is not to have a boring life, and I was given the opportunity to do really interesting things, to go to interesting places, to meet interesting people, and to be in situations that I otherwise never would have been able to imagine being in. To me, that seemed exciting and interesting. So, I did.

AH: How has being situated in between these two worlds, the Peruvian and the American worlds, impacted the way that you write and perceive situations?

DA: Being Peruvian in the United States, nobody knows what to make of you. It’s been especially like that when I was growing up in the 80s. It was like, “Wait here. Latin American, but you’re not Mexican?” It was really surprising for people to try to understand. To a certain extent, that’s still the case because we’re not a big presence here in the United States. But I think that’s been useful for me. When I go back to Perú—when I was younger it was more of the case—I was very much the outsider con un pie adentro [with one foot in], the outsider with a little bit of insight. So, I was able to ask questions about things that limeños [inhabitants of Lima] or Peruvians didn’t notice because they were normal. I was able to see things that outsiders might not have seen. Family dynamics, of course, but also go to places and see neighborhoods and parts of the city that that tourists don’t necessarily go to. That was a real gift. Being between the two cultures has always given me this perspective of curiosity and noticing things that people within the culture don’t notice. The same thing will happen to you or has happened to you. After two years in New York, you go back to Lima and the things that you’ve always thought were normal are like, “Whoa.”

AH: Yes, that has already happened to me.

DA: So, that happened to me my whole life because I was growing up in a suburb in the United States and I would go to Perú and be like, “Whoa.” I would come back to the suburbs and compare where I was living to where I’d just been. There’s always a two-for-one when you travel: it’s the place that you go that’s new, and then the new eyes with which you view the place that you return to when you come back. That was my whole childhood. It’s coming back and forth.

AH: That’s a gift. That’s not a situation that a lot of people can relate to. As you know, I’m Peruvian and I recently moved to the U.S. for college. As you mentioned, the Peruvian population is not really big in the U.S., so I’m interested in knowing how you stay connected with your Peruvian roots in this country.

DA: WhatsApp. Because it’s not my roots—my roots are the people. My roots are my friends, my family, my cousins, my colleagues. That’s what I miss. The food, you can get here; the music, you can listen to on Spotify. There are so many things that are replaceable, but the people and your friendships are not. The people that are special, that are unique, that love you and whom you love. That’s the aspect of being away that you can’t really replicate.

AH: I never really thought about it like that. I’ve always thought about how I miss the food or the culture, but I’ve never thought that what I actually miss is the people.

DA: The people that you ate the food with. It’s not food. Trust me. It’s not food. The food is great, but it’s not the food. It’s the company that you keep when you eat the food.

AH: Have you found a Latin American community here? In the U.S. or New York specifically.

DA: Of course. I have tons of friends, Latin American journalists. My wife is from Colombia, so we have lots of Colombian friends. Everywhere I’ve been, and I lived in California for many years, I’ve been fortunate to find that community for sure.

AH: You mentioned that it’s not about the things, but the people, but I’m still interested in knowing because you’ve lived here for longer than I have. What is your favorite place in New York that reminds you of Perú?

DA: Just strolling through Jackson Heights in Queens. It’s not Perú exactly, but it’s Ecuador, it’s also Mumbai, it’s Lima, it’s Santo Domingo. It’s everywhere. That place is very special to me.

I went to see the Peruvian national team play at the stadium in Harrison, New Jersey. That was very special. That really did feel like I was in Lima, for sure. The other thing is that I play soccer with a lot of Peruvians. I’ve found a group of Peruvians to play soccer, and that’s really special. When I get out on the field, I feel like I’m playing with my cousins. They talk the same way my cousins do. They’re the same way. Peruvians don’t want to score unless we can walk the ball into the net, and so they play the same way. If you shoot from far away, they’re like, “Why would you do that?” That, I think it’s just wonderful. That’s probably one of the most special things that I’ve found here in New York.

AH: To wrap it up, as a successful writer and audio journalist, what is the most important lesson that you have found in your career?

DA: Listening is way more important than talking.

AH: You also completed your B.A. in Anthropology at Columbia, so is there any advice that you want to give current students and also future students?

DA: I think back to college, and I think academics are important. But, perhaps, more important is finding community and finding those people who are going to support you long after your professors have forgotten your name.

Speaking to Alarcón was a huge pleasure that allowed me to get a glimpse into his life as an audio journalist, writer, and Peruvian. From our conversation, it is evident that he is very passionate about the work that he does and deeply cares about creating space for diverse voices in Spanish that would otherwise go unheard. Through Radio Ambulante and El hilo, I’m sure Alarcón will continue revolutionizing the field of long-form audio journalism, centering his efforts on presenting uniquely Latin American stories from a new light

Daniel Alarcón via Wikimedia Commons