When I first started planning a Spanish major seminar based solely on podcasts, I certainly did not anticipate being in tears while I graded the students’ final projects. Crying is not exactly a very original pastime in the Spring of 2020, yet the Covid-19 pandemic was not the reason why I found myself reaching for a box of tissues. Instead, the podcasts the 23 students enrolled in “Storytelling: From Oral Traditions to Radio Ambulante” had produced were stirring up all kinds of emotions. Not all made me cry, some made me think, others made me laugh. Most did all of the above, and they also made me feel immensely proud of my creative, resilient, and fast-learning students.
I am a life-long fan of all things audio. I spent my childhood listening to fairy tales and stories on tape, and in my teenage years I often stayed up all night listening to rock shows with unimaginative names and low production value (¡Bienvenidos al…. FM SHOW de Radio Sitges… FM!). I had crushes on radio hosts who in my head were always so much more attractive than in real life (Really?? That is what that voice looks like??). So, when I discovered Radio Ambulante, a nonprofit investigative newsroom established in 2011 and NPR’s first Spanish language podcast, I was immediately hooked on their “historias de América Latina.” Incorporating “Radio Ambulante” into my literature courses was an evident and easy move. I began with “En este pueblo no hay ladrones,” about the robbery of a rare copy of Cien años de soledad, a first edition, signed by the author himself. My enthusiasm for podcasts and for this novel were now all wrapped in one –and with much better production value than the radio shows of my youth.
By that point I was one of a quickly growing community of instructors working with “Radio Ambulante” in the classrooms. The program has even developed its own language learning app, Lupa. But I thought I could do more than using podcasts to teach Spanish and Latin American cultural studies. Podcasts like “Radio Ambulante” provide great material for class discussions, but I was interested in more than consuming or even analyzing the different episodes. Instead, my students would produce their own podcasts. That means that, as I eventually would write on the syllabus, just like aspiring artists need to learn to see the world, all storytellers need to learn to listen.
Fortunately, “Radio Ambulante” has an extensive archive of stories about Latin American lives, ranging from much more interesting versions of what appears in the news (stories about immigration, about drug wars), to stories that do not make the newsreel: private stories of everyday life, just as fascinating, or more so, than those that make the headlines. I also included other podcasts in the course: the excellent Chilean production Las raras podcast, the irreverent and hilarious Cualquier tiempo pasado fue anterior, and, to finish the semester, why not add fiction podcasts? What could go wrong?
Well, it turns out that many fiction podcasts are about dystopia or about apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic worlds (Welcome to Night Vale, Blackout, Homecoming…), so it is not surprising that the most popular fiction podcasts in Spanish (many can be found on the platform Podium Podcast) also reflect end-of-the-world scenarios. Or, at least, strange and often terrifying new worlds. Two programs, El gran apagón and Guerra 3 are among the most successful fiction podcast in Spanish, and including them would be an entertaining way to end the semester, a fun distraction while students prepared for finals, and the seniors got ready for commencement and their post graduate lives. Or so I thought when I designed the syllabus late in 2019.
By the time the students ended up listening to the pilot episodes of “El gran apagón” and “Guerra 3,” they were doing so from their homes. We discussed them in zoom meetings with occasional cameos from roommates, pets, siblings, or parents. And it was impossible to not notice that “El gran apagón” and “Guerra 3” —complete fictions— suddenly rang true.
The students took it all in stride, the same way they had done since the move online was announced during Spring Break. When I reached out to them in March in order to explain how a class designed to help them “develop oral proficiency, hone their research skills, and acquire a more profound understanding of current events in the Spanish-speaking world” would keep its promises, I remembered what I had learned from the students themselves earlier in the semester. One of their first assignments had been to deliver a presentation, modeled on a Ted Talk (in Spanish of course) about an “idea worth spreading.” Listening to these talks had not only given me a snapshot of what this generation cares about and what keeps them up at night. Many of the students’ talks had also featured coping skills and tips that came in handy for the reality we were suddenly living. After describing how the class would work on zoom and on canvas, I added: “In the meantime, take very good care of yourselves and, as your peers taught you a few weeks ago: breathe, doodle, do yoga, get enough sleep, prepare and eat good food, watch TV with your families.”
And so, we reached the end of the semester, and in spite of all the unexpected difficulties, all of the students made it work. Instead of meeting on campus, they collaborated remotely for their final projects, often enlisting the voices of their friends and family members. As I listened to their final projects I felt incredibly fortunate for having the chance to enjoy a soundscape and an archive about their lives, the things they care about, and the things they would like to change. To quote the motto of “Podium Podcast, “lo major está por escuchar.”
Tabea Linhard, Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature