Southeast L.A. native Erick Galindo wanted to make a podcast that his Mexican parents would enjoy.
Galindo, 38, was already an award-winning writer and documentarian when he made his podcasting debut in 2020 as co-creator of “Wild” for LAist Studios, the podcast division of Southern California Public Radio.
But it wasn’t until the Feb. 1 release of “Ídolo: The Ballad of Chalino Sánchez” — a bilingual murder mystery that examines the freewheeling life and death of the beloved regional Mexican folk legend — that Galindo's mom set her phone down on the kitchen counter one night and, as she washed the dishes, listened to her very first podcast.
“Chalino lived a few blocks away from where we lived when I was a kid,” says Galindo, whose family immigrated to California from Sinaloa, Mexico, then migrated all over Southeast L.A. before settling in Downey in the 1990s. “He was an outlaw. His music captured this microcosm of L.A. during that time, the same way Biggie Smalls did for Brooklyn.”
Hosted and reported by Galindo in English and by Mexican journalist Alejandro Mendoza in Spanish, the eight-episode "Ballad of Chalino Sánchez” recounts the story of the "godfather of narcocorridos," or drug ballads, with the gripping tension of a vintage radio noir. Sánchez, known for smuggling migrants and tangling with the Sinaloan drug cartels, sang songs about their dirty deeds for years, until one night in 1992 he was shot and killed after a concert in Culiacán. Thirty years later, his murder remains unsolved.
Produced in collaboration with Latin multimedia companies Sonoro and Futuro Studios, this podcast is the first of several installments of “Ídolo,” a Sonoro series dedicated to Latin pop culture icons. It's also the latest in a spate of buzzy Latin music podcasts that have emerged over the last year, from "Loud: The History of Reggaeton" to "Anything for Selena."
And as Latin music’s popularity balloons well beyond the Hispanic community, podcasters see opportunities for additional growth. As examples, see the recent popularity surge of the soundtrack for Disney’s 2021 movie “Encanto,” which has spent five weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, or Bad Bunny's upcoming stadium tour, El ´Ultimo Tour del Mundo, which became the fastest tour to sell out on Ticketmaster since 2018.
“We’re bringing to life so many stories from Latinx writers who typically wouldn’t have their ideas developed by Hollywood, because they wouldn't be taken seriously despite the huge audience demand for Latinx content,” says Camila Victoriano, co-founder and head of partnerships at Sonoro. After she helped develop audio programming at the L.A. Times, including the smash 2017 podcast "Dirty John," Victoriano co-founded Sonoro with an all-Latino crew composed of former producers from the Walt Disney Company and Gimlet Media. Sonoro currently has 10 of the top 100 podcasts in Latin America, including the No. 1 Spanish-language podcast in the world, "Leyendas Legendarias," a comedy series that riffs on true crime and the paranormal.
“The storytellers we support today can become the media and entertainment industry leaders of tomorrow,” she says.
Hosts of today’s most popular podcasts in the U.S. skew largely white and/or Anglophone. At the top of both Apple's and Spotify’s podcasts charts, “My Favorite Murder” and "Serial" contend with established news programs like NBC’s “Dateline” and the New York Times' "The Daily," along with conservative-centered talk shows from Ben Shapiro and Joe Rogan. In 2015, an internal study conducted by NPR reported that 67% of people who listened to its podcasts were white.
Since the Hispanic and/or Latino population in the U.S. reached 62.1 million in 2020 — up from 50.5 million in 2010, according to the Pew Research Report — podcasters have an incentive to better captivate listeners from these communities, as Galindo did his parents.
“For so long, podcasts have been envisioned and created for this very small group of white, affluent people,” says Marlon Bishop, vice president of podcasts at Futuro Studios, the new creative wing of Futuro Media Group. Based in New York City, the nonprofit multimedia news organization was founded in 2010 by journalist Maria Hinojosa, host of "Latino USA," the longest-running national Latino news program on public radio.
As "Latino USA" accumulated a sizable audience through NPR, Futuro expanded its digital footprint by partnering with the politics website Latino Rebels and, later, producing limited series like the 2020 podcast "Anything for Selena." In an artful fusion of investigative journalism and memoir, host Maria Garcia spliced critical analysis of the Tejano singer's cultural and commercial afterlife with memories from her own girlhood in El Paso, told in both English and Spanish.
“People tell us how the Spanish versions helped their families connect with their interests," says Garcia, now an executive editor at Futuro Studios. "It’s wonderful that my mom can understand the work I’m doing.”
Garcia was a senior editor at WBUR, the public radio station in Boston, when she first pitched “Anything for Selena” to NPR in 2017. Futuro, as it turned out, pitched NPR on a Selena podcast as well. Instead of dividing the attentions of their audience with competing podcasts, the producers joined forces.
“What we do is still relatively new and we're still building our audience," says Futuro's Bishop. "There's no point in being super competitive at this time, in this industry."
Julio A. Pabón, executive producer of video at Spotify Studios, took notice of Futuro’s increasing dominion over all things Latino in the audio space. In 2019, he proposed a deal with Futuro to co-create the podcast that became "Loud: The History of Reggaeton." Hosted by Ivy Queen, the genre's Puerto Rican matriarch, "Loud" provided a master class on what is perhaps the most misunderstood yet lucrative art form in Latin America today — as told by Ivy and her peers in a fluid, uniquely Caribbean mélange of English, Spanish and Jamaican patois.
"On Spotify alone, 328 million listeners streamed at least one reggaeton song in 2020, and we counted over 3.6 billion hours of reggaeton streamed in that same year," Pabón says. "'Loud' charted in Australia, Canada, Spain, Great Britain, Mexico, Panama and, of course, the United States. For a music podcast, that's a major win."
Yet as Latin American stories gain traction not just in the States but on global platforms like Spotify, the question of how to responsibly represent these ethnic groups can be a daunting one. Creators express anxiety over painting their cultures with too broad a brush.
"While working on 'Chalino,' some people were like, 'Do we want to tell another narco story?'" says Galindo. "Of course it's unfortunate that most stories we hear about Latinos involve criminals. But if David Chase got to make six seasons of 'The Sopranos,' we should have space to talk about people we grew up with, and the complexities of their humanity. When people say I can't rep my culture because it doesn't rep everyone? That's how they keep our stories out of the mainstream."
“History is a story, and it’s not necessarily a positive one,” says reggaeton historian and podcaster Katelina Eccleston, who consulted on "Loud" and conducted artist interviews, placing special emphasis on the genre's Black and working-class origins. "In the end I may not like J Balvin's politics," she adds, "but he is important to reggaeton history."
Still, the international success of "Selena," "Loud" and similar podcasts has inspired other studios to follow suit.
Last June, industry giant iHeartMedia debuted My Cultura, its Latin podcast network, with Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights" explainer "El Sueñito," followed by reggaeton deep dive "El Flow" and talk show "Chiquis and Chill," hosted by banda-pop singer Chiquis Rivera.
Audible, in partnership with new podcast firm Fresh Produce Media, plans to release a bilingual Latin music series in the spring titled "Punk in Translation: Latinx Origins," an eight-part audio documentary chronicling punk rock's Latin American roots, starting with ’60s garage rockers Los Saicos and the band known as ? and the Mysterians, progressing to the punks of present day. Hosted by Tijuana No! vocalist Ceci Bastida, the podcast will feature interviews with such luminaries as Joan Jett, Julieta Venegas, Alice Bag, the Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra and more.
“Hopefully podcasting is going to be a place where the rest of the entertainment and media industry, for that matter, realize that they need to catch up,” says Gustavo Arellano, L.A. Times columnist and host of “The Times” podcast. Although he entered the realm of radio as a generalist, one of his most popular episodes, he notes, was a 2021 special on Vicente Fernandez, the late King of Ranchera.
“Latinos can make successful products, and we can make successful products about Latinos," he adds. "So let’s invest in our stories.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.