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Latino News and Muse

News journal delves into issues sometimes given short shrift by the media.

May 27, 1999|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Hurricane Mitch ripped through Central America in the fall, leveling entire villages and leaving thousands of people dead, the major U.S. news organizations dispatched a small army of reporters to cover the carnage. And once the rain stopped and the dying was done, the army retreated and most of the media moved on to other issues.

"But it's a disaster that continues," argues Maria Martin.

Which is why Martin, executive producer of the national radio news journal "Latino USA," recently dispatched her own small army--well, it was more like a small squad, really--to Central America to report on the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in the region's history. The result is a continuing series of pieces that will run through October--the first anniversary of the hurricane--on more than 172 public radio stations in the United States and Puerto Rico.

"I felt that 'Latino USA,' this vehicle, had the responsibility to cover the issues facing people there because they relate in so many ways to communities in this country," says Martin, whose show can be heard locally on KPCC-FM (89.3) Saturdays at 5:30 p.m. and on KPFK-FM (90.7) Mondays at 3 p.m. "There are many issues involved. Issues of trade, issues of our historical connection, issues of immigration. And I felt that we needed to paint the human side of what was going on there just to create greater understanding."

It's that kind of reporting that has earned the English-language show more than a dozen awards for journalistic excellence since the weekly program debuted six years ago. But winning prizes was never Martin's intention. Winning acceptance, winning respect--both for the reporters and for the people they reported on--was the real goal.

"When we were looking at what was needed in the sort of huge realm [of] the media," Martin says, "I just felt there was a lack of understanding of the complexity of issues affecting the Latino community. And a misunderstanding of the complexity of Latinos--the diversity. Even among very educated folks, beginning with the editors I dealt with at National Public Radio."

Martin was an editor and producer at NPR before leaving to launch "Latino USA" seven years ago, so it seemed natural that she choose the network's familiar news shows, "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition," as the model for her fledgling half-hour program, which NPR now distributes. Although each "Latino USA" show opens with a five-minute news summary, the bulk of the program is given over to longer, thought-provoking pieces on subjects ranging from farm-worker organizing in North Carolina to U.S.-Cuba relations to conversations with Nicaraguan poet Claribel Alegria and the Salvadoran music group Grupo Morazan. Which isn't to say the show doesn't occasionally lapse into cliched, politically correct themes such as its recent examination of Taco Bell's Chihuahua ads.

"What we were looking at with 'Latino USA' was a vehicle that would be as good as anything that was on public radio; that would, in some ways, have the sound of public radio but would have the flavor of the Latino community," Martin says. "Somebody told me that listening to 'Latino USA' was like being invited into a Latino living room. And that's what we want to do."

But a Latino living room where English is spoken. Martin says that while the program has a Latino flavor, its news and information have an appeal that isn't limited by language.

"I think that people have the idea that Latinos only listen to Spanish-language radio or television," she says. "And while there is a large number that do, there is a pretty large percentage of monolingual English-speaking and bilingual Latinos who just tune in to all of the stations that anybody else who is non-Latino listens to, including public radio."

Although NPR is widely considered the most influential and authoritative voice in public radio today, its coverage of Latino issues has been marked by starts and stops over the past two decades. In the 1980s, for example, it distributed a national half-hour Spanish-language newsmagazine titled "Enfoque Nacional." But funding for the program was dropped in 1988 and it was replaced by "NPR's Latin File," a daily 15-minute English-language show that enjoyed only limited circulation before being canceled after a year and a half.

Martin was the second editor on that program, and although that assignment didn't last long, the experience taught her volumes about how not to produce and promote a radio show. So even after NPR named her Latino affairs editor and assigned her to the national desk, Martin remained convinced that a stand-alone program with a national reach and an ethnic focus could succeed. It wasn't going to happen inside the hallowed halls of NPR, however, so when the University of Texas at Austin landed a grant to produce a Latino radio program, Martin jumped at the chance to help.

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