NPR’s ‘Alt.Latino’ Celebrates 10 Years: 'There’s a Societal Shift & We're a Part of That'

NPR Alt Latino
Courtesy of NPR

After bonding over Los Fabulosos Cadillacs near the snack machine in 2010, NPR's Felix Contreras and Jasmine Garsd had a thought: wouldn’t it be great if we can do a show about rock en español?

Determined to create a platform that amplified Latin artists whose voices weren't part of mainstream media, Contreras, who at the time was the jazz producer for the news department, and producer-reporter Garsd pitched the idea that seemed far-fetched at the time.

"We thought, it'll never happen because NPR stations are set with what they want to hear," Contreras, a self-described music geek whose been at NPR since 2001, tells Billboard. But after recording the pilot and a proposal, the project was green lit and Alt.Latino, co-hosted by Contreras and Garsd, was born.

Celebrating 10 years of Alt.Latino on NPR Music, which according to NPR has seen a 26% growth year-over-year and is carried as a radio show in 66 stations, the show has become much more than just a platform for indie Latin alternative artists to talk about and showcase their music, it's become a space for nuanced conversations on the Latin and Afro-Latin experience in the U.S. and Latin America.

"In these times with the demonstrations, representation, inclusion, new attack on Civil Rights, people are talking about that more than just music," says Contreras. "The task is, how do we reflect that on the show? We want the show to be topical and for people to depend on it for information and ideas."

Throughout the years, featured guests artists have included Natalia Lafourcade, Lila Downs, Juanes, Residente, Mon Laferte, and Gloria Estefan, among others. "The show is about letting Latinos tell their stories. That's always been my goal. There’s no filter from white editors, there is no filter from another perspective, I’m allowing folks to tell their stories."

With Contreras on the mic and rotating contributors (Garsd is now a senior reporter for Marketplace), Alt.Latino reflects on 10 years, looks ahead to the next five, and beyond in a Q&A with Billboard:

BB: Can you take us back to 2010 when you were having initial conversations, by the snack machine, about what your vision for the podcast was?

FC: I was doing jazz programming and eventually that entire department was transitioned and so my new job was to be the jazz producer for the news department. I pitched a profile of conga player Ray Barretto, he’s a Latin jazz player and one of the biggest names in the Fania records history. I pitched it and the editor said, 'well we don’t have anyone that is familiar with that music, why don’t you go ahead and do the story.' So, that’s how I started reporting and producing stories from Latino perspectives.

My desk was near the candy machines so I would see people go by all the time. One day, I was playing Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Jasmine walked by and she asked, 'you know that band?' I was like yeah I know that band. And so we started thinking like wouldn’t it be great if we can do a show about rock en español? And we thought, it'll never happen because NPR stations are set with what they want to hear. But I had done a story about how Latinos were using more their cell phones than laptops and we said, let’s not make it a radio show but one of those things called podcasts so that people can walk around with it. We’d stay after work and work on it on our own. And then NPR got a grant and they asked for podcast ideas. We wrote a proposal based on our pilot and out of all the proposals that were submitted, three were chosen and out of those three, Alt.Latino is the only one that is still around.

BB: Do you recall some challenges from the early days of Alt.Latino?

FC: One thing I remember very clearly is that we would sit down after each show with the director of NPR Music and we’d listen to every line and every second. What I remember vividly about that was that if we did a show and said “here’s a cumbia …” the director told us, 'you have to explain what a cumbia is.' And I thought about it and initially I wanted to pushback cause I thought, the audience we’re going for is going to know. But what ended up happening, and it was a great piece of advice, was that our audience became very cross-cultural and there are a lot of non-Latinos who are listening. They’re curious about their neighbors, the stuff they’re hearing on the radio and that was important. I understood then that I wanted to reach out to our people but also make our reach wider. One day, we won’t have to explain what a cumbia is, eventually we’ll reach that point. So, I'd say the biggest challenge for me was finding that balance of making that show for Latinos, by Latinos but not be exclusive or block someone out.

BB: I was listening to your very first episode and you and Jasmine had great chemistry. It was fun just listening to you both ... 

FC: Jasmine pointed this out. She's originally from Argentina, she came right after high school. She's an immigrant. I'm third generation. She's fluent in Spanish. Spanish is my second language. She has lighter skin and I look very much Mexican-American so the perception of who is who if we stood next to each other, it just defies expectations. And that's what we wanted.

When she left, I understood. She was a young producer-reporter who had her whole career in front of her, I already had 30 years in the business and knew what I wanted to do. I never wanted to replace her because we had so much fun. There was a thing. A chemistry. I get teary-eyed. Listening back, she would tease me a lot but it was organic. If they tried to come up with this in a conference room, it would’ve never worked out.

BB: I know you have produced more than 800 shows but do you have a favorite episode?

FC: I’m always moved by the sonic altars, which is when I ask people to send in song dedications for people who passed. I am crying during those shows cause their abuela or tío died and they send me notes. Those shows are very special to me. We’ve been doing that now for five years. Also, a personal favorite is one time when I interviewed Rita Moreno and I did this goofy thing at the end where I just thanked her for representing us. And I started crying and she started to cry. It was so moving but it was a chance to thank her.

BB: Which Latin artists are on your bucket list to interview?

FC: Linda Ronstadt. Because of her illness she’s not doing a lot of interviews but she’s iconic and she’s from my generation. She's definitely on my bucket list. Somebody that I didn’t get a chance to interview that I wish I would have is Chavela Vargas. She was going to perform in D.C. but it was around 9-11 and she got upset with the U.S. and never came back so she canceled her D.C. performance. But I was ready to go. Sometimes you just have to get people on tape because you never know.

BB: You've featured some very underground, indie artists, how are you finding them?

FC: I’m proud to say that about 95 % of the acts we’ve covered are indie musicians. It’s very important to me. At first it was difficult and we relied on indie labels like Nacional Records or Cosmica Records. Eventually, they were finding us. I would go to LAMC and SXSW even before the show started. My goal every year is to make a stack of CDs as high as they can be. Stack them so I can hear new music. I tell them, 'give me your music, let me hear it.' It’s a combination of people sending me stuff, collecting music.

BB: I know we live in very uncertain times right now but what's your vision for Alt.Latino's next five years?

FC: I am looking forward to our quinceañera. Honestly, we’ve discovered that thematic shows like the topic on Black Lives Matter and an analysis on the Super Bowl performance are are some of the top when it comes to downloads. It reflects that there is a void, a desire for that kind of content. As I think about the next year, I want do more thematic shows but keep music going somehow. In these times with the demonstrations, representation, inclusion, new attack on Civil Rights, people are talking about that more than just music. The task is how do we reflect that on the show? We want the show to be topical and for people to depend on it for information and ideas. It’s that societal shift that is happening and Alt. Latino has to be a part of that. We have to be able to reflect the good, bad and the hopeful.

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