A Spanish-language narrative storytelling podcast distributed by NPR
10 to 15 percent
Narrative podcast Radio Ambulante gets 90,000 listeners a week who listen to an average of 80 percent of every episode. When you ask listeners what they love about it, they’re likely to say that it feels like the hosts are telling their story and that they feel like they’re part of a true community.
Most listeners will never meet because they’re spread across at least three continents – South America, North America, and Europe. But Radio Ambulante knew if it was going to build a sustainable media organization with a loyal audience, it needed to find a way to help their listeners feel each other’s presence – and it needed to be able to offer that consistently.
They provide that sense of community through the podcast by including stories from listeners; through listening clubs, where people gather in person to listen to episodes; and through a corresponding Facebook group. All of these are initiatives that they’ve been able to make routine, so that they’re always there for listeners.
All that work has not just created a strong community around Radio Ambulante – it’s created a community of people willing to support it financially. In September 2019 they launched membership – still a nascent concept in Latin America – and a year later they have 1,300 members.
Why this is important
One of the main reasons people become a member of a news organization is to be a part of something bigger than themselves. If your members don’t feel each other’s presence, you’re not offering them one of the most common motivations for membership: community.
But a community can only flourish when it is consistently there for its members. By cultivating community in a few targeted ways, Radio Ambulante has been able to routinize that work and consistently deliver.
As your community grows, it can be hard to find the resources to support it. By making it easy for their biggest fans to host listening clubs themselves, Radio Ambulante was able to grow that community without spreading the team any thinner. They found the intersection between audience members’ motivations and their needs that MPP has found lies at the heart of memberful routines.
What they did
Before the listening clubs, there was the Club de Podcast Facebook group. Radio Ambulante launched the group in January 2018 so that listeners could gather to talk about the podcast, much like a book club. Growth Editor Jorge Caraballo said they wanted to make it possible for listeners to talk to each other, without Radio Ambulante staff as the go-between.
The Facebook group took off. Listeners dropped in every week to talk about what episodes made them feel and ask questions about where the season was headed. The community grew so much that other listeners often beat Caraballo to answering listeners’ questions.
“When you listen to Radio Ambulante, you become a character of Radio Ambulante,” Caraballo says. “The episodes take you deep into subjects or things that make you feel, that make you want to understand them through your experience. So you have to share your own experience to be able to talk about the episodes.”
It was the way the community supported itself that made Radio Ambulante realize there was potential for creating listening clubs. By the time they decided to launch the clubs, the Facebook group had 7,500 members. (Today the group has 9,500 people.)
Staff members hosted 20 pilot listening clubs across the U.S. and Latin America from February to May 2019 (the team is fully remote, and is spread across the regions). The format was pretty simple: help participants get to know each other, listen to a 30 or 40-minute episode together, discuss the episode afterward, and then take a photo together, as Nieman Lab reported. The feedback in post-club surveys was overwhelmingly positive.
They began having staff members host the clubs, but Radio Ambulante soon realized that they had many listeners who were eager to be hosts themselves. To support those volunteers, they created a guide that includes advice on everything from how many hours to book a venue to how to guide a discussion (Spanish guide, English guide). It even includes coloring sheets to help break the ice and help listeners focus on the podcast.
“From the beginning the idea was to connect listeners with themselves,” Caraballo said. “We want them to take responsibility and ownership of the community.”
Today, at least 3,000 people have participated in a listening club, and at least 118 people have hosted one (it’s hard for Radio Ambulante to be certain, because you don’t have to register with them to host or attend). Some listening clubs gather every week during a podcast season, from Panama City to Paris. A Colombian-Argentinian listening club host living in New York recently reached out to Caraballo to thank Radio Ambulante for helping him find friends that feel like family. They get messages like that all the time.
But the vibrancy of the community has made another channel much harder to manage: WhatsApp. Radio Ambulante has more than 3,000 on its WhatsApp list, and unlike the listening clubs, Caraballo has no choice but to be the only host. Last season, Caraballo experimented with posting a link to the latest episode each week, but some weeks he got back as many as 200 1:1 messages from fans. Sometimes it would take him a whole day to reply to all of them, which was unsustainable.
As they prepare to launch a new season for the fall, Caraballo plans to be very clear with people in the WhatsApp group that it’s just one person on the other end of the line, and he won’t be able to answer all of them.
This intentional community building has cultivated a loyal audience willing to support Radio Ambulante financially. In their annual survey in spring 2019, Radio Ambulante asked respondents if they would be willing to support the podcast with a monthly contribution. Sixty percent of the 6,100 people who responded to the survey said yes. Radio Ambulante launched their membership program in September 2019, and a year later, they have about 1,300 members.
Caraballo’s had to be careful about making it clear that Radio Ambulante values all of their community members, particularly as the membership program – and the tasks associated with supporting it – continues to grow. When they first launched the membership program, many worried listeners reached out to the Facebook group, wondering if it would soon be a member-only discussion.
Radio Ambulante has no plans of putting that community – or any Radio Ambulante community – behind a paywall. So far, one of the only things limited to members is a biweekly coffee chat over Zoom with members of the team. “We don’t want the membership program to be seen as fundraising in the worst meaning of the word. We want it to be a consequence of the engagement. We don’t want it to be something for the money,” he said.
What they learned
Just because you produce journalism, doesn’t mean you have to do journalism all the time. Radio Ambulante builds community by providing connection and joy. Their listening clubs include coloring sheets. They share illustrations and WhatsApp stickers tied to the podcast with their members. In July 2020, with in-person listening clubs on hold, Radio Ambulante hosted a multi-hour online dance party on Zoom. They hired a popular DJ. At least 700 people were on the line at any point between 8 p.m. and midnight (with hundreds staying on until 3 a.m.). The free event raised more than $1,000 in donations. As the main video cycled through attendees, participants toasted, danced, and held up flags and signs letting everyone know where they were listening from.
This is particularly important in today’s grueling news cycle, when your audience members need something more than information. As Caraballo told MPP, “It can be rewarding to go beyond journalism and open up creative spaces to participate. I think of ‘Listening Clubs’ or ‘Radio Ambulante Zoom parties’ as rituals that connect our community to us (and among themselves) in a deep way. …Memberful routines shouldn’t be restricted to the practice of journalism.”
Like the listening clubs and biweekly Zoom coffee chats, Radio Ambulante plans to make this a more regular offering for the community. “This is only a prototype of something that can become much more organized and much more sustainable,” Caraballo said.
Key takeaways and cautionary tales
Members aren’t just the people who support you financially. Radio Ambulante listeners do all kinds of things to support the growth of the podcast, from sending the team voice messages to use in episodes to organizing listening clubs in their community. Like many member-driven organizations, Radio Ambulante is thinking very carefully about how to make sure they continue to feel valued. “They are members. They’re investing resources to help grow the network and the community,” Caraballo said.
His advice for other organizations trying to strike that balance: “Whatever you do very, very well, keep doing it, keep improving it. That’s why they’re there. And then just imagine, ‘What would you like to receive from an organization that shares your mission? That is aligned with your principles? And that you think makes the world better and makes your life better?’ And then just give them the opportunity to enjoy that and to have that and to be part of it.”
Empowering your members can be powerful for you, too. Radio Ambulante is a small team powering a podcast with global reach. They’ve been able to support the community that has grown around the podcast by finding that critical intersection between audience members’ motivations – in this case, being a part of a community – and their needs – for others to become informal hosts of the community.
When someone asks a question in the Facebook group and another listener answers it before Caraballo can, that’s a sign that it’s working – and when Radio Ambulante helps people make new friends through listening clubs, that’s a slam dunk.
- Radio Ambulante, resource: Introduction to Radio Ambulante Listening Clubs (Spanish)
- Nieman Lab, article: “Radio Ambulante’s audience is worldwide. Listening clubs help bring them together.”
- Radio Ambulante, resource: Resources for hosting a Listening Club+