Public Radio Finds Immigrant Reality, but Misses Build Up to March

Last month, I bemoaned the dearth of immigrants’ stories on public media. Saturday morning, I awoke to Finding Home: From Chicago to Durango, by Melissa Giraud and Lisa Subrin on Weekend Edition.

Ask 19-year-old Lizandra Nevarez where she’s from and she’ll say a village in Durango, Mexico — even though she was born and raised in Chicago. Her mother and grandmother were born in Durango. Not long ago, Lizandra Nevarez decided to see Durango for herself.

Lizandra’s trip is a stunning reversal of her mother’s and her grandmother’s crossings into the United States 30 years before. They walked for days, feet nearly bare, hands rough and empty. Lizandra has her nails manicured, her stiletto boots shined, her hands full….She heads to Durango with hopes of connecting to her family in the small village, or rancho, of Onze de Marzo. As she soon discovers when she arrives, the past gets in the way.

The piece, which was neither patronizing nor facile, was especially satisfying coming the day after Chicago’s massive pro-immigrant march. (Photos here and here.)
Chicago Public Radio’s WBEZ missed the buildup to the march completely– I heard nary a mention of it in the weeks leading up to the march. (A review of the March archives of WBEZ’s daily news magazine program Eight Forty-Eight shows no mentions of the mobilization.)

So, a listener who gets her news solely from WBEZ (whose stated mission is to “offer programs that speak with many voices to community needs and are a reflection of the distinctive and diverse Chicago area”) could have arrived in the Loop Friday afternoon completely unaware that 100,000 of her neighbors were emotionally claiming their rights in one of the largest immigrant marches in the nation’s history. (The October 1994 march in Los Angeles against California’s Proposition 187 was estimated to be between 150,000 and 200,000.)
Too bad no one at BEZ was listening to Spanish language radio like WRTO-AM 1200, a Univision station, which discussed the march prominently for at least a week before the march. Oscar Avila of the Tribune was listening to Rafael Pulido‘s (of Univision’s WOJO FM) exhortations of his audience to support the march and as a result Tribune readers knew about the march.

WBEZ was not alone. Neither the Sun Times nor the Daily Southtown seems to have discussed the march before it happened. WTTW’s Chicago Tonight seems not to have mentioned the march at all last week– though it did find time include a book review by “novelist and socialite” Sugar Rautbord and a discussion of Dusty Baker and steroids.

I bet BEZ will not miss the next Mexican-American led mass mobilization in the Loop. Its general manager, Torrey Malatia, stands out among his public radio counterparts for his commitment to covering local issues. WBEZ’s local reporting is generally stellar, Catrin Einhorn‘s story on ballot referenda in Logan Square comes to mind. Its election coverage is essential.

And I’ve praised WBEZ’s cultural coverage before now. Its Sound Opinions (perhaps the first show to be stolen from commercial radio by public radio?) had a great episode Saturday featuring hip-hop journalist/historian/blogger Jeff Chang. Jeff gave a great overview on the state of hip-hop circa 2006 and looked forward to the day he hears his kid decry hip-hop as whack.

So, from a fan, here are a couple of pieces of advice for the public media decision makers:

  1. Listen to ethnic media. (See WNYC’s Brian Lehrer’s frequent calls to Gerson Berrero of El Diario/La Prensa at election time.)
  2. Keep blogging: WBEZ’s Chicago Matters series has a blog, with comments.
  3. Look to independent producers and local partners: Melissa Giraud’s “Finding Home” story and her OchoTeen projects involved both WBEZ and Chicago’s Radio Arte. [Melissa’s sister Christine is a friend and was a colleague of mine at the Ford Foundation.]
  4. Give Jeff Chang a show before satellite or commercial radio snatches him up.

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