On Tuesday, NPR will produce live bilingual coverage of the State of the Union address and Republican response for the first time.
As the United States continues to grow more diverse, it’s important for NPR to respond to local needs and experiment with offering more Spanish-language news content. This allows bilingual audiences to stay informed about the latest news and events and helps them connect with their communities through public media.
I spoke with A Martínez and Erika Aguilar of NPR’s Morning Edition about this endeavor. We got to dig into why this bilingual coverage will be an important resource for the growing Latino population in the U.S.
We also reflected on how stations that carry this type of programming can reach a wider audience and provide them with important information.
In “NPR’s Live Special Coverage of the State of the Union en Español — un Programa Bilingüe” President Biden’s speech and the Republican response will be translated into Spanish. Martínez will host the program and provide bilingual commentary with NPR correspondents Franco Ordoñez, Claudia Grisales and Eyder Peralta. Sergio Martínez-Beltrán, Texas capitol reporter for the Texas Newsroom, will join the broadcast from KUT in Austin.
We might take for granted sometimes that bilingual Spanish-speaking listeners rely on NPR for trustworthy information about what’s happening in the nation and around the world.
Tuesday’s coverage of the State of the Union address is expected to be similar to the live broadcast that NPR provides every year. Ari Shapiro, host of All Things Considered, will host that special, which will provide English-only coverage.
In announcing the bilingual program to stations, NPR noted, “We hope this additional special coverage option broadens the reach of information you are able to provide your communities. We know that many stations already provide broadcasts, streams and other content in Spanish, and hope this additional program offering enhances those efforts. We strongly encourage you to carry the bilingual special coverage on one or more of your platforms.”
Let’s talk about with Aguilar and Martínez about NPR’s bold move.
Why was this important to you, and how did it happen?
Martínez: Erika approached me with the idea a few weeks ago, but we’ve been having conversations for months about ways to experiment and try to figure out a way to do things in Spanish or at least be more bilingual.
I remember when I went to Tijuana to report on the border. All of our reporting was in English. I spoke to the mayor of Tijuana. I thought when we put out our product, which was an all-English product, wouldn’t it be awesome if that product could also come out in Spanish? There have been a lot of other stories that some of our own producers and contributors turned in that have to do with people who speak Spanish, but the story is in English. Wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow find a way to put that same exact product out in Spanish? It takes people to actually do it because you have got to translate and make sure everything is correct. So, I … was thinking, like, “Maybe we’ll be able to do it for special occasions.”
I was so glad when Erika said “Hey, what do you think of this?” This is absolutely perfect because this is something that most of us do already. Most people who spoke Spanish in their homes when they were kids and then when they went out in the world and started speaking English go back and forth between both languages — sometimes in the middle of a day, the middle of a conversation or the middle of a sentence. We want to let all those people who navigate both English and Spanish all day long know, “We not only see you, we hear you and we speak like you.” And that’s … who this product is for.
Aguilar: One of my colleagues from All Things Considered came to me and asked about doing this in Spanish. I was like, “I think it can be done.” But then he kept coming back to me and asking, “How would we do it, and who would do it like this?” It has been exciting and it’s the one thing that has really put a smile on my face in the last few weeks.
It’s a privilege to be able to work with people who look, think and sound similar — or who just get you.
[Speaking to Martínez] A — I don’t know if you thought this way, but there’s something special about what happens in that studio. We’ve been doing some rehearsals, and there’s this magic. The accents you hear, and there’s a level of trust. Also, we are doing this para la gente, and that feels really good and gives you purpose.
Martínez: Oh, yeah! Being in the room with Franco Ordoñez and Claudia Grisales — our two correspondents in-studio with me in D.C. next week — it’s like talking to a family member. How you had these conversations about politics and issues and stuff around the dinner table. It’s nice to be in that flow with people who are thinking those same things for a long time. It’s a different kind of sensibility. We’re going to bring up some of the things that maybe aren’t mentioned by President Biden but are important to people who are in that same kind of headspace.
How was the journey from conversations with NPR to making logistics come together on the lead up to Tuesday?
Aguilar: Because it’s something that we’ve not done before, there’s a bit of me going like this! [Sticks out hands] This is a broadcast, so little things [come up] that I had never even thought about. And then the editorial issues like, “When do we go in Spanish? And when do we go in English? And is it too much? Is it too little?”
When we did our first rehearsal it was, “Wow, that was 90% in Spanish.” I didn’t realize we were able to do that. Then we did it again and we had a mix of it. We heard that some native Spanish speakers were listening and felt it was weird and confusing. It’s just so reflective of Latinidad in America that it is mixed. We have so many different experiences. I think that was interesting and reflective.
What is the balance in terms of language that you were able to strike?
Martínez: As Erika mentioned, the first rehearsal was majority Spanish with very little going into English. I think we used English as a kind of crutch. Whenever we’d come up with a word that had a pronunciation that we were struggling with, we would just jump into Spanish on that. For example, I was having trouble with the word “ciudadanía” so I just said “citizenship.” We made a point to try and do it where, if a reporter is speaking in Spanish to end their answer, I would pick it up in Spanish. Then if the reporter is ending their answer in English, I would pick it up in English to try and have a connective thread throughout the broadcast.
We’re going to land somewhere in between those two, depending on who you are and your level of comfort with both languages. If we somehow try to land between that, I think we’ll probably hit a better spot than we did in those individual rehearsals.
Who is this directed to?
Martínez: Me. I’m the audience. Erika is the audience. People like us who navigate the day speaking to family and friends in both languages. It’s the way millions of bilingual people — not just English and Spanish speakers — are doing here. That’s what the kids of immigrants for decades in America have done, to not only survive, but to connect both sides of who they are.
I grew up with grandparents who never spoke English. I had to navigate that world with them in Spanish and then turn around and speak to my brother in English, because we were more comfortable with English. The audience for this is people like that, who have spent their entire lives having one foot on each side and figuring out the best way to survive the day or even just the conversation that they happen to be in because that’s what we’re equipped to do. We’re equipped to shift back and forth due to the dual sides of our culture.
Any feedback from stations so far about this effort?
Aguilar: I’m a daughter of public media and, in my career, grew up within public media. I have a very tender heart for member stations. When we were thinking about who to bring in, I thought of Sergio Martinez-Beltran because he’s been on Up First. And I’m familiar with KUT because that’s where I used to work. I already knew that some stations are offering some Spanish-language or bilingual content. And so far the interest has been “How do I get this?” which is exciting.
What does this going successfully look like for you?
Aguilar: Success for me is we walk out of there with something that we are proud of, that we feel is of value to the listeners. I like to say that our job is to fall in love with our audience, so that we can serve them. Success means that when I make content, I feel very proud because the audience walks away feeling like they got something of value.
We feel confident enough and curious enough, and the audience is excited enough to think about what’s next.
Martínez: Success for me is for NPR listeners of all backgrounds to hear this and be proud that it’s an NPR product. In other words, being able to say, “This is why I give to NPR. This is the exact reason why I’m proud to be an NPR listener. This is an NPR product.” It holds the standard of what they expect out of an NPR product. For the people that maybe have never listened, maybe they hear about it from someone and they tune in and they become NPR listeners and then become contributors and see NPR as a place that not only sees people, but also gives them a voice.
Ernesto Aguilar is director of radio programming for KQED in San Francisco and author of OIGO, a newsletter about Latina/o/e/x audiences and public media.