We Look at the Changing Face of America With Joy, Not Fear: Julio Ricardo Varela of Futuro Media
As Digital Media Director for Futuro Media, Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela works with the Latino USA team to promote the show’s episodes and expand its social reach. He is a frequent contributor to the show and the editor of the show’s official site, LatinoUSA.org. He also co-hosts In The Thick with Maria Hinojosa. In 2011, Julio founded LatinoRebels.com, one of the top US Latino media sites in the world. Previously, he was digital producer for Al Jazeera America’s “The Stream” and his work has been featured in many global outlets, including the Guardian, ESPN, the New York Times, Quartz, Le Monde, WGBH, WNYC, Face the Nation, MSNBC, Fusion, Univision and Telemundo. He has made numerous national TV appearances for Latino USA and Futuro Media. In 2015, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists honored Julio with its inaugural DALE (pronounced like Pitbull would say it) Award, given to “an individual or company that steps up and goes above and beyond to ensure Latinos are fairly and accurately represented.” A native of Puerto Rico, Julio spent his childhood between San Juan and the Bronx. He was also a contributing reporter at The Boston Globe. Julio graduated cum laude from Harvard College.
What kind of benefits does the podcast-as-medium offer over more conventional forms of journalism and commentary?
Julio Ricardo Varela: In The Thick is just a natural extension of the work we do at Futuro Media Group, which is the independent nonprofit company that Maria Hinojosa founded in 2010. I mean, Futuro has an award-winning show called Latino USA, which is weekly and tends to dig deeper into the craft of audio journalism. We are an incredibly diverse team that looks at the changing face of America with joy and not fear. We strongly believe that it is our mission as journalists to elevate the voices you might not see or hear in the more traditional mainstream. Podcasting is such a valuable medium for us because we can get the the voices out there and craft the shows we want to craft. In The Thick was a direct reaction to Maria, myself and other Futuristas saying that we have to share these new voices during the election season. We treated it like it was our journalistic duty, because it was. And we are thrilled that we did it because the reaction to the show has been fantastic. We take pride in the fact that many of our listeners tell us that we complement their political podcast listening habits. That we offer different perspectives that you don't hear on other podcasts. And unlike other podcasts that come from bigger podcast companies, our podcast from an independent nonprofit company is getting listeners and attention because what we produce is real and honest and authentic. Boom.
In The Thick has been running for a little over a year. What kind of evolution have you seen in where the show puts its attention? How has your own point of view changed or focused since the show began?
JRV: The biggest change I have witnessed is that we really don't want the show to sound like a "talking head" show. Our producer Noam Hassenfeld always tells Maria and me to remind our guests that the show is a conversation and not a panel. That is what makes our show so much fun to work on. The conversations we have are like the ones we might have over dinner. They feel real. They don't feel like canned talking points. We laugh a lot. We make fun of each other just like a family does. And that vibe is what keeps Maria and me excited. Every week it's a different conversation with different voices and that's when it clicks.
What progress, if any, do you see for expanding the roles of race or class or gender in journalism? How do you feel about this wave of encouragement for journalists to embed themselves in counties that voted for Trump to better understand these folks?
JRV: These feel like two different questions, so I will answer the first one first. Media outlets need to stop treating race and class as if they are some separate and disconnected beat that does not have any influence on other issues. Our senior editor Nadia Reiman tells me that if we can explore these connections, we are adding to the conversation. A recent example of this was the whole discussion we had about the Russia controversy. When all-star In The Thick guest Terrell Starr started talking about Russia within the context of race and class, I was like, "whoah!" This is why I love In The Thick. And like the show we did last year with Yamiche Alcindor and Wesley Lowery, "it's not racist to talk about race." Journalists of color never have these convos with each other. We are always that one POC voice in a larger national panel. These are important conversations and I am glad that we have them.
As for Trump, Maria said it best last year: she told me straight up a few weeks before that Trump had a chance to win. She was talking with Trump supporters wherever she went and so was I, although my space was more about Latinos who voted for Trump. But at the same time, I will flip it around: as much as the mainstream political media is trying to understand Trump voters more, they still don't understand Latinos or POC either. It's as if Latinos, for example, don't exist now because they didn't deliver in 2016. I laugh a lot about that because Latino voters are so complex and there were many Latinos who saw through the Clinton campaign and didn't see it as genuine. It's like Clinton's campaign with Latinos was to vote against Trump and not her. Which goes to this point: progressives also don't understand Latinos.
Do you lend any credence to the idea that, in order for liberal-minded people to win politically again, they should pay less attention to daily skirmishes in the culture war? Can we have it both ways?
JRV: As a political journalist, my job is to not get involved in pushing for political agendas. I observe and cover political actors. I am not one, but as someone who has covered the space for a few years, I have seen that when it comes to progressives, there is still a wide disconnect with white progressives and progressives of color. That is a more serious issue, because the first political movement to realize that the browning of America can lead to greater political power will be the political movement of the future. I think progressives struggle with that tension. I have reported too many times how white progressives feel threatened by progressives of color. And when one brings up this issue, those who raise that message feel some heat as well. But it's the biggest problem facing progressives today.
What role do citizen journalists and other non-professional journalists have in this political moment?
JRV: They have a huge role, but they need to approach this power with responsibility. In the age of fake and outrage news, those citizens journos who go into their craft with the right intent will provide a great service to society and to democracy. I come from the school that if a live video is powerful and tells the story, you don't have to add to it. Let the story speak for itself. Report it. Don't hype it. When you just report it, people will see the truth behind it.
What culture, pop or otherwise, are you consuming these days? What podcasts are you digging right now?
JRV: I have come off my World Baseball Classic obsession. Puerto Rico should have won it but I give the US props. I was happy to see the US men's national soccer team come back and get serious about World Cup Qualifying. You see the sports theme here? Can't wait for MLB to start up again and I will be diving into the NBA playoffs. I also listen to political radio ALL DAY LONG (seriously). ALL DAY LONG. Yes, I am weird. As for podcasts, I am a Decode DC fan because it is a smart, political show that is edited very well and gives me the right info. Of course, Latino USA is my go-to because I am so proud of my Futuro colleagues and how they produced such consistent and excellent work every week. Am still a solid fan of Reply All because PJ's laugh is classic and my In The Thick laugh needs some help.