Fronteras: The Changing America Desk

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Fronteras is a regional news service collaboration among seven public radio stations that explores the changing culture and demographics of the American Southwest. Al Macias, Managing Editor for KJZZ in Phoenix, will discuss the collaboration and how Fronteras stories deal with the complex southwestern border with Mexico.

Jose Cardenas: Fronteras Changing American Desk is the first regional news network of its kind that covers issues unique to southwestern states sharing the border with Mexico. It's a collaboration among public radio stations led by KJZZ in Phoenix and KPBS in San Diego. We will talk to the managing editor of Fronteras in a moment, but first, here's a sample of stories told by Fronteras reporters.

Announcer: A dad in a blue windbreaker pushes his daughter on a swing at a neighborhood park in northeast El Paso. Behind him an ice cream truck trolls along. This used to be one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in El Paso. This tension has been brewing between American and Mexican dentists for 40 years.

Man: Ma'am are you looking for a dentist? We have a dentist available.
Announcer: Some of these newer dentists hire English hawkers, dress them in hospital scrubs. Nowhere else can you run from the Alpine environment to the desert in such a short amount of time. The Grand Canyon looks nothing like the profile of Boston Marathon. Now he's training to beat record time. Last year he finished -- a line of cars streamed down the road. Hundreds of people walk somberly into the church to pay their respects to judge john roll. He'd gone to see congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords to say hi and talk about his plans for the future. Artina Chi unstraps her baby from a cradle board where she's been napping. Three month old little girl has lots of black hair, huge cheeks and wears clothes big enough for a baby twice her age. Mom's habits during and prior to pregnancy may have affected her baby's weight. Mona Patterson -- I'm going down a ladder into the tunnel here. Starting to smell kind of humid already. So we're in. This tunnel began in the kitchen floor of a home in Tijuana. It plunged about 90 feet underground and popped up in the back room of this warehouse about a half mile away.

Jose Cardenas: With me now to talk about Fronteras Changing American Desk is all Macias the managing editor for KJZZ radio. You're the person in charge of Fronteras, so tell us how it began.

Al Macias: It started with our general manager and assistant general manager who gave birth to the idea, if you will, about creating this regional news network that would provide news and coverage of the stories that maybe not everybody is covering. Certainly in the commercial news world, and also that would provide more depth and perspective in the public radio format where we can do a little more, look into stories with a little more detail.

Jose Cardenas: What's the nature of the collaboration between KJZZ and KPBS in San Diego?

Al Macias: Well, we're the two lead stations if you will, there's a seven-station partnership. We have stations in San Antonio, Las Cruces, Phoenix Flagstaff, Las Vegas, and Tucson. I think I got them all. And so we're the two lead stations. The other stations are partners, they provide space and some support, some tech support for our reporters based in those cities.

Jose Cardenas: And we hear their voices, basically every single day. How often are the reports aired?

Al Macias: Basically we're running stories seven days a week. We have our longer form stories we call our features, those are usually run at the half hour in the morning show, 5:30, 6:30, 7:30 and 8:30 and our shorter stories can run during the morning or they run throughout our newscast during the day. Right up till the end of the day when we finish our day.

Jose Cardenas: Is there a particular focus that you would say you have for Fronteras Changing American Desk? We saw from the clip, some of the stories are kind of what you might expect in terms of border states like the tunnel experience. But also there was the Grand Canyon, ultimate challenge. So it's quite a variety.

Al Macias: Oh, absolutely. The idea of Fronteras isn't -- it's Spanish for frontier, and that's what we're talking about, which is the west and the frontier, not so much the border between Mexico and the United States. Obviously we cover quite a few stories along the border, but we're looking at stories we've covered stories about the uranium mine at the Grand Canyon, we've covered stories about the growth of the Asian population in Las Vegas. That was part of our census report. So we do a lot of harder news stories, but we also occasionally there's a story, like the one about the sand cranes. Those are stories you probably won't hear somewhere else. It gives us an opportunity, and not all news has to be that intense really heavy stuff. We can have some fun. We also respond to breaking news, we covered the WALLOW fire last summer. Myself and another producer were up there for a couple of days.

Jose Cardenas: And we saw from the clip you also covered the shootings in Tucson.

Al Macias: Yes. We were there, as a matter of fact one of our reporters -- we -- he was almost at the border covering another story when they went down and he made -- we didn't ask how fast he drove back, but he got very quickly back to Tucson.

Jose Cardenas: One of the topics that doesn't get covered much but is through your program is the tribal issues, particularly in northern Arizona.

Al Macias: M-hmm. Yes. Our reporter in Flagstaff, she was actually in Flagstaff before we hired her. So she's got quite a background, quite a bit of experience, a lot of contacts up there. So everything from the observation platform, that controversy over the Grand Canyon, to health issues, among the Navajo and the Hopi, the pollution issues out of the four corners plant. Those are all stories that Laurel covers, and it's great having her there because with her background and experience, we can get those stories and we -- she has access to people that maybe not everybody else does.

Jose Cardenas: I want to talk about some of the specific areas that you've covered perhaps some of the more controversial ones, but before I do that, how has this been received? You've been at it for about a year and a half now.

Al Macias: Very well. I'll say we were surprised, but in a pleasant way. We started this project off, we had our expectations, but we weren't really sure how it was going to be received by our listeners, by our partner stations, and it's been very, very well received. Another component, I should mention too is that we're funded by the corporation of public broadcasting. One of the elements, it had to be multimedia. Along -- even though we're a radio station, if you go to our website, you will see photos, you will see videos, and so we're doing stories on multimedia platforms. That's something else we've brought to the game if you will, that maybe some public radio stations weren't doing before. That's allowed us to do more and do it differently.

Jose Cardenas: So largely positive reaction. Anything negative?

Al Macias: No. I wouldn't -- I think initially when we started coming out of the gate in October of 2010, I think we were probably -- we were doing quite a few stories on the cartel violence. And quite honestly, it was - there was a lot of that happening at that point. And so internally and also from external feedback we got, maybe we were concentrating too much on that. So we looked at it and said, maybe you're right so we pulled back. We're not ignoring it, there's still big stores we're covering, but that's not our only focus.

Jose Cardenas: Speaking of the cartel violence, two things. One, fast and furious, the federal program, has come under attack has been a particular subject of inquiry.

Al Macias: Yes. And I mentioned our reporter in Tucson, he's worked the border for many years and has tremendous contacts. And provides real insight. I think because of his experience, he can hear stories and know pretty quickly there's more to this or there's not much to that. And so he is really provided us with an advantage of that seasoned reporter who can cover the breaking news as he has, as a lot of these stories are, but also give it perspective. And he's -- he has been quite honestly up front with a lot of the fast and furious stories, especially now that some -- a lot of the cases moved to congressional hearings. He's made some great contacts and really provided us an edge there.

Jose Cardenas: All of your reporters are based on the U.S. side of the boarder, but they do spend time in Mexico. Tell us about that.

Al Macias: Yeah. Monica in El Paso, our reporter in San Antonio has gone into Mexico, and so we established a protocol, one of the things we obviously were concerned about was the security of our reporters. We don't want them taking chances. But we've established some what we feel are good solid protocols. We're not reporters cross over they're checking with us regularly so we know where they are, we know who they're going to see. And once again, it's given us some real good stories. Monica did a story on scorpion anti-venom that was developed in partnership between the U of A and Mexican University down in Mexico city. We have that story, we were the first -- we broke it, if you will, and it was her ability to go into Mexico and have those contacts. All reporters are bilingual so that also helps out and gives us some advantage as well.

Jose Cardenas: Any specific collaboration was Mexican journalists?

Al Macias: Nothing specific. But we have done it on occasion. I know Monica works with some Mexican journalists that she has contacts with. Our reporters in San Diego have some reporters they work with in Tijuana. And so we've had some -- I won't say ongoing, it's kind of on an as-needed basis, but we do have contacts there.

Jose Cardenas: So let's talk a little bit about just kind of the logistics and how programs get put together. There's a lot going on, it's seven days a week, four or five times a day, how decide what's going to get on the air?

Al Macias: We literally have a call Monday through Friday every morning. We try and keep it a brief call, so we don't get too long-winded, but our reporters are feeding, we have two editors here as well as than editor in San Diego, we pitch stories if you will, they give us a quick description of a story they want to work on, we will discuss it, either in our morning meeting or amongst the editors and determine that a story has interest. One of the things we try to do, if there's a story in San Antonio, OK, is that just a Texas centric story or is it a story can that story be expanded with applications elsewhere? For example, some of the redistricting issues taking place in Texas, we can tie in some of the challenges that have happened in Nevada and obviously some of the issues here in Arizona, and sometimes give a broader picture about how these different incidents tie into that broader picture.

Jose Cardenas: A lot of coverage of the census.

Al Macias: Yes.

Jose Cardenas: In part was your own background, you've been involved in that in your career. Give us a flavor for the kinds of stories you've been doing there.

Al Macias: We did a series when the census numbers first rolled out at the beginning of last year, and so we were able to take a look at each state and take those numbers and instead of just doing a numbers dump, we were able to take a look and say, tell people what they meant. For example, in the Nevada, in the state of Nevada and Las Vegas area, there's a significant growth in the Asian population. So we were able to do that. Explain about that. And Arizona, we looked at some of those numbers and we could based on the 2010 census and another survey the bureau provides the American community survey, we were able to do some analysis and explain, OK, Arizona's population has shifted this way, there has been some drop, we're trying to find out why. The numbers would paint a picture and we were able to drill down either through the census people or with other demographers and look at them and explain why certain things are happening.

Jose Cardenas: Last question, maybe it ties-to-into what you were just talking about, but the title, Fronteras Changing American Desk. Explain that and we'll -- we're done with the interview.

Al Macias: OK. It was really -- there were two stations. We each had a bid. One wanted to call it Fronteras. The other, changing American desk. We thought Wall Street call it both, and it was kind of a marriage.

Jose Cardenas: The significance of it, changing America, are you referring to the demographics changing along the border?

Al Macias: It's a little of everything. Our environment is changing, we do environmental changes. A lot of it is the demographics. Our communities are changing, and so it's not just about the border, the Fronteras. The Fronteras we're talking about in the grander scope of a frontier and what's changing out here in the frontier in our communities.

Jose Cardenas: Al Macias, thanks for joining us on "Horizonte" to talk about Fronteras.

Al Macias: Thank you.

Al Macias:Managing Editor, KJZZ;

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