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The Future in Futuro Studios

“It just happened that everything needed to come out within the first few months of this year,” said Marlon Bishop, the VP of Content Development at Futuro Studios. “It’s exciting, though. Gives us a chance to make a big splash, maybe get noticed.”

Well, consider the splash noticed. Futuro Studios seems to be everywhere at the moment, a natural outcome of having lined up a string of buzzy show launches in quick succession. This past month, the team rolled out two new productions: Anything For Selena, a personal documentary on the cultural icon Selena Quintanilla hosted by WBUR senior editor Maria Garcia, and Norco 80, an adaptation of Peter Houlahan’s book on a violent 1980s bank heist in Southern California that’s hosted by Futuro staffer Antonia Cereijido. And next month, those shows will be followed up with two more new releases: La Brega, a fully dual-language podcast about Puerto Rico, and Suave, which is centered on the story of a man, David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez, who was sentenced to life in prison as a teenager. More projects are on the way (some still under wraps), all scheduled to drop throughout the rest of what’s shaping up to be another long year.

This head-turning wave of launches was partly the result of the pandemic, of course, which incurred delays in productions that were originally slated to debut last year. But equally influential is the fact that almost all these projects are co-productions with bigger organizations that have their own timeline needs. La Brega, Anything For Selena, and Norco 80 come out of collaborations with WNYC, WBUR, and LAist Studios, respectively. Suave is Futuro’s lone sole production of this set, with distribution support from PRX. (Disclaimer: I work with LAist Studios for my own show, Servant of Pod.)

So, yes, it just happened that everything needed to come out at around the same time, and it also happens that this wave makes for a grand introduction for Futuro Studios, which was formally established last year as the new creative programming division of Futuro Media Group. For the unfamiliar, Futuro Media Group is perhaps most known as the organization that houses of Latino USA, the long-running Latino-focused public radio program hosted by the veteran journalist Maria Hinojosa (who, by the way, just published a new memoir called Once I Was You). Hinojosa founded Futuro Media in 2010 as an independent nonprofit as means to take over ownership and production of Latino USA, which by that point had gone through several different institutional arrangements since its launch in the early nineties.

But the nonprofit also served as a staging ground to expand upon Hinojosa’s broader enterprise of foregrounding stories, voices, and perspectives that were typically underrepresented in the media. To that end, Futuro Media Group would eventually expand to include In The Thick, a politics round-table podcast that centers journalists of color, and Latino Rebels, a digital news outlet founded by the journalist Julio Ricardo Varela, who now wears many hats at the company, including VP of New Business Development.

Futuro Studios is the latest of such expansionary gambits, and it builds upon a few podcasting experiences that the company had racked up before last year. Those included projects with the Los Angeles Times (The Battle for 187), Netflix (Brown Love), the think tank PolicyLink (Radical Imagination), and the journalist Imara Jones, with whom they produce the TransLash podcast. Now, having been officially established, Futuro Studios is being positioned as the organization’s exploratory vessel to discover new creative and economic frontiers, with podcasts being a starting point.

Elementally, Futuro Studios allows the company to leverage its production expertise into straightforward revenue opportunities, like white label work-for-hire gigs. More broadly, though, the division presents the organization with a more focused channel to develop larger projects around internal talent and ideas. Cereijido, the host of Norco 80 and a senior producer at Futuro, tells me that this comes out of what she describes as the company’s traditionally horizontal culture, one that gives its producers a good amount of space to do their own thing to a point where they could feel empowered to mount bigger creative projects. From what I understand, the construction of Futuro Studios expands on the possible outcomes of such empowerment: Where, years ago, the endpoint of such ambition was a segment on Latino USA’s radio broadcast, the existence of this new creative division allows for the possibility of those ambitions to be realized as financially viable, standalone, on-demand audio projects.

Varela tells me that they had made the decision to build out the division organically, meaning: no outside money and no venture capital. “The thinking was basically, ‘let’s treat it like a startup within the structure of the company and see where this goes,’” he said. Because no additional funds were raised, they opted to pursue development strategies that could spread the risk around — hence the hard lean into the co-production model.

“We’re really production and editorial focused, and we don’t currently have much capacity with audience development, distribution, marketing, and so on,” said Bishop. “So, without an infusion of cash to make a lot of hires on those fronts, we just thought about: ‘How can we partner with organizations to amplify and monetize the work we’re doing?’”

Starting out wasn’t easy, and it took a good deal of persistence from the team when they started pitching Futuro Studios around in 2019. “Around that time, we saw the promise of underrepresented voices maybe getting attention in the podcast space, but it was still a bit of a hard sell,” said Varela. Cereijido recalled an experience during the process of pitching Anything For Selena, when they met with an executive — from “a big podcast company that shall go unnamed,” she notes — who didn’t know who Selena Quintanilla was. “There was, you know, some cultural barriers there,” said Cereijido.

That moment, somewhat archetypically, embodies the difficulties of trying to get projects with underrepresented perspectives made, even when there’s understood to be some broad interest in doing so. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm and interest [around serving underrepresented voices], especially with some folks thinking of it in terms of untapped markets,” said Bishop. “But sometimes, when push comes to shove, there can be a hesitancy to really invest and put their money where their mouth is. A lot of places prefer to stick to things that are more well trodden.”

Futuro Studios eventually found an array of partners primarily within public media, which the team perceives as a natural pairing. “Public media companies are also mission-based organizations willing to take risks that some private companies won’t necessarily do,” said Bishop. “Which isn’t to say that there isn’t excellent work coming out of the private sector.” To be sure, he notes, they have some partnerships there, too.

It’s a matter of getting the right partner with the right appetite to help them tell the stories they want in the right way. And sometimes, that means having a willingness to commit to a producer’s specificity. “I feel like one thing that happens occasionally are situations where a POC face is put on something, but it’s not their idea,” said Cereijido. By way of contrast, she points to the example of “The Quevedos,” an episode of Latino USA produced by former staffer Sayre Quevedo that told a story grounded in his own family history. Cereijido regards it as some of the best work Latino USA has ever done. “Sayre’s pitch was basically just, ‘I’m going to talk to my mom,’ but then you hear the story and it’s incredible,” she said. “It’s what you get when you really invest in someone.”

If you can’t wait for everybody else to build the world you want, you’re going to have to try and do it yourself. That seems to be the spirit driving the Futuro Media Group, and now Futuro Studios, as the latter works to deepen its body of work, I hope it keeps getting more opportunities to commit to the specificities of their mission. From the sound of what they’ve already released, I’m plenty excited to see what else comes out of that.