The PMJA Board is excited to announce that Maria Hinojosa, host and executive producer of Latino USA and trailblazing public media journalist, will receive the 2020 Leo C. Lee award.
Maria Hinojosa is best known to public media audiences as the executive producer and host of the Peabody Award-winning show Latino USA. Her nearly 30-year career in journalism also includes reporting for PBS, CBS, CNN and NPR.
“This is a pinch me moment,” she says of being honored by her public media peers.
Growing up in Chicago in the 1960’s and 70’s, Hinojosa remembers being drawn to the reporters and news anchors of that time. “I was a voracious consumer of news. I mean, it was the Vietnam War. It was the civil rights [era], there was the women's movement. I remember standing inches away from our television set in the living room and watching Ed Bradley and Dan Rather delivering the news from Saigon,” says Hinojosa. “But what I also realized was that I never saw myself there.” She says she saw herself “reflected in neither the stories, nor in the people telling the stories.”
In her early teens, Hinojosa discovered public radio, first from broadcasts she heard in Mexico City, where she was born, and later listening to WBEZ in Chicago. “I just kind of happened upon a public radio program that was actually talking about Latin America.” She says she immediately connected with the cultural programming and issues-oriented news she wasn’t finding from other sources. “And I thought, wow! There is a way to communicate where you’re not being a disc jockey and yelling into the radio.”
Hinojosa was a sophomore at Barnard College in New York, planning to pursue acting, she says, when she was approached about taking over an open Wednesday night slot on WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station. She remembers thinking, “I'm not a radio person. I've never been on the radio.” They asked if she had any albums she could play. “And I was like, 10 from, you know, in Latin America it's called nueva canción, it's kind of political music ... the new song movement. ... And they were like, well, then you have a radio show.”
That experience eventually prompted her to apply for an All Things Considered internship at NPR. Susan Stamburg selected her, and then in 1985, Scott Simon hired her full-time as a production assistant on Weekend Edition. In 1990 she returned to the network as NPR’s first Latina correspondent.
In 1994, Gilberto Cardenas founded Latino USA at the University of Texas at Austin and hired Maria Martin to produce the show. Martin and Cardenas hired Hinojosa as the show’s first anchor. The show later moved out of the university’s Center for Mexican American Studies to KUT, its home for the next 16 years. In 2010, after forming Futuro Media Group, Hinojosa took ownership of Latino USA and moved the production of the show to New York. Hinojosa says she’s excited and proud that Latino USA continues to reach new audiences across platforms.
According to the show’s latest program data from 2019, Latino USA is broadcast on 223 stations nationwide, and the show’s podcast averages 90,000 downloads weekly. “Our station carriage has grown by nearly 20% [from] two years ago, and 86% [from] five years ago,” says Hinojosa. “That’s a huge jump. Our average weekly podcast users have also grown 86% since two years ago.”
Throughout her three decades in radio, Hinojosa continues to see the medium as a canvas for telling complex and compelling stories. “It is about the love of audio, about this love of sound, about creating that space. I was always the one who was saying make it longer, not short. Make it longer, not shorter if it deserves it.”
Hinojosa’s roots playing music on the radio are still with her today on Latino USA. Music, books and an overall exploration of the arts are central to the show, and that’s important to Hinojosa. On the day we talked, José Feliciano had just played for the whole staff. “Everybody crammed into our little conference room,” she said. “Latino USA is about doing all of those difficult, complicated things, and at least as often as we can, delivering it with a sense of joy.”
Public media plays an essential role in our democracy, says Hinojosa, and she believes that journalists are not rising to the urgency of this moment. “I worry about us as public media journalists, we have so much trust in the community, that we fail to understand how abnormal this moment is. And, so we do have a responsibility to give context continually and not just headline it,” she says, “and I say this, because of my love of public media. We cannot lose our credibility.”
Strong news coverage must be rooted in more diversity and equity inside newsrooms, says Hinojosa. “It makes my newsroom better that I have a Muslim woman who grew up in Brooklyn who's part of my politics podcast, In the Thick. It’s important that I have someone in my newsroom who is Peruvian from Los Angeles,” she says. “That makes us better journalists, that makes us a better audience. If public radio does not fully embrace the conversation around equity in our newsrooms and representation, which is our mandate, then my worst fear is that there won't be an audience for public media.”
Please join us as Public Media Journalists Association honors Maria Hinojosa with the Leo C. Lee Award on Saturday June 27, 2020 at our annual awards banquet in Seattle.