Naked City

Latina USA in Exilio?

Maria Martin
Maria Martin (Photo By John Anderson)

There was cake, music, and praise Monday night for Maria Martin, founder and executive producer of Latino USA, National Public Radio's "journal of news and culture," broadcast locally on KUT in Austin on Friday afternoons at 4pm. The occasion was a celebration of the program's 10-year anniversary, held in conjunction with last week's National Council of La Raza conference. There was ample reason to celebrate. Originally expected to attract no more than 50 carriers, the KUT-produced program is now heard on more than 250 stations, has won more than 15 prestigious awards for journalistic excellence, and is widely respected for bringing the pulse of U.S. Latino life, culture, and politics to public radio.

The 10th-year celebration, as it happens, also marks the departure of Martin, according to a press release issued by KUT July 11 and confirmed by Martin. However, there is a striking disconnect between KUT's perfunctory release and Martin's own comments on her departure.

"I was told that my appointment would not be renewed," Martin said to about 100 well wishers.

The KUT release blandly announces that as the recipient of a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Martin is forming her own company, Gracias Vida Productions. The funding is intended to support the production of a 26-part bilingual series on post-civil-war Central America. Martin's tale is significantly different. In order to meet funding deadlines, Martin says, she had submitted the CPB grant proposal while on leave and as an independent producer and indicated on the application that Latino USA would carry the proposed program. According to Martin, administrators decided that her method of acquiring the funds was questionable, and she was offered three options: resign, return the funds (at a time when public broadcasting program funding is very precarious), or agree that her method of acquiring the funds was a conflict of interest, sending the project into a miasma of UT red tape. She's decided to not fight her dismissal in hopes that the university will agree to carry the program she produces. If not, the funds are lost and the project will not occur.

"I don't think there are two versions to the story," said KUT director and general manager Stewart Vanderwilt. "There's some factual elements out of sync, hairs not necessary to split."

So, why couldn't Martin continue to serve as executive producer while producing the new Central American project?

"I don't feel [it's] necessary to explain that right now," Vanderwilt said. "I stand by what we put in the press release. It's factual." He said the administration of the project is up to Martin and added, "The project she's going to do is totally appropriate for Latino USA in timing and content."

Vanderwilt says KUT still fully supports the show. "Latino USA is an important show on KUT and nationally," he said. "It's in a high-profile spot in our schedule, demonstrating our belief in the program. Our overriding interest is to continue the program."

Deputy producer Alex Avila becomes executive producer effective Sept. 1. Martin's last broadcast is Aug. 29, but if all works as she hopes, she will not be absent from Latino USA airwaves for long.

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