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Mariela Romero, regional community empowerment director with Univision Atlanta, Philadelphia and Raleigh, shares her personal journey in broadcasting and discusses the many ways Univision stations are helping educate Spanish speaking audiences about the COVID-19 vaccine and encouraging communities to get vaccinated.
Edited and Paraphrased for Print
This interview was recorded prior to the recent announcement that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have recommended pausing the administration of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccination due to potential side effects.
Welcome to Voices from the Field. This is where we hear directly from television and radio broadcasters on their experiences covering the stories that impact our communities and what drives them. I'm really pleased this morning to have a special guest with us: Mariela Romero, who is the regional community empowerment director for Univision. She also writes, produces and anchors a news program and has 23 Emmys to show for her incredible work. Thank you so much, Mariela, for being with us today. We're so excited to talk with you.
I'm very, very happy to be here with you. Thank you for inviting me.
Well, today, we'd love to talk about Univision's efforts to really get the word out about vaccine education to Hispanic communities. But before we get there, I want to back up. You've had such an incredible career in broadcasting. Can you tell us how you got started? Why did you choose this career path? And what are you doing now for Univision?
Thank you. I started in Argentina, where I studied journalism and communications, although I am originally from Venezuela. But after finishing my studies in Buenos Aires, I moved back to Caracas and I did different freelancing, jobs, etc. Until I got my first opportunity I Televen, which is a national network. I used to be the assistant producer of a talk show. That's how I learned the business. I fell in love with another show from that network that actually was a community-oriented TV show. And I said, "Oh my goodness, I wish I could work for that show."" But you know, actually, I was working in a more successful show. It was the number two highest watch TV show for that network. But I wanted to work in the one that was making a greater impact. But then, in 1996, I moved to the United States. In my first job in 1987 was at Georgia Public Broadcasting. And it was actually working at a television show for kids and educational show with puppets in they were teaching Spanish. So I worked there for about a year then I had my son so I took a break. And after my son was about a year old, I started working at CNN Radio. My first day at CNN was September 11 2001, believe it or not. It was as you can imagine, something unforgettable. In those three years at CNN, I learned so much. But I knew that my role in broadcasting and journalism was not that breaking new cycle, I wanted to have a greater impact. So I left CNN, believe or not. And people think I'm crazy, because I quit. And I started working as an interpreter for the court system and for the hospital systems in Georgia. And during those seven years, I learned so much about the community. It was eye-opening because I came to the United States with all my papers, I was able to work in a professional setting immediately in my field. I didn't know the reality of the immigrant community who came here, undocumented and the challenges without being able to have access to health care, and the challenges also with the judicial system. So those seven years prepared me for what I'm doing right now at Univision. I remember that when I had my interview at Univision, they asked me, "what are the challenges of the Latino community?" And I was able to speak with great knowledge because of those seven years that I work as an interpreter and the role that I am doing on the community side of the station. And implementing all the corporate social responsibility platforms of the company on the ground with the community. That is what I've always really, really wanted. Univision, in my opinion, is the network that has that connection with the community like no one else does in broadcasting. I am very, very fortunate that I work for a company that does that, and allows me to bring the topics that I know that the community needs.
It's amazing when you can look back over your career and see areas where not only have you achieved your own professional success, but you feel like you've really made a difference in the community. I think that should be everybody's goal. And it sounds like you've handled that balance beautifully.
No one has made a greater impact in our community over the past year than our health care workers, our frontline workers, and journalists who have been bringing the story into our homes. It was just over a year ago when I think the realization hit: our world is changing dramatically. And it's changing in a matter of days, a matter of hours. School shut down and parents stopped going to work. And it was then that people really turned to local TV and radio to stay connected with the community because we weren't even leaving our homes. We weren't even trying to go to the grocery store. Most days, we were just hunkered down. So tell us about being a journalist and working for broadcasters in that moment. How did it change the way Univision was able to reach out to the community and deliver that vital information?
It was very, very challenging, as you can imagine. But at the same time, the technology was ready for us to be able to pull off all the things that we needed to continue to serve our community. Those first days we were all home, presenting and doing our shows from home. Many of us had in the background, our beds. And like you said, our homes became our spouse's workstations as well. And our kids were learning from home. So the home became everything. And it was very, very stressful, because we knew that we needed to bring that information to our community immediately. So throughout the company, those first days, for months, a minute every hour dedicated to information about COVID, the numbers, what's going on, the financial impact. People needed to know. A lot of people were reaching out to us to ask for. They lost their jobs, they needed food. So in many, many of our stations, we also dedicated our phone lines, with employees shifting to help on those community efforts. To pick up the phone and direct our audience to the organizations that were helping. So we were creating content. And also we were responding to the to the need of the community. We were receiving emails, phone calls. We were also receiving calls from our partners and organizations to let people know about their food drives and the help that they were providing. Also, they had to change the way people could not go to their buildings. So it was about information, how do you reach them now. And, of course, they needed funds as well. So we had to do fundraising for those organizations as well. And we were doing concerts, virtual concerts. It was very challenging and very stressful, but it shows the power of coming together as well. And so we have beautiful moments as well, coming from such a scary time. And as a personal anecdote, I will tell you, it was so stressful for me that I developed a skin condition in my legs because of the stress. I had to use telemedicine to take care of that because it couldn't go to the doctor. But that served me as well to tell my audience how to now communicate with doctors. And it was a learning process for all of us. But I think it made us stronger. It made us more creative. We had to do a lot of things differently. But like I said, the technology was there. And we were able to adapt.
Absolutely. I think the world as a whole has really learned to adapt so much better in the past year. So I know how hard this has been on everyone and myself included. But I also know that there are going to be things I take away from this year that really make me better and make my family better. And that community tie, that bind is really one of them. It sounds like some of the things you were talking about were part of the "United for Each Other" campaign that Univision launched at the outset of the pandemic to provide those economic resources and health care resources to your communities. And I also know that getting accurate information in language was a big concern for the Hispanic communities. Talk to us a little bit about how Univision bridged that gap.
Yes, we we had to activate our "Unidos Por Los Nuestros," our "United for Each Other" campaign that we have had for several years now. But this with the emphasis of COVID-19 information. And one of the things that we had to do was to create a hotline for our viewers now that we have vaccines, for example. So we we have a dedicated hotline from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, where people can reach us and we will give them information where they can get vaccinated. We also have a digital tool that people can reach through our Univision Noticias, our news division. You put the zip code in and it will guide you through the resources available in your state. I did it. I was going to the my local state to find a vaccination place. And it was so complicated to navigate, that I used the Univision one and I was able last Saturday to get first dose of the vaccine, through that Univision app. It has been very well designed and very well received by our community. Also, our efforts through "Unidos Por Los Nuestros," we have partners at a national level like "Too Small to Fail," "Mi Familia Vota," that we work with to bring resources to the community. We partner with them. We have dedicated PSAs, townhall meetings, forums, Facebook Lives, etc. And we bring that information to our communities with those trusted voices as well. So it has been by design that we have come up with all of those resources for our community. At beginning of the pandemic, we had to be creative as well with our partners and bring different types of information. For example, I turned my show into a townhall format, because people needed that information from our trusted voices. And because I am in the markets of Philadelphia, Atlanta and Raleigh, I brought the chambers of commerce to discuss the economic impact and the help that was there for small businesses, and how to guide them. Also, I brought in another type of show that was townhall style, with different epidemiologists and experts on health and mental health because of the mental health impact that the pandemic had on our community. Another topic was immigration, and how immigration court was stopped. People had their cases and those backlogs of the court system. We had to activate at so many levels the information for our community, because they were desperate and they didn't know where to turn. But that is the power of broadcasters in my opinion.
I love that you field tested the vaccine finder online yourself and had great success with it. I think that's a great story. You hit on a couple things that I think are so important, both for the Hispanic community but really all of us as Americans: simplicity. These complex systems and every state and locality seems to be different with how you can find where to get a vaccine or the accurate information about the vaccine. So making that as easy as possible for your audience has been, I'm sure, very well received, along with the hotline, because a lot of people say, "Oh, just sign up online," or, you know, everybody's carrying a mini computer in their pockets with their smartphones these days. But for a lot of people that is very difficult to navigate, and so being able to call Univision hotline and say, "I'm nervous, I need to know, is this gonna be safe? Is it gonna hurt me? Am I eligible? Where can I get a vaccine?" Those are all really critical questions. And I think it's a huge service to the community, that Univision has a hotline that's manned 12 hours a day.
Correct. That is also a reflection of the trust that our community has in us. Pre-pandemic, all our community empowerment directors across the country will tell you that a lot of our audience members call us to find out things like, "Who is a reputable plumber?" "Which doctor can they take their kids to?" Because they trust us so much. They rely upon the information that we bring them. That's why we also are very, very careful about who we bring on air. Because we know that anybody that is shown by Univision is implicitly trusted by the community. So that is the tool that we have created as a reinforcement of the things that we need to do to communicate with our community because we know the things they need in how they communicate with us.
That's absolutely wonderful. And I think you hit on something really important, which is that broadcasters provide the most trusted information, and that is how it's received from the community. I try not to believe everything I read online. And when I see it on my local TV, or I hear it on my local radio, I know that it's been vetted. I know that journalists are working on news literacy and making sure sources are accurate. And that brings up an important point, especially with the Hispanic community, who have you found to be the most trusted messengers for them in the medical community, or in their families? Whose voice really resonates with them on this topic?"
It really is the medical experts. They they trust the medical experts that they see on TV. But I have to tell you that we have to combat a lot of misinformation and disinformation that our audience is exposed online and through social media. I received some of that misinformation myself through my family members who sent it to me. And the scary thing is how it is presented in a way that many people can be fooled by believing people who claim they are doctors. The technology has been great and a great tool to work from home, etc., but now you can create professionally looking news pieces from people who are not journalists, and from people who don't have the responsibility that broadcasters have. We have a mandate by the FCC to inform our community and to serve our community. Other platforms don't have that. They don't have that responsibility, that mandate. They don't have anything to lose by providing misinformation, but we have to protect our our license. So we are the trusted voices for our community. And that's why our job has become even more important. And we as journalists recognize that we have to inform our community there's so much misinformation around the vaccine, and that is why you see a lot of hesitancy in the Hispanic community to get vaccinated. So our job has become more and more important.
I completely agree. It brings to mind the old adage that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on. I think even more so in the social media era where things are shared and passed along so easily. I've gotten some of those from my family members, and I have to say, "No, no, I don't know where you guys got this. It's not true." I believe Univision did a great deal of research on its own to really try to find the right messages to connect with the community because we have seen that Hispanics are more vaccine hesitant, as are African Americans. So are rural communities. And those numbers are improving from what I've seen, just based on more credible information getting out. But what messages have you all found at Univision, that really resonate with your audience? What is the information that they're craving when making that decision about vaccination?
Well, you know, one interesting thing that we have found is that people don't want to have two doses of the vaccine. They want something more convenient, for example, and they are trusting more, the Johnson and Johnson vaccine that is just one dose. So that is something surprising. I had no idea that that was something that our audience our community was interested in. "Okay, we are willing to take this vaccine, but just one dose." So that is something that we are responding to as well on our newscast. In, for example, North Carolina, you can decide what vaccine you can take. But that is not the case in Georgia and that is not the case in Pennsylvania. So we we have to respond to our local areas as well in providing that information to our audience. So the preference to take one dose is something that we have found. We have found that the doctors that are older and Spanish, for example, resonate better with our audience. They trust doctors who speak Spanish more fluently because there is less chance of miscommunication. If we have people in the religious community and they want to have a message about vaccinations, we consider them trusted voices as well.
I can certainly understand why the community would gravitate more towards people who they believe speak the native language and are more ingrained in the culture.
Correct. And another thing that has been very beautiful is how we have come together with our English partners in the media world. In every station, we have received calls from English media, our fellow broadcasters. In Georgia, we have united to bring information and resources to our audience. Right now, for example, in Georgia, we are partnering with one of our partners at CBS, and we are making joint efforts to reach Hispanics in the state of Georgia. CBS has come to us to provide the subject matter experts, and also how to really communicate effectively with with our community. And we welcome those things. It shows the camaraderie between broadcasters. That has been something very, very beautiful and very powerful for me to witness. Also the radio stations, and how how they have partnered with TV to bring accurate information through the pandemic. Also, when we're talking about racial justice and protests. We have shared resources and information to really bringing that information to our audience. So it has been very, very powerful for me to witness that.
That's a great point. Because at the end of the day, the ratings races don't matter as much as keeping people safe, and getting them the trusted and critical information they need. So I think that's a wonderful point to end on, that you have really been able to form great partnerships or strengthen the partnerships you already have in the community. And Univision has just been doing incredible work. So from the national association, I just want to thank you and your colleagues for everything you've done. This is such a critical issue and getting the accurate information that people need out there is the first step in getting them comfortable with being vaccinated. So thank you for everything you're doing out in the broadcast world. And we have really enjoyed talking to you today. Thank you so much for your time.
Mariela Romero is an Emmy award-winning communications professional with over 25 years of experience in journalism, public relations and broadcast television, currently working as Regional Community Empowerment Director for Univision Atlanta, Philadelphia and Raleigh. Mariela anchors, write and is the producer of news magazine "Conexion Fin de Semana" in all three markets. Romero has interviewed former President and Nobel Prize Laureate Jimmy Carter, Civil Rights leader and Presidential Medal of Freedom Awardee, Reverend C.T Vivian and American Labor leader Dolores Huerta among other distinguished public figures. In 2018, she was named by the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce as one of the 50 most influential Latinos in the State. In 2019 she received the Olga C. Goizueta Pacesetter Award given by the Latin American Association. She is also an accomplished songwriter, with several songs featured in independent films and television shows; earning her a nomination for the Latin Grammy awards in 2009.
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