How ‘La Chica de La Brega’ Gets It Done

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Amy Pearl

“Brega” is a Boricua term denoting the need to hustle to overcome a challenge; it’s a fitting one for Alana Casanova-Burgess. On October 5, shortly after the Cut spoke to Casanova-Burgess for this interview, the audio journalist was among 20 employees laid off from New York Public Radio as part of a cost-cutting effort. She had worked at WNYC for 14 years, first at The Brian Lehrer Show, then the Peabody Award–winning On the Media, and as a producer on the History Channel co-production Blindspot: Tulsa Burning. In 2018, she was a Livingston Award finalist for her reporting on Hurricane Maria. And since its launch in February 2021, she has been the host of the acclaimed dual-language podcast La Brega: Stories of the Puerto Rican Experience. The second season, which tells the story of Puerto Rico through eight songs, aired this past spring. Fortunately, the show is a co-production with Futuro Studios, and Casanova-Burgess reports that the company is actively fundraising to keep it going. In the meantime, she’s officially freelance and continues to teach as an adjunct professor at her alma mater, the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. Speaking to us after news of the layoffs came out, Casanova-Burgess told the Cut, “I’m taking some time to figure out what’s next for me, which means I’ll be establishing new routines and ways to ‘get it done.’”  

On her morning routine:
I wake up around seven. I wrap myself up in a robe and make some coffee. I don’t really do anything before I have coffee. I don’t even look at my phone. I work remotely pretty much all the time. But a thing that I started doing as soon as we made that shift was to make sure that I got dressed every day as though I was going in for work. It just helps me get into that mind-set. It’s really hard to feel alert in soft pants. I never really got into that.

On her career path:
I didn’t always think I would be an on-mic person. I was more behind the scenes, like producing, you know, writing questions for other people. And so I was sort of surprised to see myself in the host seat, but I think that’s also good. I know what it’s like to be the producer of a show. And I still do a lot of that [work] for the love of it. It gives me a different sensibility about how team works.

On what people might not expect of creating a podcast:
It’s really a team sport. There’s a lot of choreography. I’m mixing metaphors there. It’s both athletic and it’s a dance. But in terms of the dance, and that choreography, we’re passing a script on to different stages, right? So for the editor, you have to be ready with your deadline on your script, so that the editor can look at it, because they’ve cut out some time to look at your work. And then there’s a fact-checker who’s waiting to catch it when that’s done, and a sound designer who’s ready to work on it with you. And then it goes to engineering, and then you edit it again. And at one point, there’s a group edit, where we all listen to feedback. So missing one deadline means screwing up the entire dance all the way down the line.

We want to get everything right, so there’s constant adjustments being made. We have a project manager who is running the “train” schedules. That’s the third metaphor. So it’s like a fancy sport, a train schedule, and, a dance that if you drop the ball, or if something needs a little bit more work, everything else needs to be accommodated.

On staying connected while working remotely:
There is celebrating wins, but also people have bad weeks or stuff happens personally with them, so we send each other presents sometimes. I’ve sent Ezequiel flowers. I’ve gotten pies from colleagues. I’ve sent bottles of rum, Barrilitos to people. It’s a nice surprise to open your door and see that someone on the team is thinking about you. I sent a lot of flowers this season.

On what motivates her:
One of the things that is really exciting to me about even just the impetus, like the idea of La Brega, is to make a show that is really for a different audience. The pushback there was the systemic one. But we made the show and people really liked it and really caught on to it. And so I think in a way that’s also about not pushing back on yourself, right? [It’s about] actually embracing the idea that you have and the conviction that you have that people will listen to it.

On advice she wishes she had at the beginning of her career:
I teach at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, so it feels like I’m always talking to younger journalists. A piece of advice that I wish I had early in my career: Stay in touch with everybody. Journalism can be very lonely, but it’s also a really collaborative process. Exercise solidarity is important.

On how she unplugs:
I think there’s always this tension when you’ve put in a really long day, you’ve talked to so many people, and you’ve also recorded a bunch of words into a microphone. Do you just want to turn off your brain and watch Love Island? Or do you want to be social again and get out of your house? I try to find a balance there and be really intentional. Sometimes I take myself out on dates. But I also love a good friend date. Not just hanging out, but really going out and doing something [together].

On the future of La Brega:
I’d love for us to keep growing. We did a great job of putting Puerto Rico in conversation with the rest of Latin America [in season 2]. Keep doing that and keep finding ties to explore and things that we have in common. Every day someone is tweeting about either putting an episode in a syllabus or sharing an episode with a loved one. So I’m just really grateful that everything we’ve made so far has really long legs.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

How ‘La Chica de La Brega’ Gets It Done