Erika Aguilar: A storyteller finds the road to success leads to NPR
Erika Aguilar (B.A. ’07) started her last semester at Texas State University as the overnight assignment editor at KEYE-TV CBS 42 in Austin. She worked from 11 p.m. to about 7:30 or 8 a.m. and got to her history class in Taylor Murphy Hall at 9:30 a.m.
Those working hours were foreshadowing for her career as a journalist. Today, she is the executive producer for Morning Edition and Up First on National Public Radio (NPR). Aguilar, 37, makes her home Washington, D.C., where she works a six-day week overseeing the day’s news stories and a team of about 40 radio journalists.
“I came to Texas State wanting to do media,” she said. “I was most interested in TV — or TV and video. As a kid I wanted to do a lot of things. I wanted to write, produce sit-coms or dramas on TV.” In high school she helped with the school’s video news programs.
A native of San Antonio, Aguilar was a mass communication electronic media major with a double major in history. “History is all about storytelling. I loved going to lectures, I loved sitting down in class and listening to my professor's talk.”
She said she fell into radio thanks to Dan Schumacher, general manager of KTSW-89.9. Schumacher encouraged her to join the staff of KTSW, explaining that everyone could join the radio station and you didn’t have to be a senior or a mass communication major.
“I worked in the news department and learned how to record interviews and put them together — making news stories in packages that would air on the radio station,” Aguilar said. “They allowed me to start working sooner rather than later.”
It was Schumacher who told Aguilar about NPR. “In the newsroom late one night, Dan asked if I had listened to ‘This American Life.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know what that is.’ He told how he and his wife would turn on NPR Saturday and that’s how they would start their morning.” This, she thought, was pretty cool.
“You get the texture of someone’s voice; you get the background noises. We get to create a theater soundscape for you. If I try to tell you about a new coffee shop that is opening up, you are going to hear the espresso machine and the chit-chatter.
“It is just such a powerful medium and lends itself to storytelling. That’s really what hooked me,” Aguilar said. “I often say I am a journalist by default. But I am an audio storyteller by choice – that is the medium I have chosen.”
Aguilar began her NPR career at member station KUT (90.5) in Austin. By 2011, she was newly married to her husband, Richard Luna. “Richard and I moved to Los Angeles after I began talking to KPCC and Marketplace, which are both generally based in the Los Angeles area. So, we decided to pack up in Austin and head to the West Coast,” Aguilar said.
Later, she took time off to freelance and learn how to make podcasts. In 2017, she landed at San Francisco’s KQED as a housing reporter and afternoon anchor, eventually becoming the podcast director in 2020.
She also taught a class in audio storytelling at the graduate school of the University of California Berkeley. “Teaching forces me to stop and understand how I do something, and why I do something. Then explain it to people. I need to understand at its core what I do,” she said. “There is something really fun about watching people learn.”
Growing up in South Texas, Aguilar said she didn’t really have any journalistic heroes. “There were few role models when I was a kid — people like me, meaning Latina women who were news reporters or journalism leaders.
“I big part of the reason I wake up at ungodly hours and work six days a week — it’s an incredibly hard job — is that I want to make sure there are people coming up after me who are like me and do this job in the future.”
Aguilar was on the TXST San Marcos Campus in early October as part of Mass Communication Week. One question she was asked by students: How do you become more confident? Aguilar said she often feels like she has imposter syndrome. But she added, “It is that willingness to try things, to pivot, evolve, to change. That is where courage, bravery, and fearlessness come from.”
Another question from the audience — how do you determine what is news? “The answer is ever-changing, always evolving. News is new information – whatever is not known from the day before. News can also be old, but new to you.”
It's now been a year since Aguilar began her job as executive producer for Morning Edition. “I am trying to be mindful that we as listeners are inundated with information. News is everywhere we turn. That is another big challenge — how not to overwhelm the listeners,” she said.
“The accelerated pace of news, combined with the pandemic is one of the largest challenges I have in both managing a team and the show. News is everywhere.”
When she isn’t working, Aguilar says she loves running and taking care of her plants. “My friends say, ‘Erika likes to work for fun.’” Making podcasts is another pastime. What makes a good podcast? “Podcasts are for good storytelling, evoking emotions, and falling in love with your host,” she said.