Island Unto Itself
TV Reporter Susan Soltero’s Beat Is the Perils of Puerto Rico’s Fast-Changing Environment
Susan Soltero is a self-described big fish in a small pond, an award-winning SEJ member who is the environmental reporter and the senior meteorologist at WLII- TV, the Univision affiliate in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Ms. Soltero and her environmental reporting colleague at Telemundo station WKAQ-TV, Sylvia Gomez, were recently honored by the Puerto Rico House of Representatives for their work. For Ms. Soltero, it was the latest in a long list of honors that includes a regional Emmy Award, being recognized for excellence in environmental reporting by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2006 and being awarded “Reporter of the Year” by the Lions Clubs of Puerto Rico in 2005.
But Ms. Soltero told TelevisionWeek that instead of more awards, she would like to see more action on issues that impact the environment on the island nation of 4 million people, and more resources.
“We are different than Hawaii. We haven’t been as careful, and we’re playing catch-up,” said Ms. Soltero. “The sea level is rising about one quarter-inch a year and combined with hurricanes, more tropical rain showers are creating severe erosion of our beaches. We’re a very Caribbean country, living off of tourism like other developing countries—with these issues coming at us really fast. People are resistant to change. Everyone wants to look away, and it’s happening at a rapid pace.”
She reports daily on the noon newscast in a 3½-minute segment “Susan en su Ambiente” (“Susan in the Environment”) that features science, nature and survival stories on everything from protecting endangered species such as manatees to waste disposal and protection of coral reefs. There is never a shortage of issues on which to report.
“Puerto Rico generates a huge amount of carbon dioxide compared to other countries,” she said. “Every family has three cars, and people don’t walk. We don’t know what solar panels are. ... We don’t ride our bikes, because there are no incentives to ride bikes. We have been a colony since 1492 and have a colonial mentality. We live on handouts from the U.S., and until it hits us in the pocketbook, we don’t change. We’re changing because it costs a lot to power our air conditioning. We’re moving in that direction, but it’s taking a lot of time.”
Ms. Soltero has been reporting on the environment for nearly 20 years. She began her broadcasting career in 1982 as a news intern at WDIV-TV in Detroit before going on to report at another station in the market, WJBK-TV. She then anchored the news at stations in Casper and Cheyenne, Wyo., before becoming the environmental reporter at KHQ-TV in Spokane, Wash., in 1989. She has been in her current position since 1992 and is also the senior meteorologist on the three-hour morning news block.
“When I first arrived here, I brought something different: a U.S. style of reporting to the environment. At the time, not many people knew there were manatees in Puerto Rico. I went swimming with them,” Ms. Soltero recalled. “People have known me as the adventurous environmental reporter. When I got here, everybody sat on set and looked pretty and didn’t get muddy or their hair messed up. I managed to raise awareness. With my offbeat style, I’ve managed to mix humor with science, and hopefully, eventually that will make a difference down here.”
Working on the island has raised her own awareness of the many issues that are specific to the marketplace—which is about the size of Denver’s—and to the Latin culture.
“We depend heavily on tourism, and yet tourism doesn’t invest very much in upkeep of local beaches, and there is a lot of garbage, which is very frustrating,” said Ms. Soltero. “We’re one of the most densely populated countries in the world. They spend a huge amount on promoting the island but invest less than 1 percent in maintenance and cleaning it up, so what does that tell you? We need to change priorities.”
She has extensive experience covering weather emergencies, most notably 1998’s Hurricane Georges, in which the station received a 98% share of the audience while she was on the air.
“We live in a great country, a jewel of an island, and we need to take care of it better,” Ms. Soltero said. “The audience is very supportive and I get a lot of awards, but I would love to see more change and I feel like I’m swimming against the current. People are very conscious, and want to do something, but it’s a big challenge for the near future.”