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Alicia Menendez: Fusion's Breakout Star

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In this week's Miami New Times, we profile 30 of the most interesting characters in town, with portraits of each from photographer Stian Roenning. See the entire Miami New Times People Issue here.

How can a news show stand out in the age of 24-hour-a-day screaming Nancy Graces and nonstop nonnews coverage? "If you are young, you know all of the news by the time you get home," Alicia Menendez says of her barely year-old show, AM Tonight. "So at 9 o'clock at night, my job isn't to tell you the news. It's to tell you why it matters."

The 31-year-old has become the breakout star of Fusion, the Doral-based cable news network joint gamble of Univision and ABC News to capture the increasingly diverse (and increasingly Hispanic) millennial audience by dropping the round-the-clock alarmism of competitors and, as Menendez puts it, presenting conversations that viewers might have with their friends.

Instead of breathless coverage of the criminal trials of murderous moms or the back-and-forth bickering of partisan talking heads, the show presents calm but often sharp and humorous discussions of deeper issues.

Menendez points out a segment in which she allowed transgender activist and Marie Claire contributing editor Janet Mock to turn the tables and ask her the type of questions Mock is often asked by journalists.

"Do you have a vagina?" Mock asked of a taken-aback Menendez.

"We sort of momentarily won the internet," Menendez says of the much-blogged-about segment. "To this day I still have people coming up to me, saying, 'You and Janet really changed the way I thought about this.' Which is why I got into media."

The show also mixes in interviews with up-and-coming entertainers and Buzzfeed-like comedy pieces. A recent episode featured an "in memoriam" segment for discontinued but beloved cereal flavors.

If Menendez's show seems unconventional, perhaps it's because her path to the media was equally atypical.

Growing up in Union City, she originally planned a future in elected politics by following in the footsteps of her father, New Jersey's Cuban-American senator, Robert Menendez. A Harvard education and an interest in politics garnered her a gig as a senior advisor for the New Democratic Network think tank, and with it came invitations to appear as a pundit on cable news shows. She appeared on Bill O'Reilly's show, The O'Reilly Factor, numerous times and gained attention for calmly holding her own with the notoriously vociferous Fox News host.

She then accepted an invitation to join the Huffington Post's online network, HuffPost Live, before she was eventually approached to join Fusion. The fact that her then-boyfriend and now-fiancé happened to live in Miami and that the town reminds her of Union City helped make the decision to relocate from the Northeast easier.

By keeping a spotlight on issues she cares about, Menendez hopes to forge connections with an audience that hasn't seen its voice reflected in more traditional cable shows.

"Any issue that's a fundamental issue of quality, whether that is marriage equality, equal pay for equal work," she says, "those are my very favorite issues."

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