Why it’s time for podcast publishers to engage with climate, on all their shows.
Welcome to the first editorial on Write Hear, Right Now. This will be an attempt to prove the assertion that climate-engaged networks - meaning talking about climate when relevant across their whole slate, rather than on just individual (some may say tokenistic) productions on climate are the superior, and appropriate route forward. But first, an editor’s note.
This editorial may age badly, at least in the particulars of the examples provided. My hope is that this is a good thing, as that means there are better, newer examples in short order than what I’ve provided. In expressing this wish, I am also potentially indicating some belief that this will be the case, which would also indicate a faith in market dynamics. That in the face of demand, supply will follow. As I am new to writing these editorials, and you are new to me (except for you, intrepid archive spelunker) this is a little glimmer of the type of person I am, and the beliefs I hold. So yes, you may count me as someone who attempts to read, and tends to believe, market signals and functions. This is not shared by all members of the climate community - and it makes us stronger for it, with less universally held assumptions, and more room for innovative (radical) thinking. But, in case you were curious what flavour of climate-concerned individual I am, there’s a clue.
So, back to the hope that the examples I provide here will seem quaint or outdated, in some near-future. But, these editorials will be living documents - in the sense that should time and circumstances prove them wrong, or become anachronistic, they’ll be updated, and reposted, to say so. And if my thinking changes, I look forward to revisiting, rethinking, and potentially disagreeing with my past self. There’s a debate I hope to be able to win.
In this editorial you won’t hear my case for why climate-engaged podcasts should join into networks, what those networks should do to further climate engagement in the industry (and the wider public), or why podcasters should be acknowledging climate change if they’re not already. No, these will all be the subjects of future editorials, but today’s is about why those publishers that have already dipped toes in the water, or even submerged a limb, need to tip across the line into full immersion.
Five minutes to midnight
James Hanson is one of the most well-known scientific figures to have raised the alarm about anthropogenic climate change in the 20th century. But for a quick cliff note for those who don’t know, “the first climate prediction computed from a general circulation model that was published by Hansen was in 1988, the same year as his well-known Senate testimony.” (NYT, paywall). Hansen’s Senate testimony that year stated “that "Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming...It is already happening now" (Wikipedia).
Interestingly, and a sign of the era we’re now entering, he’s now “representing his granddaughter as well as "future generations" as plaintiffs in the Juliana v. United States lawsuit, which is suing the United States government and some of its executive branch's positions for not protecting a stable climate system.” a court case you can follow in this podcast, but more on that to come from Write Hear.
But James Hansen’s is of course far from the first, and by no means only, call of alarm to be raised about the climate crisis. I raise this particular history lesson though just to point out how recent climate podcasts are, in that context. Sure, podcasting may only be 15~ years old, but the hunt is on for the oldest climate podcast. The strongest contender so far, and I hope this to be a continuing, crowdsourced investigation (please let me know if you have one older to report), is the ClimateOne series from the Commonwealth Club of California. First published February 28, 2007. A venerable, respected member of the community, with an estimated monthly listenership of 20-30k.
I want to compare this decade and a half of dogged publishing of regular townhall meetings from the good people of the Commonwealth Club of California with the podcast production on the climate crisis from, possibly, the world’s most respected news service. Auntie. The Beeb. The British Broadcasting Corporation. Being the globally respected ‘giant’ it is, we’ll look at two examples of how the BBC is producing climate-engaged podcasts - representing differing approaches, before I humbly suggest what I believe to be a better model.
The long-running (1,200+ episodes) BBC series The Documentary has featured climate topics in many episodes. I found 22 episodes that included ‘climate’ in their shownotes. Yes, that’s 1.8%. Three episodes formed a miniseries from 2015 that not only addressed climate change, but titled them as such.
And across those 22 episodes much quality reporting was undoubtedly done. Individual nations' responses to climate change explained, the mitigation actions for reducing their carbon emissions and transitioning their economies explored, their adaptation measures to prepare for a warmer, more energetic, and possibly more violent world to come expounded upon.
What’s wrong with this approach? Of dropping in climate topics, as and when appropriate, into a headline program from the world’s prestige audio documentarian? Well, nothing. Climate of course should be there in that feed.
But us humans have a tendency to equate prevalence with importance. Replace ‘climate’ as a search term with ‘Trump’ and you’ll find 55 episodes from The Documentary concerned with the global ramifications of the election of one man.
And yes Trump deserved coverage, especially the scrutiny and investigation that long-form audio documentary provides. But, I would argue that receiving, within the space of only 4 years of global relevance, 150% more coverage than global warming, speaks to the flaws in this approach of one feed, dragged in the direction of the crisis of the day. Climate has been, and will likely remain in this model, perpetually important, but always less so than the most pressing concerns of any particular day, as The Documentary shows us.
The dedicated show
Less charitably, this model is also called tokenism. And, this is the approach one may argue was taken by the startup turned music aggregator turned podcast publisher and would-be category-eater Spotify with their Gimlet production house with How To Save A Planet.
There’s a lot to be said about Spotify (of course about podcasting, but also the climate/podcast interface), Gimlet, and whether Spotify-exclusive shows should even be called podcasts. And we’ll get there.
But a quick aside that Gimlet, with a show specifically about not only climate change, but climate solutions, the co-host of the ‘successful by any measure’ Reply All, the halo show of Gimlet, took the time to release an episode about climate change. He (Alex Goldman) said about the episode - “I feel like I am so mad about what’s happening, and the lack of attention that’s being paid to this thing, and I have no power to change it in any way.”...
Taking one of your episodes to tell the story of writing “a song of impotent rage” in the face of the climate crisis, while on the same network your boss labors to bring a show full of solutions, and ultimately hope, to an audience a fraction the size of your own. Well, that’d take what some would call ‘guts’...
But it raises the question of, why are the shows of Gimlet acting like How To Save A Planet doesn’t exist? This is a bigger question and one I’ll revisit in future. An editor would insist this tangent on Gimlet be removed, or at least moved and marked as such, a tangent. And my inner editor instincts are screaming at me to do so. Alas, that voice is not quite loud enough.
Steaming right along, full circle, back to the BBC. They launched a dedicated climate show, so each time an episode is published it returns to hit the climate nail on the head. The Climate Question is it’s name, and it was launched November 2nd, 2020. After years of climate-covering drop-in episodes in their other shows, the BBC assumedly saw demand for a more consistent stream of climate content (so my market instincts tell me). This show is the answer. In less than a year, their audience is estimated to exceed the venerable ClimateOne, with 35-55k monthly downloads.
So, great, a podcast with a team, a budget, and a remit to cover, contextualise, and communicate on climate each and every episode. What’s there to critique here? Can’t you just be happy, Mark?
Well, I am. I love this show! Unlike a series spun up for a political season, or to investigate a scandal, a plane crash, a (😱) true crime, a series that applies investigative journalism to climate has a long runway. In fact the runway extends over the horizon, beyond our sight. Even if (when?) we stabilise global temperature rise to 1.5°C (impossible), or 2°, or 3°… the stories about climate aren’t exactly going away.
But, a show about climate isn’t about climate. Not for long. Already, in just 40+ episodes, the Climate Question has covered international financing, behaviour change methodologies and approaches, and football… to name a few. Because, strangely enough to have to explain to some, what’s interesting and important about climate change isn’t the atmospheric, land or marine science. It’s the intersection with socio-political systems, how and what we eat, where (and how) we live, that are the stories of climate change. I’d argue every episode of The Climate Question could be a topic for The Documentary, to stay with these two BBC stablemates. But, perversely, the higher-ups at the BBC are now running a gauntlet when approving ‘climate’ stories for the ‘non-climate’ programs. Because, ‘there’s a space for that, over on that show about climate change’.
Am I saying that while I like both of these shows, I’m unhappy with both models? Yes. Because I want…
Why not both? A climate-engaged network.
The climate crisis is a looming threat in the darkness, like an iceberg that’s wandered into the shipping lanes.
For us to stay safe, for which we need to be informed, I want a roving spotlight. The producers of the niche shows, exploring their areas of passion, and when they come across a startling, surprising, or even just an obvious overlap with the climate crisis, that they don’t flinch away, but go where that story takes them. To flesh out the human, visceral ways that climate change has and will continue to change our lived experience.
And I also want the rotating light, the lamp from the lighthouse. Those consistent, predictable passes from dedicated shows, like The Climate Question, that scan the horizon of our understanding of the threat, going a little deeper each time.
To have both doesn’t guarantee our safety, but both are necessary for the task of mentally grappling with the enormity of climate change, by bringing it down to the human level, as often as possible.
To revisit The Documentary. How many of those Trump episodes, for example, had obvious climate angles and implications, that were cut for the sake of editorial clarity, length, or other concern? I’d put £10 on there having been climate angles cut from at least some of them.
The BCC becoming the titular ideal of a ‘climate-engaged publisher’ wouldn’t necessarily see ‘climate’ rank higher than any other news topic in a search of episodes. It isn’t a prescription to see ‘climate’ coverage increase by a minimum of 50%, or 100%. There’s no green star or tick or certification.
Each publisher’s content is different, their beat, their area of focus. But undoubtedly if the BBC, the state broadcaster of one of the world’s leading nations on climate action, becomes a climate-engaged publisher it would mean an increase in that particular metric.
And that’s the reality I hope to see in the short-term, rendering this editorial moot.