Sound Ideas

Environmental Radio Does the Unexpected

In the early 1950s, many assumed that the advent of television would make radio obsolete. But radio proved more durable than that. There are now almost 14,000 radio stations across the United States and Canada, according to the 1999 edition of the Broadcasting and Cable Yearbook. A full 5,000 of those stations now have homes on the Internet. Unfortunately, the yearbook still doesn't have a category for the environment (though there was room between “Education” and “Eskimo”).

Courtesy of Living on Earth

Steve Curwood, executive producer and host of NPR's Living on Earth: all-environment radio.

“There's not many of us out there,” acknowledges Steve Wescott, producer of The Environment Show, one of only a handful of syndicated hour-long environmental programs. The Albany-based show is aired on over 200 National Public Radio (NPR) and ABC Radio Network stations; it's also heard around the globe in more than 140 countries via Armed Forces Radio. The purpose of The Environment Show, says Wescott, is “to celebrate nature and the natural world, and to show that everything is interconnected.” The show is hosted by the former president and CEO of the National Audubon Society, Peter Berle, and has been on the air for more than 10 years.

“It's not all doom-and-gloom environmental journalism,” says Wescott. “There are good things going on and it's important to recognize them and talk about them. We just try to focus on the people who are making a difference in the environmental movement.” The show's regular 15-minute “Talking Green” segment, for example, consists of a conference-call discussion with several experts on important environmental issues. “If our show is one of the only ways that people are going to learn what's happening in the environment,” says Wescott, “then that makes what we do very significant.”

As the executive producer and host of NPR's Living on Earth, Steve Curwood shares in Wescott's challenge. “We cover the environment whether there's a sex scandal in the White House or a World Series,” says Curwood, who has been at the show's helm since its first pilot run on Earth Day of 1990. Living on Earth, heard every week on over 230 NPR and other stations, includes news, features, interviews and commentary on a wide range of ecological issues, from the problem of lawnmower smog to whether ecotourism can save rainforests.

The Green Scene, a syndicated program produced in Los Angeles, is billed as a resource for environmentally conscious consumers. The show, which is written and hosted by broadcast journalist Laurie Howell, consists of brief blurbs on everything from how to put an end to junk mail to where to find natural hair conditioners in your own kitchen (pass the mayonnaise, please). GreenWave Radio, a syndicated talk show on business and the environment, sends its message to over 40 commercial radio stations nationwide. The show includes interviews with company leaders, entrepreneurs and organizations to discuss how they're solving environmental issues in their business endeavors.

Earthwatch Radio, first aired in Wisconsin in 1972, is the longest-running radio program on the environment anywhere. Its daily two-minute features, recorded in the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have garnered numerous awards from groups such as the United Nations Environment Programme, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Another Northern prodigy, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium—an environmental news service fed to more than 130 stations in 10 states—consists of in-depth features by independent producers. Recent stories to emerge from this melting pot of environmental radio have included pieces on tracking exotic fish with ID cards and the expanding use of wind power with deregulation.

The ever-popular E-Town, a weekly hour-long, live-music show produced in Boulder, Colorado, has featured guests ranging from Paul Winter to Joan Baez and Rickie Lee Jones. A segment of the show is the bestowal of an “E-Chievement Award,” for which listeners submit tales of noteworthy individuals who are striving to make a positive difference in the environment, whether it be through river clean-up programs, aid for the homeless or other forms of activism.

“Mainstream radio is turning into the audio equivalent of fast food,” says Mark Daley, program director of Zero Population Growth's new Washington, D.C.-based “webcasting” radio station, Zero 24-7. The station can be heard on the Internet 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “What we're doing is more like a funky restaurant where you're not quite sure what's on the menu, but you know you're going to get something a bit different from what everyone else is offering,” says Daley. “And you might not even like some of what you try, but at least you get the chance to experience it yourself.” Billed as the Earth's first green radio station, Zero 24-7 serves up a unique combination of progressive music and progressive issues. On Earth Day 1999, the station aired an entire day's worth of “green” music—that is, songs about the environment, for the environment, and, for added color, songs with the word “green” in the title.

Daley believes the future of radio is here in the form of the personal computer. “We're literally one or two mouse clicks away from a broadcasting revolution—a 'Webolution,' as we call it,” says Daley. “And it's invigorating to be leading the way as far as getting our message across to a global audience.” That message, which can be heard with the help of RealPlayer audio software (, is, according to Daley, not meant to be that of a hard-faced environmentalist barking a mission statement into a microphone. Rather, it's meant to be enjoyable, entertaining and informative.

If the personal computer really is ready to supplant the common stereo and Webcast local radio programming to listeners around the world, then environmental shows are well poised for the transition. In fact, nearly every environmental radio program can also be heard either live or taped on its respective Web site. If people are listening—or, in this technologically advanced world, surfing—the sounds of environmental radio are ready to be heard.