Amy Westervelt makes the world’s
best climate podcasts
Here’s what she’s listening to
Top brain-food from the journalist and founder of the trailblazing Critical Frequency Podcast Network
Amy Westervelt is the OG when it comes to making max-impact podcasts about the climate emergency.
Just over five years ago the former-print investigative journalist was working in U.S. public radio, and felt confined by her employer’s approach to making audio content. Because of what she felt were the seemingly endless angles, approaches and voices by which to interrogate the most urgent story of our times – she went independent and launched Critical Frequency, a women-run podcast production network.
The founding philosophy of the venture is exactly what they’ve become renowned for: rigorous reporting and inventive storytelling that “delve into the complex issues facing society today”. Early on, there were plenty of hurdles to jump: not least tiresome rejections she had when pitching ideas to the established podcast platforms, only to be rebuffed.
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“Everyone told me that there just wasn’t enough of an audience for narrative climate podcasts to justify the cost, versus like, the talk shows for climate. I was just convinced that they were wrong,” she says.
Spurred on, she went solo, and has gone on to make chart-topping award-winning podcasts like Drilled, Inherited, Damages and Rigged. If these were books they’d be considered foundational texts in their genre and they’ve deservedly catapulted Amy and her team’s work to national and international recognition.
All of which is to say Amy is a true leader in climate emergency communications – a trailblazing figure in bringing its stories and voices to light. Therefore, who better than to share the climate podcasts she has queued up on her phone?
Of her choices, she notes: “For me, it’s all about the story. The story is important. And then, it’s also when I feel like audio is the perfect medium to tell that story. That it brings in some element that wouldn’t have existed in print or video.”
7 shows Amy is listening to
“The first season really hooked me because it was about bison, and it’s an unusual way in! It launched out of a public radio station in Wyoming – so the bison thing then makes a little bit more sense.
There was a policy that was being proposed around hunting in the area, and around various things that were being proposed, in order to help protect the migratory path of the bison.
There was a lot of squabbling between ranchers and hunters and environmentalists and business people and the tourism business in the area. All these different lenses onto this issue. Threshold did such a good job of enabling listeners to put themselves in the shoes of each of those groups of people.
They really put you – as the listener – in the place. They’ve gone on to do a bunch of good seasons since then, like one on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The way climate stories get told in the media in general is always so dry and serious and science-based. It takes a while to kind of get yourself out of that mindset and look for the stories.
“It was one of the first ones to take a true crime approach to the targeting of environmental activists. The podcast tells the story of Berta Caceres, who was an environmental activist in Honduras murdered in 2016. They tell this whole story about who killed her and what that has to do with addressing environmental issues in general.
I knew this story going into listening but it was still like, ‘oh, what happens next?’ They did a great job of including local voices in Honduras, which podcasts don’t always do.
It’s a podcast that tells a story about someone in a place that most people outside of that place don’t know about and wouldn’t feel some connection, but they made it compelling for anyone. That’s a real feat to pull off.
This American Life
“They spent so many years never touching climate podcasts, and in fact, word on the street was that it was taboo to even pitch climate stories to them. But anyway, This American Life has started to do climate episodes, and they’ve done a really good job.
They did a story on this thing that terrifies me, which is “managed retreat”. They focused on this small town in northern California. I had lived near there for a period of time. It’s like the most bureaucratic term, but it basically means: how are we going to move people out of the areas that we know are going to be uninhabitable in the next 20 years? I’m like, what are all of the many implications of that? That was really interesting.
Then they just did an episode on this school. There was this town in California that burned down entirely in the wildfire season a couple years ago called Paradise. All of the kids got displaced so they formed a temporary school in a warehouse in a town several miles away.
This reporter happened to be from the town, and went to the place with the makeshift school and spent time with the kids, some of whose parents believe in air guns and climate change, and some who don’t. She got great tape from the teachers who were trying to teach a unit about climate change to these kids who were suddenly climate refugees. You could totally see how some of these families had been indoctrinated with these ideas [climate skepticism], and how much it was like part of their group identity in a way that made it hard for them to change their minds.
It was empathetic to everyone in the story. So yeah, This American Life, finally covering climate and doing a good job.
Scene on Radio
“I don’t know if this is breaking the rules, because I did co host their climate season recently? I had been like a huge fan of this show before they reached out and asked me to work on it.
They do such a good job of narrative history. Previous to climate season, they had series on the creation of race, on the creation of patriarchy, and on the promises of democracy in the U.S. and why they still haven’t been delivered.
They laid all this groundwork for, like, here’s how power structures work, and then did a season on the climate crisis. I learned a bunch from doing that show. Especially about the religious underpinnings of how we think about the environment and nature. Always a good job on the research!
Will be Wild
“I just consumed this recently. I even paid to get episodes early which is not a thing I ever do. It’s about the January 6th insurrection in the U.S. – but more than just that. It’s about disinformation and political instability, which to me are sort of like the big blockers to climate action.
I’m generally interested in stories that look at how, what I call, “information pollution” has been created, and the impacts of that on the stability of society. That show really gets into that. That’s my outlier choice!
“It’s so good. I think the makers of this podcast probably make the most effort, or spend the most time, on sound design of any climate and environment shows. They described themselves as being for audiophiles and nature lovers. It’s about the relationship between humans and nature.
Every episode is either about a different ecosystem, animal or species. It’s really creative. The storytelling is great. The sound design is great. They put all of that to work into stories about ecology, which aren’t traditionally super immersive and grabby.
I feel like they have a slightly smaller audience than some of the other picks. Highly recommend it.
The podcast is about the role of farmers in climate, which is great. It’s focussed on the Midwest, which is not an area where much climate reporting or podcasts focus on.
Each episode is a story about a farmer who is grappling with, and trying to deal with, climate change. It’s a window into how these people – who are sometimes cast as not giving a shit about climate change or like actively opposing climate action – but they’re more aware of what’s happening with weather and the land than anyone.
There’s a range. There are some who don’t explicitly talk about it as climate action and then at the other end of the spectrum you’ve got people who’re part of carbon sequestration. Basically, it’s a good window into a demographic that you don’t hear from much in podcasts necessarily.
5 shows with purpose from Critical Frequency
Law & Order meets the climate crisis: Damages is a courtroom drama podcast that follows the well over 200 climate lawsuits currently active in courtrooms all over the world. Ranging from explanatory episodes to docuseries to narrative seasons, it’s a show about the quest for justice and a crime against humanity: the climate crisis. Launching Winter 2022.
From war to cigarettes, guns to GMOs to global warming, there are really only a handful of techniques that have been deployed over the past 125 years or so to shape and control public opinion, to make the masses an unwitting tool of the few and powerful. Rigged is a website, archive, and podcast on the history of corporate-funded disinformation. It catalogues the most effective techniques and narratives cooked up by the legends of the PR industry on behalf of every other U.S. industry.
Drilled is a narrative, investigative climate accountability podcast. The show is reported, hosted, and produced by award-winning climate journalist Amy Westervelt. The show and its companion website are part of the Covering Climate Now initiative, syndicating reporting to various national and local outlets. Drilled was awarded the Online News Association award for excellence in audio storytelling in 2019, named “best green podcast” in the iHeartRadio awards in 2020, and has been praised by The New Yorker, The Guardian, Fast Company, and many more.
Inherited is a reported, narrative podcast by, for, and about youth climate activists. We don’t choose the world we inherit, but we do get to decide what we’re going to do with it. Inherited explores what the next generation plans to do with its inheritance. The show is created, hosted, and produced by youth climate activists Georgia Wright and Julianna Bradley. The show has been featured in The New York Times and on the CBS Morning Show.
Hot Take is a holistic, irreverent talk show about climate and the media. Climate justice essayist Mary Annaise Heglar and journalist Amy Westervelt tackle the climate saga, all the ways we’re talking and not talking about it, and how that conversation influences everything from politics to your favorite Netflix series. Their conversations with journalists and thinkers like Rhiana Gunn-Wright, Eric Holthaus, Kate Aronoff, David Wallace-Wells and more shift effortlessly from critical analysis of race, gender, and climate to dad jokes. If you’re looking for a climate show where people talk like humans, process real emotions, have an honest conversation about how climate change intersects with race, class, gender and literally everything – and who’s really to blame – complete with air horns… Hot Take is for you.
What’s so good about this?
Oftentimes it’s stories people connect with, rather than cold, hard facts – no matter how striking they are. Amy Westervelt knew there would be podcast listeners out there who would drink-up the myriad ways the climate emergency can be explored – from the injustices to the opportunities – and guess what? Despite some finger-wagging gatekeepers, her gut has proved instinctively right. All the more reason to trust her listening tips.
Amy Westervelt is the co-founder of Critical Frequency Podcast Network.
Meet the writer
Greg Cochrane is a journalist, podcaster and content maker – mostly found writing and talking about the colliding worlds of climate action and popular culture. Formerly of BBC Radio 1 and the digital editor at NME, he once proclaimed The Kooks to be better than Arctic Monkeys. But don’t hold that against him – give his music/climate podcast Sounds Like A Plan a spin, and follow his scattered recommendations at @Gregcochrane