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Airwaves Activist ~ Public Radio’s Steve Curwood Empowers Listeners to Aid Planet Earth

As creator, executive producer and host of Living on Earth, the weekly environmental news program broadcast since 1990, first distributed by National Public Radio and more recently by Public Radio International, Steve Curwood keeps millions of people informed on leading environmental topics. Broadcast on more than 250 public radio stations nationwide, the program has garnered a host of accolades, including three from the Society of Environmental Journalists and two Radio and Television News Directors Association Edward R. Murrow awards.

In-depth interviews and onsite tapings bring subjects to life for listeners. Movers and shakers, innovators and grassroots organizers explain complex issues in understandable terms. Updates of previously aired segments sometime point to what has changed since a piece first aired. Here, Curwood reflects on his own key learnings.

What do you believe is the most important environmental challenge we currently face?

Hands down, global warming and the associated disruption of Earth’s operating systems is the biggest risk that we run right now. If we continue to get this wrong—and right now we’re not getting it right—it’s going to destroy the ability of our civilization to proceed as it has been. Everything else operates within the envelope of the environment. There’s no food, economy, family or anything else good if we don’t have a habitable planet.

As Living on Earth approaches its silver anniversary, what stands out to you as having changed the most over the years?

One thing that is new and important is an understanding of the power of coal to disrupt the climate. Massachusetts Institute of Technology research shows that using natural gas energy has about three-quarters of the impact of coal over its lifetime, and work at other universities and government agencies supports that finding. Another way to put this is that coal shoots at the environment with four bullets while natural gas does it with three. It also raises serious questions about whether we should be making massive infrastructure changes to use natural gas when we already have that infrastructure for coal, and why we shouldn’t instead be moving to clean and renewable energy sources that don’t destroy the climate system.

Can you cite the single highest-impact segment enabling NPR to tangibly help forward changes benefiting the environment?

I believe that in 1992 we were the first national news organization to do environmental profiles of presidential candidates, prompting follow-up by ABC News, The Wall Street Journal and others. That signaled the greatest impact—that other news organizations felt it was important. A number of media picked up on the idea and started doing those kinds of profiles... not always, not everywhere, but frequently. Presidential candidates can now expect to be asked questions about their positions on the environment.

How much does listener feedback and interaction influence your selection of topics?

When we launched the program, surveys showed that only 14 percent of the public cared about the question of global warming, which means 86 percent didn’t care, but we thought the story was important and stuck with it. People do care about their health, so we pay a lot of attention to environmental health stories, particularly eco-systems that support healthy living, from clean water to the vital roles of forests to the toxic risks we run from certain manmade chemicals. That’s really important to people, and listeners are quite vocal on such subjects.

There’s a phrase, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” If we just relied on listeners to tell us what we should tell them, we wouldn’t be educating them. On the other hand, it’s equally important to cover what listeners are curious about, because they can also educate us. It’s a two-way street.

Randy Kambic, in Estero, FL, is a freelance writer, editor and contributor to Natural Awakenings.

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