A Team of Journo Punks

Issue #19

"Independent" or "freelance" has proceeded almost of all my titles. Writer, musician, community music teacher, journalist. I've consistently chosen the freedom of steering my own ship over the comfort of being part of a pre-established system. I don't think this is a virtue or a vice. It just seems to be how I'm wired.

But I'm also wired for human connection. I love learning from other people, laughing with them, being challenged by them. I do like my solitude, and need decent-sized chunks of it in order to generate my best work. But I haven't chosen this indie route because I want isolation. Quite to the contrary, one of my biggest dreams is to be part of a smart, sparky team, in which everyone is contributing ideas and feels actively engaged in making something we believe in. I think that's how you're most likely to end up with a product you can feel proud of and a process you've really enjoyed. That's what I want.

And right now, thanks to Team Threshold, I'm getting a taste of that. A truly phenomenal group has formed around this show and I want to take a moment to highlight their contributions. Here's a brief rundown on the crew:

Zöe Rom and Nick Mott are graduate students at CU Boulder, Jackson Barnett is an undergrad. They are running social media, giving feedback on drafts, creating the website, making videos, mapping bison herds, editing my 1,000+ photos, writing press releases, fact checking, assembling an outreach list, planning a release party, helping me think through endless questions, figuring out what our next series will be about (and the next one after that), experimenting with new ideas, the list goes on and on. We're calling them interns but they feel like staff. (Minus a paycheck though. If you'd like to help provide some compensation for them, please donate to the project on Patreon by clicking the yellow button below.)

Montana Public Radio contributed start-up funds, is helping to promote the show, and (big reveal!) will be airing Threshold in February. (Yes!) I've loved this station from the moment I pulled into Missoula in late 1999, and I'm very proud to have their support. Huge thanks to News Director Eric Whitney and Development Director Linda Talbot for initiating this collaboration, and to Online Editor Josh Burnham for providing tons of technical support, strategic thinking, project planning/coordination, cheerleading, feedback and more. There are others to thank at MTPR but at the risk of just naming the entire staff, I'll leave it at that for now.

Travis Yost is making the music. And it's super rad.

Stef Koehler made our logo. Also super rad.

Ross Taylor, a photojournalist and professor here at CU, is giving feedback on drafts and is helping with the website.

And there are others!

After Threshold launches, my main job will be to get the funding in place to take this project to the next level. And that's all about people, that's all about the team. Anything that's going to have an impact, anything that's going to last, anything that's going to grow and develop and live up to its potential takes a team. It takes people. People who need to be paid. I knew that already, but my experience with this particularly wonderful team is helping me to really know it.

I want it all -- collaboration and independence, the community of the newsroom and the freedom of the freelancer. In short: I want to lead a team of journo punks. I think we can create that here at Threshold HQ. I think maybe we already are.

High Five, Team T.

Next meeting? Trust falls.

~ Amy

Story on PRI's "The World"

Issue #18

Last week, I told you some of the backstory on the reporting I was doing on potential cuts to NASA Earth Science under the incoming Trump administration.

This week, my story about this aired on PRI's The World. It was my first piece for them and I really enjoyed working with them. Good people.

I'm going to leave it at that for now, other than noting that one of the photos in the online version of the story was by Threshold intern and all-around great human, Nick Mott.

~ Amy

Report on Reporting: Cuts to NASA Earth?

Issue #17

The day before Thanksgiving, The Guardian published this story. The headline -- "Trump to Scrap NASA Climate Research in Crackdown on ‘Politicized Science’" -- was alarming.

The story sent me on a mission to track down the facts. I'm still in the middle of that mission, actually. By next week I'll have a more complete response to share. But this much is clear already: that headline overstated the issue. Robert Walker, the person quoted in the piece, does not (yet) have an official position in the Trump administration. He is apparently a "senior advisor."

Is it newsworthy that someone with the president-elect's ear thinks we should drastically reduce funding for scientific monitoring of the Earth's systems -- from fire to hurricanes to sea level rise? Yes. Is his notion that NASA Earth produces "politicized science" worth questioning? Absolutely.

But none of this equates to the certainty of that headline. We don't know that the Trump administration is going to scrap climate research. We don't even know how much Mr. Trump is listening to Mr. Walker.

At this point, I've reached out to Mr. Walker, the Trump transition team, seven members of Congress, and two researchers from conservative think tanks. The only one who responded to me was Mr. Walker, and that was to say he couldn't talk.

I've also spoken with several scientists to try to get a handle on what these cuts would mean if they actually became reality. One of those scientists was Steve Running, Chairman of the Earth Science Subcommittee for NASA’s Advisory Council. That conversation was on Montana Public Radio last night, you can hear it here.

As I work on this story, I'm in a bit of an internal dilemma. Should I be worrying about trying to confirm or deny statements by an advisor whose status within the new administration is largely unknown? Is this a good use of airspace and the public's time and attention? And my own?

I landed on a yes to all of these questions. Here's why. If Mr. Walker was speaking out of turn, and these threats to slash funding for Earth science at NASA are his own private pipe dream, then the Trump administration has done nothing to clarify that. The fact that they've been silent on it could mean...anything. They could be ignoring him. They might totally disagree with him. Or maybe they're totally in support of him. We have no idea.

With that much space (no pun intended) left open, it seems necessary to at least consider the possibility that dramatic claims like Mr. Walker's are actually going to make it into the realm of serious policy initiatives. The scientists I've spoken with say this seems unlikely, but they also say...who knows, really? If the public has a strong reaction for or against proposals like this, perhaps that will help shape the conversation. So in this way, playing the "what if" game has some merit in my opinion.

But only to a point. I think it's important to rein in sensationalism, fear-mongering and general freaking out. Mr. Walker is not running a Congressional committee or leading an agency. A title like "senior advisor" is easily bestowed and easily rescinded. His level of influence is unknown.

That's some of the "behind the scenes" happening around this story. I welcome your feedback, both to these thoughts and to this interview. And I'll have more for you on this soon, including thoughts from former NASA Chief Scientist, Waleed Abdalati.

~ Amy

Adaptation

Issue #16

Adaptation is crucial for survival. Species that cannot adapt quickly enough to changes in their environment – say, a shift in the climate, or the introduction of a new predator – go extinct. You can’t sit around wringing your hands, wishing the world was different, the way it was before. You have to face reality, and rise to meet it.

Today, I met with Team Threshold to discuss whether our plan for the show needs to shift in response to the election. We decided that it does. This election demands that we adapt.


Why?

The president-elect has promised to weaken or destroy major environmental laws, and has said he would like to abolish the EPA altogether. Whether this makes you want to shout with glee or hang your head in despair, one thing is clear: this is a big deal. This is not the typical squabbling between the right and the left – the new administration is promising an all-out assault on the basic infrastructure of our environmental protections.

Much of that infrastructure was put into place in the 1970s with bi-partisan support. The Endangered Species Act, for instance, was approved unanimously in the Senate, and passed the House on a 390 – 12 vote. And it was signed, with a flourish, by President Richard Nixon. That was December 28, 1973. I was just over a year old, so I didn’t know that protecting endangered plants and animals was a partisan thing. But then, neither did anybody else. At that point, taking care of the planet was seen as a universal value, an American value, and also, pragmatically, part of taking care of ourselves.

It’s hard to imagine that, looking back now. And in another 40-some years, we’ll look back at this moment, trying to understand what led up to it, and what it means. What will we see? Will this election mark the end of an era – is this the turning point, when we’ve decided that our air, water, and soil are clean enough, and that it’s costing us too much to try to protect them further? Is this when we will firmly decide to do nothing in regard to climate change, when we begin to let species go extinct without intervention, when we begin to privatize our public lands?

Maybe. But of course, we don’t really know. We don’t have a clear policy agenda to discuss, just a string of threats and rhetoric. So, this may end up not being a dramatic moment for the environment at all. Things could continue more as less as usual. (Of course, the "usual" has plenty of drama in it as well.) Or something else entirely may happen – some combination of policies we can’t quite imagine yet.

I’m not interested in making predictions. I’m interested in documenting what happens.

I think Threshold is well-positioned to serve an important purpose at this critical time. We have a special combination of commitments -- to truth-telling, to empathy, to getting out into the field, to science, and to the power of story. When I started creating this show over a year ago, I wanted to make a space where it might be possible for people on opposing sides of an issue to really hear each other, or at least, to not hate each other. I think that’s our only hope for substantive progress.


Those intentions seem even more important now. So let me be clear – when I say we’re adapting, we’re not abandoning those guiding principles. We’re thinking about more ways of enacting them.

I’m not ready to describe exactly what we’re going to do – we need to do it a bit first – but I wanted you to know that we are on this. We see what a significant moment this is, and we are going to respond to it. We’re going to adapt, rise to meet the challenges at hand. And to be honest, I think we are about to kick some serious ass.

Stay tuned. And thank you,

Amy
 

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Whatever Happens

Issue #14

"If someone is playing a competitive game, but they're pretty poor at the game, they can still radiate confidence. Not the confidence that they're going to win the game. They might lose. But the confidence that their self-worth, their peace, their well-being, is not dependent on winning or losing the game."

This is from a podcast I listen to sometimes called Audio Dharma. It's a completely un-fancy show. You hit play, someone clears their throat or shuffles around a little bit, and then they start talking. The speakers aren't introduced or even named. There's no whoop-dee-do, no attempt to convince listeners that the person we're about to hear is a Big Deal. I think that's why I'm able to take in the talks deeply sometimes -- because no one's trying to tell me I should. I don't claim Buddhism or any other religion, and I loathe being evangelized by any group. I rarely listen to an entire talk from start to finish. And being the iconoclast I am, I almost always want to challenge something I hear.

But often something lands in me, too. Some story or turn of phrase drops in with a little thud of truth. Like that quote above. I heard it this morning while eating an egg on toast and watching the steam rise out of my tea cup in the sunlight. Here it is again:

"If someone is playing a competitive game, but they're pretty poor at the game, they can still radiate confidence. Not the confidence that they're going to win the game. They might lose. But the confidence that their self-worth, their peace, their well-being, is not dependent on winning or losing the game."

So often, confidence is confused with certainty: "I know I can do this," "I'm sure I'll win." And also grandiosity: "I'm the best."

But this image of the not-very-skilled-game-player puts certainty in one category, confidence in another. I love this. It feels right to me. True confidence doesn't have to be certain. It's not bulletproof or boastful. It's something much more flexible, humble and resilient than that. It wears a smile, it can laugh at itself, it can try hard with no guarantee of fabulous results.

I think of myself playing ping-pong. I'm terrible at that game. But could I "radiate confidence" while I play, knowing that my "well-being is not dependent on winning or losing the game?" Maybe. What about with something nearer and dearer to my heart, like creating a new podcast? Harder. But possible maybe?

It's something to ponder. Something to aim for. I think this is the confidence I need to see me through big creative projects -- including the big creative project called life. Quoting from that talk again, it's a "confidence that we can find our way whatever happens."

Here's a link to the talk. It's called "Anxiety and Lack of Confidence."

And here's to a week of nourishing the voices inside us and around us that radiate that smiling, soft confidence which doesn't depend on winning or losing to be OK.

~ Amy

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A Chorus of Co-Writers

Issue #13

One of the coolest – and hardest – things about making Threshold is sorting through all of the recorded interviews I’ve done. We call these recordings “the tape” in the radio biz, even though it isn’t actually tape any more, and hasn’t been for years.

I did more than 65 interviews for this first series. This translates to hundreds of hours of tape that I’m now listening to, seeking those few choice bits to put in the show. This is more tape than I’ve ever grappled with in the past, and I’m still learning how to work with it efficiently and well. It’s a tricky and fascinating process.


I could think of the tape in a variety of ways. Ingredients for making a meal, tiles to be placed in a mosaic, daubs of paint on the palette. But all of these analogies imply that the tape is there to help me tell a story of my own design. Instead, I’m coming to see my interviewees as my co-writers – they’re not just fitting into a story I’ve written, they are helping me to design what that story is.

Here’s what this means in more concrete terms. As I sort through my mountain of tape, I could say to myself, “I want this part of the show to say X. Now who did I interview who said X?” I could then go find that piece of tape and plunk it down into the narrative I’ve already created.

Instead, I’m trying to say something more like, “I’m interested in exploring X. Now who did I interview who said something related to that?” Then I go find those people, and listen to them. If I’m open to whatever they said, instead of panning for the one piece of gold I’ve decided I need to find, I’m often surprised by what I hear. I discover new things. I hear emotions, questions, opinions that I didn’t catch at the time, or that I’d forgotten about. I start to notice connections; people start talking to each other through the tape. Things start to get messy, and complicated, and difficult, and much more interesting.

That’s when I feel like I’m really on to something. That’s when I feel like I’m not the only one writing this show. Instead, a whole chorus of co-writers are singing, shouting, making emphatic points, pleading for understanding, opening up their hearts, cracking jokes. It gets really noisy sometimes! And confusing. But in the end, I think it’s going to make for a much better show than anything I could have created on my own.

It comes down to power dynamics, I think. To create the intimacy and empathy I’m going for with Threshold – to really put you, the listener, into these peoples’ lives for a few moments – I need to give the interviewees as much agency as possible. Let them lead, work with them as collaborators, not treat them as props. That’s why I’m coming to think of them as co-writers, and why I’m resisting the convention of referring to them as “subjects” or “characters” as I write this essay.

At the same time, it’s my job to find and keep hold of some sort of narrative thread. No one wants to listen to a chaotic jumble. If this chorus of co-writers isn’t massaged into a cohesive whole, you won’t be able to hear anyone properly.


I’m realizing I’ve created quite a job for myself here. Luckily, I absolutely love it.

~ Amy

P.S. Thanks to everyone who chimed in with thoughts from last week! Chewing away on all of that...

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What Are We Doing Again?

Issue #12

Here at Threshold HQ we've been talking a lot about what it is we're doing. Or, how to talk about what we're doing.

I feel like I've had a pretty strong vision for this show for quite a while now -- a year or so? -- but putting that vision into clear, concise words is another matter. Now that I've got my hands fully in the dough of the first series, kneading and flipping it daily, I feel like I'm circling closer to the language that feels right. But it's still kind of clunky and awkward, as that mix of bird and bread metaphors indicates. I'm hoping that writing to you about it this week will help me de-clunkify it a bit. It takes a village.

Quick sidebar: the "we" I'm referring to is Zöe Rom, Nick Mott and I. Nick and Zöe are interning with me while pursuing graduate studies in the journalism program here at CU Boulder. They're proving to be incredibly valuable contributors to this whole endeavor, as well as excellent company. Sometimes life puts amazing people in your path. This is one of those times, and I'm grateful for it.

OK, so here's our most recent attempt to describe the show:

On Threshold, we're going to examine ourselves -- humans -- by looking at our relationships with everything else -- plants, animals, places. All that stuff we call "the natural world."

I like this slightly goofy paragraph because it feels true. This is in fact what I want to do on the show. What does our relationship with coal, or black soldier flies*, or bison tell us about ourselves -- as individuals, or communities, or nations? I like the way this description doesn't assume the human/nature divide that's built into our language; how it pokes at that divide by calling attention to it. And I like how it puts the emphasis on relationship, on our interactions with the world. This sets us up to think about ourselves not only as world-changers but also as creatures who are changed by the world. It's relationship, it goes both ways.

But there are obviously some problems with this description. It's convoluted. Lots of dashes, lots of sub-clauses. I read it, and say it, thinking, "there has to be a better way to say this." But I haven't found it yet.

Want to give it a whirl? I'd love to hear your thoughts. (As long as you're not offended if I don't adopt them.)

One thing that gives me some comfort here is this paragraph from the This American Life website:

One of our problems from the start has been that when we try to describe This American Life in a sentence or two, it just sounds awful. For instance: each week we choose a theme and put together different kinds of stories on that theme. That doesn't sound like something we'd want to listen to on the radio, and it's our show.

I'm not trying to make Threshold difficult to describe just so I can be like my idols, but since it is kind of hard to describe, it's nice to know my idols have had the same problem.

To close: a moment of clarity. Team Threshold has decided on a tagline. I'm really digging it, actually.

Ready?

Drum roll please...


THRESHOLD
stories of life on earth


Ta-da!

If you'd like to send me your thoughts on how to make that description better, you can just reply to this message. Thank you!

~ Amy

* Yup, I said black soldier flies.

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That's What I Call a Good Day

Issue #11

Thanks for all the encouragement after last week’s missive about being dissatisfied with myself and my work. I wasn't (consciously) begging for encouragement, but lots of you responded with some, and it felt good. These lines from artist (and guest contributor) Stephanie Frostad were particularly helpful:

“Colette claimed that one of her greatest assets as a writer was self-doubt. In this I understand the persistent questioning that fosters evolution in our work, making it truer and stronger over time.”

It’s nice to have smart friends.

(And I can’t move on without noting that Wikipedia describes Colette as a “mime, actress and journalist.” And I thought being a songwriter, community music teacher and a journalist was a weird trifecta! Colette, I tip my imaginary hat to you.)

Expressing all that uncomfortably vulnerable stuff helped. I went on to have a good day of writing, and I had another one today. Since the writing process is so solitary, and therefore so mysterious, I thought I'd spend the rest of my digital ink simply outlining what I did today. Maybe this will be helpful to someone else who is engaged in a big project and wondering if he/she is "doing it right." I don't know if I'm doing it right either, but this is how I'm doing it:

6:30-ish | half-way woke up
7:15-ish | woke up for real
7:15 - 8:00 | tea, short meditation, short walk, sang a song
8:00 - 8:30 | grr. software update on my computer. really, 31 minutes remaining? guess i'll eat breakfast.
8:30 - 12:45-ish | writing
12:45 - 2:00-ish | run, lunch, shower
2:00 | omg how is it 2:00 already?
2:00 - 4:00 | writing
4:00 | glance at phone (deadly. distraction certain to ensue)
4:01 | distraction ensues. my neighbor has texted me to say that there are three freakin' BEARS in the tree at the end of my block
4:01 - 4:30-ish | bear watching. adorable. fascinating. worth it.
4:30-ish until 9:15 | write some more for the podcast, and then write this to you
9:16 | rush to the grocery store before it closes

Until next week, friends!

~ Amy

 

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