Could a podcast help protect the desert?
by Chris Clarke and Alicia Pike
There are in the neighborhood of 5 million podcasts in the world. Something like 500,000 of them released at least one episode in 2022. In the United States, nearly 80 million people listen to podcasts on a weekly basis. Half of those listeners are younger than 35. The barrier to starting a podcast is surprisingly low: you probably have everything you need to record an entry-level podcast in your pocket right now. A more sophisticated setup not limited to a smartphone might require a couple hundred dollars in equipment.
So, we wondered back in 2021, why was no one using podcasts to promote protection of our unique and irreplaceable ecosystems? Ken Layne’s popular podcast Desert Oracle, which does generously promote desert causes, is primarily focused on folklore and philosophizing. There are other fine podcasts that cover specific aspects of desert protection in specific places: native plants or border politics or sustainability in specific desert cities. But a thorough search of our podcast libraries revealed nothing devoted to covering environmental issues throughout the arid lands of the American Southwest.
What kind of effect on newcomers to the desert can a podcast have? Both of us have long found that sharing even a small nugget of information about the desert can transform not only the way we see the desert but how we interact with it. Learning about cryptobiotic soil crusts keeps us walking on the trail. Learning about the tendency of mylar balloons to land far from any paved road and shatter into microplastics prompts us to keep trash bags in our backpacks so that we can remove the balloons we encounter on hikes. Finding out the true impacts of development projects gets us standing in line to deliver comments at agency meetings.
And if that’s true for us, it is probably true for normal people as well. So in January 2022, we launched 90 Miles from Needles: The Desert Protection Podcast. Since launching, we’ve published just shy of 18 hours’ worth of audio in 24 episodes, on topics ranging from wildflower tourism etiquette to coexistence with coyotes to rampant water wastage in Utah shrinking the Colorado River and the Great Salt Lake. We talk about endangered and endemic species that need our attention and about places that need our protection. Because no one wants to listen entirely to bad news, we have dedicated the occasional episode to lauding individual desert species such as mesquite, creosote, and ironwood.
Our backgrounds are diverse. Chris has some three decades of experience in journalism and environmental activism focusing on the desert, while Alicia has been an evangelist for the desert on a more directly personal level, sharing knowledge with hikers and other desert visitors in an upbeat, accessible way. We like to think that combination creates some nice on-air chemistry. If we were to boil down our guiding philosophy to one soundbite, it would be this: "activism cannot be left up to professional activists. Protecting the desert requires that people who don’t think of themselves as activists take a stand and make their own voices heard".
And listeners are responding. We reached a milestone of 10,000 downloads sometime in November and expect to more than double that by late summer. Alicia has always used the adage that word of mouth is both free and priceless; that word of mouth has driven an increase in distribution of the podcast. 90 Miles from Needles now has about 500 devoted listeners, about 100 of whom have decided they like the project enough to support it financially through regular donations. We’re hoping to grow that financial support significantly during 2023. That would allow us to do things like travel to important desert places more than a morning’s drive from our home base in Twentynine Palms, or pay freelance reporters to cover specialized topics in depth.
Though financial support does allow us to reach more people to share the importance of protecting desert ecosystems, the reason we put 90 Miles from Needles together is that we love the desert. When something you love is threatened, you react. In this time when mass extinctions, climate change, and the disintegration of civil society are headline news, humanity collectively needs to change how we interact with nature, especially in the desert.
We want to help that change along with 90 Miles from Needles. Through our podcast we can flick those priceless nuggets of desert information to a wide relatively young audience, thus driving change on a macro level. At the same time, we’re also creating a permanent and easily accessible archive of our shows, a reference resource that is easily shared for free.
For those Desert Report readers working on individual campaigns, we want to hear from you. We want to help you promote your campaigns and draw attention to the special desert places you’re working to protect. You can reach us at (760) 392-1996 and leave a voicemail. You can also listen to our episodes at 90milesfromneedles.com, or via your favorite podcast outlet. And if you are moved to support our work financially, the attached QR code will take you to the right place.
Upcoming episodes in the works will feature the fight to save Tiehm’s buckwheat from Lithium mining, how people are putting the 30 by 30 initiative to work in the deserts, the campaign to establish the Avi Kwa Ame/Spirit Mountain National Monument, and a critical look at the onslaught of solar projects in Western Nevada. We’ve got about two dozen more episodes to fill: your campaign could be one of those episodes. We’ve put together a tool for desert activists to use for free. Let’s work together to get the word out to a whole new crowd of potential supporters.
QR Code for 90 Miles from Needles
Alicia Pike is a lifelong advocate for animals and the land. Born and raised in San Diego, she has lived in the high desert / in the Morongo Basin for 10 years.
Chris Clarke joined National Parks Conservation Association in 2017. As California Desert Associate Director, he works with desert communities to protect national parks, monuments, and other protected places, He lives in Twentynine Palms.