Threshold: How one podcast went to the ends of the earth to tell an urgent human story

July 22, 2019 01:00

A distant dream
Amy Martin has always had a distant dream: to report from the Arctic, the epicenter of the planet’s warming. When she conceptualized Threshold, a podcast and radio show, she thought it might be a realistic vision to do a season in the Arctic in about ten years. Barely three years later, that dream is a national Murrow Award-winning reality.

Season two of Threshold, Cold Comfort, for which Amy and the Threshold team traveled to all eight Arctic countries, won the 2019 national Murrow Award for News Series in Small Market Radio.

I talked to her about that journey.

Diving deeper
Martin worked in public radio years ago and also spent some time as a musician before coming back to radio. What it comes down to, she says, is one voice in the ear of one other person. It’s “me and you in your car moving through the world together.”

That intimacy sparks a deeper level of investment in the story by the listeners. Martin also felt the urge to dive deeper into topics with longer form storytelling. The possibility for depth and intimacy drew her to podcasting. 

Knowing your why
She started with her “why.” It’s important to know why you’re doing something, she says, so you can tell your listeners why they should care. She wrote guiding principles for herself, which she began to share with others, like funders, and can now be found on the Threshold website in a great example of earning trust through transparency.

Threshold Guiding Principles

Starting scrappy
Reporting for season one, all about the American bison, was essentially a one-woman operation, she says, calling the production “scrappy.” But it got noticed, mainly through word of mouth.  Her local station partner, Montana Public Radio, aired the season in full, and it got picked up by other area stations, too.

The possibility of creating something successful enough to eventually be able to invest in going to the Arctic seemed closer.

Then, Martin says, as she was finishing a Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the idea “took hold of me like a fever.”

She felt a crushing sense of urgency, the Arctic “shouting at us with all its might,” and let that urgency take hold. She launched into planning an Arctic-focused season.

She had little idea of exactly how it would come together logistically, but she knew her “why” - “It’s vitally important and at the same time mostly out of people’s minds.” Most people think of climate in terms of ice and polar bears, not about people. But while those of us in “the South” are arguing about how fast ice is melting, people in eight Arctic countries have been adapting to changing realities. So she went.

Receiving the story        
There were some advantages to reporting, fundraising and planning next steps on the fly, Martin says. Traveling cheaply by staying at Airbnbs and taking commuter ferries led the team to more interesting connections and stories. And it allowed the flexibility to go where the story led.

“Our job is to receive the stories that are happening,” Martin says, to “let the subject lead,” and learn by listening, not to tell a preconceived story. “I’m not going to go to the Arctic and say ‘tell me about climate change’ – that already sets us on a path of how the story is in my mind.”

Yet, many of the people she encountered in communities across the eight Arctic countries have experienced that. They’re used to seeing themselves simplified into stereotypes and have both a sense of humor and sophisticated expectations of talking to journalists. It can be a good icebreaker, Martin says. When “you’ve been portrayed in ways that don’t feel nuanced or respectful of the realities of your life,” it’s freeing when someone asks you about what really is important to you.

Changing the focus
Asking those questions revealed the impacts of climate change embedded in so many other issues of daily life in the Arctic: the high cost of living, increases in shipping, tourism, and fossil fuel extraction, and the ongoing impacts of colonization. As one of Martin's sources said, "We're talking about climate erosion, eroding away the land. It happens to people's cultures, too."

Martin urges journalists to think more holistically about covering the impacts of our changing climate. Stories about climate impacts are often relegated to the science beat, when in reality they touch every beat and, at their core, are human stories. Telling human stories allows more people to find a way to get interested in issues that they may not otherwise seek out, because we all seek human connection.

That’s been one of the major impacts of Cold Comfort, Martin says. She’s heard from listeners who say they’ll be sharing the podcast with family members. She visited a school in St. Louis where a middle school girl wanted to learn more about a family of reindeer herders in Norway she heard about on the podcast and make sure they were ok. That family, in turn, now knows that in addition to more local and international media, people around the world care about them and how climate change is impacting them.

Taking a chance
Take a chance on human connection – and on being vulnerable about what you don’t know, Martin says. One reason climate stories often land on science reporters’ desks is that they can be data heavy. But it can be ok, and even helpful for audiences, to see that you’re learning right alongside them. It’s not always necessary to speak from the position of an expert. After all, as Martin did, you’ll be talking to experts.

Martin took a chance with Threshold, and others took a chance on her, including the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, PRI’s The World, which aired segments of Cold Comfort and Montana Public Radio.

When a small station takes a risk and invests in a big project, it can have an impact that reaches, literally, to the ends of the earth.

And yes, a Season 3 is in the works, so, stay tuned and, in the meantime: Give it a listen and take a chance on your own dream project.

Murrow Mondays are a look behind-the-scenes of Murrow Award winning journalism. 



2019 Research