Creating Meaningful Narratives with Green Grid Radio’s Adam Pearson

June 3, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to Green is Good, and we have another great show today. We’re thankful for all our listeners out there on Sirius XM, America’s Talk Channel, for listening to us. Adam Pearson joins us today from the West Coast. He’s the founder and executive producer of Green Grid Radio. Welcome to Green is Good, Adam Pearson. ADAM PEARSON: Thank you so much for having me on the show, John. It’s a pleasure to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, to have a young entrepreneur on the show who has started his own radio gig, come on, this is a great joy for us today. Before we get into all the great work you’re doing at Green Grid Radio, Adam, can you share with our listeners how did you get there? How did you think of starting a radio show focused on sustainability and all the great things that you’re covering on your show? ADAM PEARSON: Sure. I’d love to share. So, Green Grid Radio is all about creating, engaging, and transformative narratives about the environment, energy, and sustainability. I have been into radio on my college campus for a while. I started as a freshman here, and now I’m finishing up with my Master’s at Stanford University, so it’s been a long shot of continuous radio for me. I started off doing music. I came in on campus and I thought, “Oh, I want to do a music show. I think I have good taste in music.” Then that sort of became a music-dominated part of my life for a long time. Independently, I started pursuing environmental engineering and had this whole academic path that was emerging for me. So, long story short, this past summer I found myself working at an environmental non-profit. I was working at the National Audubon Society in Washington, D.C. At Audubon, some of my work was pretty interesting. I was working on communicating science, so some of the things that people in my research world as a grad student and some people in environmental engineering were working on, trying to communicate some of these ideas about wind energy to the public. This is sort of a controversial issue within Audubon. Audubon is a birding group. A lot of Auduboners are birders. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Yeah, they’ve been on our show. They’re fascinating folks. The leadership there talks brilliantly about the whole cycle of birds. It’s just fascinating stuff. ADAM PEARSON: Yeah, absolutely. Exactly. It’s a really interesting topic, wildlife and wind energy. So, I was working on that, and my job was to convey some of the technological facts and benefits of renewable energy to some of the folks on the ground who were out there birding every weekend. So, I remember in July, there was this one day I was sitting in the office. It was late in the afternoon. It was kind of rainy and the air conditioning was on full-blast, and it was a long day. I found myself on the phone with this woman who is in charge of Save Our Allegheny Front Now, which is some sort of organization she was running which is pretty much anti-wind organization. I was talking to her, and she mentioned to me as a side, wouldn’t it be better if we just built a whole bunch of natural gas plants instead of wind energy plants for the environment? At this moment, I realized that natural gas causes a lot more CO2 emissions. We’re not getting through to her. There’s some kind of disconnect here. We need to do a better job communicating fundamentally what renewable energy is to the public. We need to do a better job engaging with the public and making our media communications about science, specifically energy and environmental topics, more meaningful to people. So, I came back to Stanford in the fall after this fellowship, and I decided, you know, I have this toolset available. I know how to use radio. I have all these professors and connections on campus who are very knowledgeable about these topics, and I need to leverage this and do something meaningful. So, I got back and I started this radio show, and the rest has been sort of history since September. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Awesome. So, September 2012 you started the radio show at Stanford? ADAM PEARSON: So, we’re at KZSU, which is Stanford’s community radio station. It’s run by volunteer staff and by driven students. That’s where we air live broadcasts of the show every week, but we also put our show available on the web for a podcast. This is also another interesting reason we decided to go with a live show in some degree, because there are a lot of environmental podcasts out there. There are a lot of good ones out there. There’s even another really good one on the Stanford campus that’s produced by some other students, but we embraced live radio as the medium as well because we think that there’s not a lot of coverage of these topics in live radio. You hear on NPR or other public radio stations, you hear talk of economics and political stuff all the time, but you don’t hear energy and environmental stories that are really compelling or engaging. So, we wanted to embrace the live radio format as well. So, we chose KZSU as sort of a home. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And how has the campus received the program? ADAM PEARSON: So, luckily, Stanford’s a really open place for new ideas, and they’ve been very supportive on campus from all over the board. We’ve recently assembled an advisory board for the organization, which features faculty, like Julie Kennedy and some others on campus and off campus. Being on Stanford’s campus, surrounded by so many exciting research projects, has given us access to a wealth of story ideas, interview subjects, and student panelists. So, it’s been a real win-win being around this kind of vibrant, academic environment. We love to support student groups and return the favor, so it’s been a very mutually beneficial relationship. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect. So, you’re in with some of the greatest minds with regards to technology and progressive thinking and things of that such. So, how has it evolved? How has the show evolved since September, last fall, to now in April 2013? ADAM PEARSON: Sure. Well, the obvious one is as we’ve gotten bigger and more people have heard about us, the easier it’s been to book guests. That’s definitely been an advantage. But beyond more of the day-to-day logistical stuff, conceptually the show has evolved quite a bit. We started with more of the hardcore kind of journalism and reporting, and like I said, originally the goal was to communicate science to the public. But we realized that there’s something inherently boring about saying, “Today there will be 20 megawatts of solar installed, blah blah blah.” You know, if you’re just driving around in your car, it’s really easy to disengage from that kind of content. So, since the fall, we’ve really shifted gears and this season. We’re in the third season, we’re sort of aligned with Stanford’s quarter system. We are headlong into telling stories. So, now we have shifted the approach, and instead of starting with an interview and then structuring a show around that, we’re starting with a question. We’re asking, “OK, what happens when we throw the wrong thing in the recycling bin? What happens if we put a trash wrapper in the recycling bin?” Then we have our producers go out in the field to look at waste management facilities and interview people out there, and we get the perspective in the field and we get these cool sounds. We also talk to Stanford students, like why do you recycle? Then maybe we talk to an extreme Stanford student who doesn’t recycle at all or something like that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You platform an issue and you build a case for and against. That’s wonderful. That’s really great. ADAM PEARSON: Yeah. We still have the expert perspectives and utilize our faculty resources on campus, but that’s just part of the story. It’s not the whole story anymore. The whole story is the human story. It’s how we think about these environmental topics in our day-to-day lives. It’s like, why do I care about rare earth mining in Asia? It’s because, well, we all have iPhones, right? How many phone batteries are there? So, it’s much easier for people to think, “Oh, I’ve got a phone battery and I never really thought about where that comes from,” than it is for us to just launch into this esoteric conversation about mining industry that’s totally disconnected from our day-to-day life. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there at Sirius XM, America’s Talk Channel, we’ve got Adam Pearson on. He’s the young and wonderful and smart founder and executive producer of Green Grid Radio. To listen to his great work and to see what he’s doing, you can go to www.greengridradio.org. Adam, what happens now? Here is the big question, when you graduate. Are you taking the show on the road? ADAM PEARSON: No, I’m not taking the show on the road. I think, as I was mentioning, a lot of the resources at Stanford are important. I’m hoping that Green Grid Radio will become an institution here in the Bay Area and at Stanford. I’m doing a lot of work behind the scenes to set up a sustainable organization and a sustainable structure when I leave. In fact, we’re looking to partner with NGOs in the local community to become sort of an arm of an organization. So, let’s say, we’re going to be X’s weekly podcast or something like that. So, I’m doing a lot of work behind the scenes. I don’t want to announce anything publicly just yet, but I’d like to say that Green Grid Radio will be alive and well in the fall. I’ve got a good team of students and other volunteers here who are dedicated to the cause, and they’re going to do everything they can to keep this going, because they’re really excited about what we’re doing, and I’m quite optimistic that Green Grid Radio is going to continue, and you’ll be hearing more and more about Green Grid Radio in the future. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re going to catch up with that later. I’m going to follow up a little bit with you, because I want to know what you’re going to go on and do then once you leave that. So, talk about the programs. What’s the inspiration for the programs? You platformed rare earth, then you said, “OK, how about recycling? Are you for or against? Do you do it, do you not do it? Why?” And all that other stuff. Where is this coming from? Is it just you and the team sitting around spitballing, or is it coming from some professors, or how is this inspiration coming about? ADAM PEARSON: That’s a great question. I really enjoy the creative process; it’s probably the most exciting part about working with my team. At Stanford, the creative process is taught really well, I think, some of these mechanisms and design processes and mapping some of these things out. I take a lot of classes in the design school here, and I have to say that’s been a huge inspiration for me to learn how to brainstorm in an effective way with other people. It’s all about putting out a lot of ideas as quickly as possible and generating a lot of ideas, so that’s mechanically why and how we come up with the ideas. In terms of topics, there’s just so much going on in the world. I mean, Stanford is such an exciting place as well. There’s a problem we have, that we have too many ideas. We can’t do them all. Our brainstorming sessions produce white boards and white boards and pages of fantastic central episode ideas, and it’s a testament to my core team of around four to seven people, volunteer staff, other students. We all bring a different perspective to the show. I’m an engineer. I’ve got some management scientists on my team, management scientists here at Stanford, sort of a more business perspective. Then we have some more traditional earth systems or bio people here, and so we all bring a different perspective. I would say just being in the environment that we’re in on campus, sort of being hooked into our own interesting environmental niches and the structure through which we brainstorm, has really been the way we’ve produced our show ideas. JOHN SHEGERIAN: First of all, you’re at Stanford, so it goes without saying you’re a super smart human being and you’re surrounded by other super smart colleagues over there and students. In theory, it should be that way. Come on. What’s the most surprising thing or most interesting thing you’ve learned from one of the guests on your show? ADAM PEARSON: The guests are great, and there’s always something new to discover. We had this guest a while back, we just aired the episode recently, though. His name is Andy Ruben. Andy Ruben was the former Chief Sustainability Officer at Walmart, and he gave up his job to create a new company, Yerdle. Yerdle is a part of this sharing economy, and we had a whole episode on the sharing economy. So, this is an example of how interesting and weird our topics can be too. The sharing economy, or collaborative consumption, is all about using the resources we have in a social and creative way so that we’re not just producing more stuff on the planet, for environmental reasons, for social reasons, for economic reasons. Anyway, what was so interesting and inspiring was hearing him talk about why he gave up his old job. It was mainly encouraging the purchasing of stuff, like plastic forks at Walmart, and that just sort of got to him. Then hearing, again, about his passion for his new company was inspiring. Another really terrific guest that I learned a lot from – there were a couple guests here in the Stanford Psychology Department. I learned a lot about video games. We had this whole episode about how video games have this potential to really do a lot of social good. So, video games. There’s some staggering statistics out there, like when the new Call of Duty came out, in one week there were so many million hours of gaming spent on that, that it surpassed all of the hours in the history of creating Wikipedia, editing it, and modifying it, and so on. So, within one week, the new Call of Duty worldwide surpassed the hours spent on Wikipedia, which is pretty mind-blowing. So, if you think about how we can tap into those gamers and instead having them blowing each other’s brains out, you have them maybe playing a puzzle or something that will fold proteins. Fold it is a good example of social good. So we can imagine these gamers can be doing environmental games, or playing a game where they’re turning the lights off in their home, which will have really radical impacts on human behavior. So, things like this, these are the things that excite me, and these are the things that I don’t think about in my hardcore engineering spree. JOHN SHEGERIAN: No kidding. So, wow. That’s amazing. That whole gaming story just knocked me off my seat, I got to tell you that. How many listeners do you have, and do you have a database of your listeners? How do you connect with them? Is it all through social media, which your generation is really into, or is it through mailing lists, or is it through just the student body at Stanford? Talk a little bit about your engagement with your listeners out there. ADAM PEARSON: Sure. Well, we obviously always want to hear more from our listeners to get feedback on how we can improve the show and everything. We just sort of set up a mailing list. We realized that it’s about time to do that because we have lots of exciting things to report and new episodes and everything. At the same time, we try not to spam people, so our listeners can sign up for our e-mail list on our website at greengridradio.org. We tweet a bit, we have a Facebook, we have a lot of the typical social media outlets. That’s our primary mechanism of keeping in touch with folks. On campus, we have an e-mail list, and we try to stay in e-mail contact with a lot of the other key people on campus when it comes to promoting environmental and sustainability-related issues. So, the answer to the question is we’re pretty aggressive on social media. In terms of listenership, what’s sort of surprising to me, and I don’t know how much this is going to be a secret or whatever about the radio industry, is that you never really know terrestrially, on an FM station, how many people are listening. It’s kind of been an exciting thing, because I’ve done shows from 12 am to 6 am, and you get a caller at 4:15, and you’re like, “Good God, I can’t believe someone is listening right now.” It’s exciting, in a way. We don’t have a really good idea. There are lots of ways you can pay for the service to get a good idea, but our listenership has been increasing over time and we have a good handle on how our podcast listenership has gone up, and it has been a pretty steady climb over the year. I think our most exciting statistics are that our views on our website have tripled over the four or five months that we were monitoring them, so lots of good news there. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is great. I’m going to give a little piece of good news. We’re down to the last 30 seconds here, so I just want to give a shout-out here for some more good news. I want to offer congratulations to you and your staff, Adam. You guys also were honored by the Clinton Global Initiative, which is a huge honor to be involved with them. It’s a great organization, and you should be so proud of not only yourself, but your colleagues and what you’re doing with Green Grid Radio over there. I want our listeners out there to get more engaged and access this kind of great radio and this kind of great product that Adam’s putting out there with his team. You have to go to Green Grid Radio. I’ve been on the website numerous times, and I’m looking at it. Adam Pearson, you are a wonderful ambassador for promise and hope for our next generation, and truly living proof that green is good. ADAM PEARSON: Thank you so much, John. It’s been a pleasure.