Your ears will perk up at these new Western podcasts

Four new podcasts envision change in juvenile justice, energy and ranching.

 

It’s been a red-hot year for Western audio journalism as new podcasts reflect on the West’s changing communities and try to imagine a better future. Recent miniseries ask: Why are we doing things this way, and how can we improve?

Cowboy Up, Coal at Sunset: A Colorado Town in Transition, Women’s Work and Wild Thing: Going Nuclear are a quartet of high-quality podcasts created by NPR member stations, an independent journalist and even a local museum. Each explains the issues behind an entrenched system and features the people working to change it. In every podcast, change is happening at a different rate. Cowboy Up makes a convincing case that Wyoming’s juvenile justice system is in need of reform, but change feels remote, while in Craig, Colorado, as Coal at Sunset shows, change is imminent, with the town’s coal-fired plants and mines closing by the end of the decade. Women’s Work highlights innovative women ranchers from Washington to Montana, and Wild Thing: Going Nuclear traces the history, science and culture of nuclear energy and asks questions about a future already in progress.

All four series immerse the audience in sound — whistling wind from long pickup drives, vocal cows, a beeping radioactivity monitor. Listeners visit pastures full of grazing cattle and sit inside bedrooms with struggling teens. These podcasts prompt us to imagine new worlds, where coal towns seek new identities and economies separate from fossil fuels, and the nuclear energy industry learns from its past. By the end of each series, listeners will share a deeper understanding of communities across the region and the issues they face.

Cowboy Up podcast – from The Modern West, Wyoming Public Radio

3 episodes, just under an hour each

In Wyoming, more kids are locked up for probation violations than the national average. How can a landscape that seems so idyllic — with its wide-open spaces, relaxed pace of life and opportunities for outdoor adventure — also be such a harsh and unforgiving place to grow up? That’s what reporter Tennessee Watson asks in Cowboy Up, a podcast about the juvenile justice system in Wyoming.

Several families open up and share their reflections during times of pain, loss and adolescent turmoil. Listeners feel welcomed into cozy living rooms and bedrooms adorned with punk rock posters by teens and their caregivers. Other states have passed reforms to help youth avoid jail, but Wyoming still focuses on incarceration. Watson tries to understand why the state has failed to shift to a more holistic, less punitive approach: a combination of budget cuts, rugged individualism, a political culture that prioritizes local control over sweeping state-level reforms. Wyomingites, she concludes, take pride in their ability to tackle challenges on their own. 

Although the show’s personal anecdotes and quavering young voices often made me want to cry, it’s not all dark. The series concludes at a new school for kids who don’t thrive in traditional settings. “I say, if we’re true to the story we tell ourselves about being rugged, resilient problem-solvers, it’s high time we roll up our sleeves and get to work making sure kids in every community have the resources they need to thrive,” Watson says. But state lawmakers are nowhere near sweeping reforms, currently still just debating gathering data. Still, while a single school can’t solve the problems Cowboy Up outlines, it’s a glimmer of hope for teens who might otherwise face incarceration, and listeners who want to help improve the system.

Coal at Sunset: A Colorado Town in Transition podcast — Institute for Science and Policy at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, in partnership with House of Pod 

8 episodes, about 30 minutes long each 

“Coal keeps the lights on” is a popular saying in Craig, Colorado. But as in other coal towns across the West, change is in the air. The town’s plant and mines will close for good by 2030, and Coal at Sunset explores what that next decade and beyond might look like.

The series’ hyper-local approach might make it especially popular with Coloradans, but it’s also relevant to a much larger audience. Coal at Sunset lays out a playbook for Western towns where coal has been the economic and cultural lifeblood for decades. Host Kristan Uhlenbrock asks tough questions with care and compassion to humanize the situation, deepening listeners’ understanding of what the transition away from coal really entails. 

As one local says, it’s painful, but they’ve got the rest of the decade to evolve into a new, thriving reality. Coal at Sunset presents options already underway, including a community college that offers programs in cybersecurity and aviation, Craig’s burgeoning art scene, and increasing outdoor recreation and tourism opportunities surrounding the Yampa River. A range of voices, from utility executives to the owner of a local wine bar, gives depth and context to the show. The podcast ultimately can’t answer the question of how to balance the obligation to protect the planet with the need to preserve livelihoods and cultural identity, but listeners are treated to a variety of perspectives along the way.

Women’s Work podcast — Boise State Public Radio 

7 episodes, about 20 to 30 minutes long each

Starting in Montana with a disgruntled pregnant sheep named Babette, Women’s Work episodes transport listeners to fields and mountain ranges across the West. Instead of dwelling on the flaws of the industrial meat system, journalist Ashley Ahearn looks at the women charting new courses in a male-dominated profession that’s often hard on the land. Each episode shows how women are finding new solutions to ranching’s problems.

Women’s Work touches on some of the regenerative ranching movement’s favorite techniques, including rotational grazing, where livestock is moved between smaller pastures to prevent overgrazing and improve soil health. But the series goes beyond that to explore other issues at the intersection of ranching, culture and sustainability. In Burns, Oregon, for example, flood irrigation, although considered an inefficient use of water, provides habitat for birds and other wetland creatures. Another episode takes listeners to the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, where Lakota rancher Kelsey Scott is tackling Indigenous food sovereignty by raising beef on the reservation and selling it to residents. Others take listeners to Colorado’s rapidly developing Front Range and to the mountains of Idaho with the Elzinga family and their seven daughters.

Ahearn excels at capturing natural sounds to create an immersive experience. Listeners feel as though they are right alongside her, listening to wolves howl, poking around cow dung looking for beetles and sitting in the saddle on cattle drives. Short episodes sometimes left me wanting more detail on some issues, such as the role ranchers could play in the land-back movement (a push to return Indigenous land back to Indigenous control) and the lack of diversity in ranch ownership. But collectively, the episodes offer numerous ways to rethink how meat is raised, and in the process, how ranchers interact with the land around them. 

Going Nuclear podcast – Wild Thing show

9 episodes, approximately 25-30 minutes long each

Nuclear energy in Western states, including Washington and Wyoming, is getting a face-lift with “new nuclear” — a generation of much smaller reactors that some companies claim are safer and more efficient than previous models, although new research casts doubt on these assertions. Wild Thing: Going Nuclear enters the conversation at the perfect time, asking serious questions: Are the risks worth the rewards? Have the industry’s scientists, officials and business execs learned from past mistakes? Are humans ever responsible enough to harness the power of the universe, and should we even try?

Krantz grounds the debate in southern Idaho, where a nuclear reactor at a federal research facility melted down over 60 years ago. Today, the area is home to the Idaho National Laboratory, where researchers are working with private companies to build, test and commercialize small modular reactors. (It’s also where host Laura Krantz grew up, giving her an insider’s perspective.)

Centering the podcast’s core narrative in a location where things went wrong does cast an inherent pall over nuclear power’s viability as an energy option. Kicking off the first episode with a scene in which two workers are dead, one is missing, and radioactivity is off the charts sets a wary tone that nuclear proponents might not appreciate. But listeners who have heard Krantz’s past seasons of Wild Thing will recognize her jokes and an earnest, curious approach. Krantz is a master at demystifying scary things, either actual events or the somewhat more dubious kind; previous seasons focused on Bigfoot and aliens. Disasters are an inescapable part of nuclear’s past, and this podcast will help thoughtful listeners decide for themselves whether the costs are worth it in the long run.

Kylie Mohr is an editorial intern for High Country News writing from Montana. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy. 

 

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