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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Living on Earth Marks 20 Years On the Air

Air Date: Week of

Peter Thomson, Eileen Bolinsky, Bruce Gellerman and Steve Curwood (l-r) Curwood, Thomson and George Homsy ( not shown) were the producers of the first weekly LOE broadcast on NPR, April 5, 1991.

Twenty years ago in April, oil wells in Kuwait were burning and Living on Earth looked at the environmental and human effects of the Persian Gulf War in our very first broadcast. Host and founder Steve Curwood and host Bruce Gellerman listen to archival tape and reminisce about Living on Earth's origins.


CURWOOD: It was twenty years ago, on April 5th 1991, that Living on Earth began its very first weekly broadcast of environmental news and information. It was a different time and we had different music.

[LOE THEME IN 1991, CLIP: From National Public Radio, this is Living On Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Damage to the Earth, to the land, the air and the water, the environmental cost of the Persian Gulf War….]

GELLERMAN: Hmm. I actually remember the first show!

CURWOOD: Oh yeah, back then it was, what, a half an hour long - we were on 100 stations.

GELLERMAN: Where did you get the idea for Living on Earth?

CURWOOD: Well, I was looking for my next move. My son pushed me to do something on the environment - nobody was doing the environment on the radio. So I went out to try to raise some money.


CURWOOD: One place I knocked on the door, and they said, ‘Well, you know, Steve, you’re a great radio guy, but you’re going to run out of stories in six months!’

GELLERMAN: (Laughs).

CURWOOD: ‘It won’t be Living on Earth, you’ll be Dying on Earth.’

GELLERMAN: (Laughs). So where did you get the name for this show? I always wanted to ask you that.

CURWOOD: Well, you know, it just happened one day in my brain - I think I was in the shower. And it became obvious to me that Living on Earth would work as a title.

GELLERMAN: No other ideas?


GELLERMAN: That was it: Living on Earth. It stuck.

CURWOOD: That was the one.

GELLERMAN: You know, I remember when you had your first office - it was in a basement.

CURWOOD: (Laughs). Yeah, there were windows, though, little windows! We knew what the weather was.

GELLERMAN: (Laughs).

Steve Curwood in 2002.

CURWOOD: Yeah, and the basement was way across town from the studios at WBUR. So anytime we wanted to record something, we had to hop in a car, go over and get in the studio, and get it done, and then come back and cut it up.

GELLERMAN: And you had newscasts back then - you know, to lead the show, which we don’t have anymore. We haven’t had for years.

CURWOOD: No we haven’t. And our first newscaster was Jan Nunley.

[REPLAY OLD NEWSCAST: The Bush administration is reviewing new research data showing that the ozone layer over the United States is disappearing at twice the rate previously estimated…The National Marine Fisheries Service has one year to make a final decision on listing the sockeye as an endangered species. Only one sockeye returned to spawn in Idaho…The real problem, Tokoro says, is that Japan doesn’t have any laws calling for environmental studies before megaprojects, like the Nagara River Dam, are begun. And now with the project half-built, opposition groups are afraid they’re too late to stop Japan’s last major free-flowing river from being choked off. For Living on Earth, this is Tom Copple in Tokyo…That’s this week’s news - I’m Jan Nunley.]


CURWOOD: So let’s see - 20 years later, the ozone layer is getting better, but fish stocks are still in trouble and we have an environmental crisis in Japan of a major order.

GELLERMAN: Yeah but the first LOE show dealt with the big issue of the day. In fact, most of the show dealt with the biggest issue of the day, which was the first Gulf War. Let’s listen to a bit of that.

[LOE CLIP FROM 1991: (LOUD RUMBLE). It’s a roar, a roar that doesn’t stop. An insistent, throbbing cacophony that drowns out all other sound…]

GELLERMAN: (Chuckles). A throbbing cacophony?

CURWOOD: Okay, busted. A little overwritten. I didn’t say it was a dark and stormy night, but I guess I might as well - we’ve learned a lot of lessons, since then, over the years. We’ve also done a lot of stories, we’ve talked to a lot of people. And on this particular story, the tragedy of this massive oil spill - it was and it still remains the biggest oil spill in the history of civilization - we looked at this tragedy from a number of different angles.

At the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, some of LOE original staff (l to r)- Peter Thomson, Bruce Gellerman, and Steve Curwood - got together. Also, there was Eileen Bolinsky, a relative newcomer who came to LOE in 1997.

One thing, we looked at the particulates from all the fires, the effect possibly of acid raid, the possible disruption of the monsoons. And then a reporter went to look at the effects on the birds. The Persian Gulf is fairly shallow, and all this oil…well, I’ll let Susan Murray tell the story.

[CLIP FROM LOE 1991: [STRANGE BIRD SOUNDS]: The plaintive cry of a cormorant. At the Jubail Wildlife Rescue Center, there’s been an ongoing effort to save the most visible victims of the oil spill - blackened birds coated in oil. Volunteers continue to comb the Saudi coastline looking for survivors: “We’re out catching them on the beach - it was a lot of hard work. And the water was just like a can of oil - just that thick. We were just covered from head to toe with oil…]

GELLERMAN: Boy, you know Steve, I got to tell you, that was 20 years ago and I still remember that piece of tape.

CURWOOD: Yeah. If you heard the accent there, you know - some of that cleanup crew came from Louisiana.

GELLERMAN: Hmm, I didn’t know that!

CURWOOD: So over the years, Bruce, there’ve been surprises all along the way in the thousands of stories. Our concept, though, was not just a narrow view, say, of nature, of wildlife - but the whole of ecology. So there’s human ecology, there’s politics, there’s society, there’s economics, there’s religion, there’s ethics, there’s the law - all of those things. The way we live in cities, and the way we live in the countryside, how we grow our food - all those things are part of what makes up the environment.

GELLERMAN: And Living on Earth, I guess.

CURWOOD: Yeah, and so, in looking at the Gulf War in that first broadcast, we looked at the impact on the people beyond the battlefield. And in that show, I talked to Paul Altesman - he was from UNICEF - and he’d just come back from the war zone.

[ALTESMAN (IN 1991): Food prices were up over 1,000 percent. You can imagine the impact of somebody who’s no longer getting paid, whose banks are shut, and suddenly has to pay for 1,000, 2,000 percent more for their food.]

GELLERMAN: So I listened back to the entire first show, Steve, and the interview you did with that guy from the Center for Strategic and International Studies - that really struck me.

CURWOOD: Yeah that was Jeff Schaeffer, and I asked him whether the environment should be a factor in the decision to go to war.

Steve Curwood pushing on earth at the Copenhagen climate summit. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

[SCHAFFER (IN 1991): You cannot decide not to go to war because you will have a loss of life - that’s a risk inherent in going to war. And when you’ve decided that your ethical and moral reasons for going to war supersede that risk, then the environment stands in the same area. The decision to go to war has to put the environment on the sideline for the temporary period that the war will last.]

CURWOOD: And that answer really struck a theme of just so many of the stories that we’ve covered over the years, Bruce. I mean, many people - polls show that most people - are in favor of protecting the environment. But other issues like money, politics, even convenience trump environmental considerations. And that’s one of the things that motivated me as an African American.

GELLERMAN: I don’t understand that, Steve.

CURWOOD: Well a big part of the black experience in America has been that you’re told to wait - you know, your turn will come, but other things have to happen first. And that’s what happens to environmental questions in many circumstances, and I just got tired of waiting, of doing the story, and so, hey, let’s get going with Living on Earth!

GELLERMAN: (Laughs). Well I’ve really gotten going with Living on Earth. You’ve sent me to some really great places: I went to, what, recently, Brazil, I was in Denmark, I went to Poland, I went to Russia, Cuba, and I was there for the downfall of the Soviet Union, nd Chernobyl.

CURWOOD: Yeah, Bruce, I remember you brought back a bottle of vodka from Chernobyl that sat in the office for a very long time - nobody wanted to touch it!

GELLERMAN: My gift to you!

CURWOOD: Well thank you. Yeah, over the years, we’ve sent reporters to every continent, and I’m hard-pressed to come up with a place that we really haven’t been to to cover environmental change. And you know what, Bruce? 20 years later, we still haven’t run out of stories!

GELLERMAN: Not bad for a show that was supposed to have only six months worth of stories, Steve. Not bad at all.

CURWOOD: (Laughs).

GELLERMAN: Well, Steve, here’s to the next 20 years of Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’ll drink to that!


CURWOOD: Hey, uh, Bruce, this stuff isn’t from Chernobyl, is it?

GELLERMAN: (Chuckles).


GELLERMAN: And to commemorate our 20th anniversary, over the next few weeks we’ll be airing some stories from the early years of LOE and catching up to see how they played out.

CURWOOD: And going forward, we’ve been gearing up for the future - check out our new website design at loe.org and our online social media site, Planet Harmony. It’s a place you can produce and post your own multimedia environmental stories. You’ll find the community at myplanetharmony.com. And be sure to log on to the LOE Facebook page, PRI’s Living on Earth.



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