November 8, 2021, Santa Rosa, CA —On October 18, Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) journalism students gained national recognition by having their podcast, “Chronic Catastrophe,” published on NPR.org. The four-part podcast examines the impact of cumulative climate change-induced disasters on peoples’ minds, bodies, and spirits.
In spring 2021, Rebecca Bell, Lauren Spates, Nicholas Vides, and Maritza Camacho, who all write for the SRJC student newspaper “The Oak Leaf,” were chosen to participate in California Humanities’ Democracy and the Informed Citizen Emerging Journalist Fellowship program. During the fellowship, they received training in local and community-engaged journalism and podcasting, along with other media skills. The group used their fellowship to research and report on crisis fatigue in Sonoma County.
Originally, photographer Nick Vides wanted to create a video series for their team project, but COVID-19 pandemic protocols restricted their ability to film in person. Creating a podcast allowed the journalists to stay safe while working together. They conducted and recorded source interviews on Zoom or phone calls, channels that would not have worked well visually, and took a mixed approach to record their parts.
“Lauren Spates, for example, recorded some of her narration in a closet under an ironing board,” said SRJC Journalism instructor and team mentor, Anne Belden. “We paid for some studio time in Sebastopol because we couldn’t get into any of the recording studios on campus. Then I jumped through hoops, begged the powers that be, filled out paperwork, and found a chaperone to get one day in Petaluma Room 246 for three (vaccinated) students. At the end of the day, one of them tested positive for COVID, which sent everyone into separate recording zones again.”
The investigative podcast began running on the student newspaper website in October and was syndicated by KRCB Podcast through a partnership with NorCal Public Media. NPR picked it up almost immediately.
Along with Sonoma County residents affected by fires, floods, and bad air quality, the journalists interviewed more than 30 sources including climatologists, doctors, scientists, mental health experts, and two members of Congress. While “Chronic Catastrophe” focuses on Sonoma County’s traumatic stories, the project’s goal was to emotionally move listeners everywhere to prepare for disasters and to take action. Hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, floods, landslides, and drought are occurring globally, more frequently and with greater intensity, and everyone who sees disaster, even just on TV or social media, is affected by it in some way.
“Our work clarified that PTSD might not be an accurate diagnosis for our mental health, because we're never really ‘post’ disaster,” said Spates, a current Oak Leaf editor. “It taught us that poor air quality during fire season essentially means we're all smokers now and that the increase in CO2 and the decrease in oxygen affects our ability to think clearly. We gained insight into how personal, familial, and community identities are shifting, and how people are rearranging their careers, the places they live, and the way they interact with their neighbors -- all in an effort to survive.”
“I would like to thank California Humanities for giving us the grant,” said Vides. “They had faith in us. They allowed us to work on this project. I am blown away by this.”
“Working on this podcast was an honor, a challenge, and a wake-up call,” Spates said. “Climate change isn't only bad for the economy and the environment; it's bad for people too. And the fact that NPR chose to distribute our work underscores the quality of our work and how salient a topic we chose.”
The Chronic Catastrophe podcast and its trailer are available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and at https://www.npr.org/podcasts/1047076622/chronic-catastrophe.