Earth Promise “21 in 21” Interview Series – Bruce Gellerman

Bruce Gellerman – Host of “Living on Earth”, Public Radio International’s environmental program heard weekly on more than 300 public radio stations nationwide. (

Bruce has worked at NPR as a science reporter, at WBUR-FM as business correspondent and Executive Producer and was Senior Washington Correspondent for The Center for Investigative Journalism.  He has consulted for the US State Department, Voice of America and Internews  and has taught journalism in more than a dozen countries.  His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Scientist, BBC-Radio, ABC TV-20/20 and CBS TV-60 Minutes.  He has received more than 40 national awards for journalism and is a three-time recipient of the AAAS award for broadcast science journalism, most recently for a documentary he produced about MIT’s Fusion Energy Research Laboratory. Mr. Gellerman has been accepted for two Fulbright Fellowships and is the author of “Massachusetts Curiosities”.

Earth Promise: What changes, or Earth Promises as we call them, have you made in your lifestyle to be more green?  Changes in home, travel, work, with your kids and community?

Bruce Gellerman: My wife is really the green-meanie in the family, constantly reminding me that I’m the one who hosts an environmental show. Being green comes naturally to her, she’s Russian and they waste NOTHING. We can have an empty refrigerator and she can cook up a banquet. We recently put on a new roof and a few weeks ago I did a story about how white roofs are really the way to save energy and CO2 emissions. Now Yulia, my wife, has taken to reminding me that we should have installed a white roof. To my defense we put on a light color roof.
I am my father’s son. He was the kind of guy who follows you around shutting off the lights.  We recycle, of course, don’t leave the water running when brushing our teeth, low energy bulbs and all that sort of stuff. I am the cheapest person in the universe so we definitely live within our means and aren’t big consumers. We drive a Prius which I love but have a 15 year old Camry wagon I hope runs forever. I’m holding out til they start paying cash for clunkers and I can trade it in for something a bit newer and more gas efficient, tho’ it gets 30 mpg. Not nearly what the Prius gets but enough to make most of Detroit envious.

EP: What was your first, ah ha! Green moment?

BG: I think I’ve always been a shade of green. I hate wasting things and shopping is about the worst thing I can think of doing.  I’m always amazed when I see someone, even today, toss something out, litter drives me nuts.

EP: Tell me about your show, Living on Earth? 

BG: Well, LOE is a science show and its radio which is the most visual medium there is. We try to tap into our listeners imaginations using sounds and words to put them into the stories we create. Radio is a story telling medium so that’s what we do. I love radio..or more appropriately, today, audio because I think radio …over the air tuners…are well on their way to dinosaur-hood. Audio, is the news medium for the future. It’s relatively inexpensive, accessible anywhere, and can be used while your doing anything…well, maybe it’s not very good when you’re taking a hearing test or writing a symphony.  I have a new WiFi radio which I absolutely love. I can tune into any audio on line, pod casts shows, music, whatever. If I’m in the mood for Serbian pop  French jazz..I got it. Russian news…you betcha. I’m trying to WiFi my house with audio so my entire family can listen to what they want when they want it. The demise of newspapers has created a whole new playing field for audio. I think LOE’s future is very bright, if we can raise money in this economy. It’s weird, after 20 years of being on the air, the show’s focus; environmental science, is now the defining issue of our time, bisecting national security, the world economy, and so on. The irony is that after two decades we’re still doing the public radio begahons. I think that will change. People really get what we’re doing. Being an environmentalist today is simply being someone who breathes in and out. We’re all in this boat together—that’s the sub-context of the show—and we better figure out how to keep it afloat. Our listeners have great ears. They really, really pay attention and we get an earful when we screw up which we try mightily no to. But journalism is a human endeavor. As my best friend’s dad used to say to me: “to err is human, isn’t it divine.”

EP: What are the goals of this show?  Is it education, enjoyment, interaction?  A combo of the three? Others?  

BG: As I say, we tell stories about environmental science in a journalistic way.  We define the environment as everything on earth so we have an endless possibility of stories. There’s no lack of ideas. When Steve Curwood started the program nearly 20 yrs ago he was asked what he would cover after doing the first 6 stories! I try hard to strike a balance between storytelling and science. Radio is so ephemeral, so…transparent, so you have to catch someone’s ear quickly and not let go through the story so I’m always trying to pique a person’s interest thru the  creative use of sound, good writing and production. It’s like painting with sound.

EP: The media is probably the biggest influencers of what people think nowadays. Sometimes if a message is played over too much, people will tend to ignore it after a while or tune it out or turn against it.  What is the best way to get the message across to the public without being overbearing?

BG: That’s a tough one because you never know what your listeners know or don’t know. I’ll give you and example; just today in our weekly review of the previous show one producer said an interview I did about Cap and Trade was too basic. I disagreed. First, it’s a hard topic to get your head around and there’s something new to discuss. You don’t want to keep re-re-re-re defining the term, at some point you have to accept it’s part of the great ‘out there’ body of knowledge but I had dinner with some really smart friends the other night and they didn’t know how it might work…so, we’re always trying to define things as we go along. I do think we can overplay a message and listeners can become inured by climate change, toxic pollutants, whatever.  My philosophy about this stuff comes from an italian restaurant in New York that used to have the slogan:” Give people something good to eat at a reasonable price, they’ll come”.  That’s the way I feel about radio. Give people something interesting to hear they’ll come. I also disagree that the media is the biggest influencers..a big one, no doubt but there’s so much going on, so many sources to simply lump things together as “media” doesn’t really say anything. Are blogs media? I dunno, I suppose.

EP: Thinking of different media types, how has radio increased its presence in helping the environment?  Are there more shows dedicated to it or discussing it more?  Are these shows reaching more listeners now than before? 

BG: Everybody…everybody is going green these days. It’s meaningless; I mean, Exxon/Mobile has green ads? NPR now has a climate change series which is quite good. Our distributor, Public Radio International has a number of news shows that now routinely do stories about the environment. The topic is so important and so universal that it can’t be ignored.

EP: How does the effect from radio differ from other forms of media such as TV or the Internet?

BG: Radio is the future of journalism. TV is garbage. I watched it the other day and muted the audio and it’s a joke…with the sound on, it’s worse. It’s too limiting. Radio is expansive. Maybe I should try listening with the sound off and see what I think!!!

EP: If you had to put together an ad campaign around the climate crisis and global warming, what topics and images would you include?  What do you think hits home with people?

BG: I think the stories and ideas that resonate deeply with people are the ones they can relate to. There’s a trick in radio writing which maybe I shouldn’t disclose but hey, what the heck, here goes: use the word “you” in a story, either expressly or indirectly. People perk up when it’s about them. As for images, radio is the most powerful visual medium so the goal for me as a producer is to exploit a persons imagination and give them something for their inner eye to see.

EP: What are some ways we can change people from “thinking green” to “acting green”?  That is, going from a group that knows there is an environmental issue and they are concerned, but do not take any steps to help to a group that takes action and make changes to help the environment. 

BG: Cynically speaking it comes down to money. Emotionally speaking it comes down to love. If I tell you your gas bill is going to go up 300% unless you figure out a way to conserve you’ll get it. If a person hears their children will suffer because of their parent’s stupidity, I think most will get it.

EP: Is this the sort of area where the media can really have an impact?

BG: Media’s impact is incidental. It happens in the context of everything else. People hear a story and maybe they’ll recall one element of it a few days later; over time it can become part of them. In radio there’s the old adage; tell the listener what you want them to know, remind them what it is, and tell them what you told them. Over time, there’s an effect.  At least I hope so.

EP: What is the most vital message you hope people will hear from your radio show relating to the environment?

BG: We need to change. Now. Yesterday. Get going.

EP: Tell me about some of the steps you have taken in your professional life to help the environment?

BG: My professional life? I don’t know we recycle everything at LOE and have a relatively small carbon footprint. I’d like to think we’re pretty good at practicing what we preach. I bike to work or take public transport like most folks here.  We recently remodeled our home and even though we can’t install solar because of the line of sight to the sun I had it wired for the day solar tech has sufficiently advanced and it becomes economically viable. We just had our house insulated …the utility picked up 75% of the tab!

EP: Were you “green” as a child?

BG: I was a pain in the butt kind of kid…always asking questions, always questioning everything. Some things never change.  

EP: What is the one Earth Promise you are going to make in the future that you have not done yet?

BG: One day I’m going to have geothermal put in. And while I haven’t eaten red meat in 24 years, I hope one day to go whole hog…er, I mean, give up meat-fish and fowl entirely. They’re really not sustainable. But when I say that out loud, I know the best I’ll do is cut down.

EP: Thank you.


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