Out in the field with Chico’s upbeat environmental journalist Randy Larsen
Sitting in my office on a recent Tuesday evening, I have Randy Larsen’s EcoTalk tuned in on KZFR, the local community radio station.
I’ve got a vested interest in listening. The Saturday before I had ventured out with Larsen, who now does his show literally from the field. He tapes parts of EcoTalk as he walks, explores and sits in parks and wilderness areas from Chico to Central America, recording his thoughts, making observations on nature and life in general, and retelling bits of his life. He combines and interweaves these streams of consciousness with conventional interviews to make up his 90-minute show that airs every Tuesday at 5:30 pm.
On that previous Saturday, Larsen and I had walked along Comanche Creek in southwest Chico, he checking it for its potential as a place to do his show, me for a story I was writing on the controversial Measure A. We were joined by Larsen’s constant outdoor companion Stickeen, a large white Lab-Irish wolfhound mix with a pleasant personality and deep curiosity, much like that of his owner. Stickeen, I would later learn, is named in honor of a dog once owned by environmental pioneer and Sierra Club founder John Muir.
EcoTalk has aired since 1994, and in 1998 it was picked up for syndication on the nationwide Pacifica Network. Larsen has interviewed such luminaries as the late Sierra Club guru David Brower, famous Headwaters tree-sitter Julia “Butterfly” Hill (He climbed up to her redwood perch nearly 200 feet off the ground), and Judi Bari, the fiery Earth First!er severely injured in an infamous backseat pipe bomb blast of suspicious origins in 1990 and victim of fatal breast cancer four years ago.
In 1996 Larsen was recognized by the Sierra Club as the Northern California environmental journalist of the year. And it was in that capacity that I had sought out his assistance the Saturday we walked along Comanche Creek.
As I listen to the show, I hear the sound of a man walking and talking in a sort of freestyle manner, in this case about energy and how women and men view the subject in distinctly different ways. Suddenly he stops.
“Oh,” he says, sounding pleasantly surprised, “there’s a wild rose.”
Then he’s back to the subject at hand, which is based on his recent interview with a woman named Barbara George, who has written a book called Women’s Energy Matters.
His approach creates an interesting dynamic—you almost get the feeling that you are out there, trudging along beside him. I have an advantage, of course, as I listen to Larsen’s descriptive monologue: I was with him on that day, so it doesn’t take much imagination to put myself next to him.
I’m not alone in my assessment of Larsen’s show. Listen to what Barbara Bernstein, a documentary producer at KABU community radio in Portland, has to say. She was a speaker at the recent National Federation of Community Broadcasters conference in San Francisco. The conference was called “Thinking Outside the Box.”
Larsen told me he missed the conference, but someone gave him a tape, which he proudly played for me one day when I visited the KZFR studio to watch him do his show.
“I was driving down here on Tuesday,” Bernstein begins, “and when I get to Redding I can start listening to community radio again. So I tuned into the Chico station, which is one of my favorite stations. Now I don’t know the guy’s name, but it’s the guy who does the environmental show …
“He’s up in this park, called Upper Park in Chico, and he’s walking around and he’s pointing out the miners’ lettuce and describing the native plants on the air. He goes between waxing poetic about how beautiful spring in Upper Park is and talking about drilling in the Artic next to the wildlife refuge and about the so-called energy crises.
“And the whole thing is interwoven. I’m thinking this is the most magical kind of radio. You really got the flavor. It was sunset, and yet I was feeling like it was early afternoon and I was up in this park above Chico. It was so vivid, and he just talked unedited, just talking into a microphone for an hour, and he had this sense of humor about it. This guy, this Randy—it was really just a great show, really inspiring.”
Turns out the show that Bernstein heard was Larsen’s initial foray in field recording.
“That was the first time I had done it, and I felt like I was really going out on the limb,” he said. “I was afraid that by trying this new format, stations were going to drop the show. I just didn’t know how it was going to come across, and so Bernstein’s comments were really meaningful.”
Larsen, 40, teaches a debate class at Chico State University. He has a calm, non-confrontational manner and uses logic to forward his arguments. Some in the local environmental community don’t particularly care for Larsen’s style. He’s not radical enough, too compromising and too self-promoting, they believe.
To me he comes across as very centered and confident. He’s proud of what he does and his accomplishments. He tells me he thinks his major vice is “being too sensitive.”
He grew up in the Bay Area town of Antioch, where his sister went to school with Chico economic developer Bob Linscheid. His mother was a Mormon, his father an electrician and Elks Lodge member who “always had a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. It was an interesting relationship. They did have square dancing in common.”
Larsen came to Chico in 1985 to attend graduate school after getting his bachelor’s degree in wildlife management from Humboldt State University.
“Ranger Randy was my ambition,” he says. “I had that feeling that I think a lot of people had during the Reagan era, which was you’re going to get stuck out there in the middle of nowhere loving nature and seeing it just kind of shrink all around you.”
He earned his master’s degree in communications at Chico State, coached the university speech and debate team and taught public speaking and argument debate. At the same time he was involved locally in the Sierra Club. In the early ‘90s he returned to school to study environmental ethics.
“I went to study with Holmes Ralston in Fort Collins, Colo.,” he said. “He’s kind of the patriarch of the field of environmental ethics. A passionate ordained Presbyterian minister who has a real reverence for nature. I really learned a lot from him.”
After gaining a second master’s, Larsen went on to the University of Colorado in Boulder to do doctoral work.
“I did that for a year and then decided it just wasn’t a good fit,” he says, “so I came back to Chico and had this idea about a radio show. I had actually worked my way through Humboldt State doing radio. I was sports director doing play-by-play for the Humboldt Crabs, a semi-pro baseball team.”
Before he started EcoTalk, he approached the program director at KPAY and said he’d like to do an environmental talk show.
“The program director was very frank with me. He said that conservative talk shows work and progressive talk shows don’t work. He said that people work hard, and when they come home, they turn on the radio. The last thing they want to hear, he said, is somebody telling them that now they have to do something. But if you tell them just work hard and everything will be fine, don’t get involved, that’s what people want to hear.”
A few years later he landed his show on KZFR.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing in the beginning. I was just playing around with the idea. I started doing interviews more and more because I just got tired of the problems with the equipment here. I got tired of trying to do phone-in and callers getting cut off.”
He says the tenor of the show did not change that much when it was picked up by Pacifica, which makes it available via satellite to stations across the country. He’s not sure how many of the 67 stations with access to it currently pick it up.
Initially he believed that having a larger audience would make it easier to attract nationally or internationally known guests. But he’s had second thoughts.
“I think people have large enough egos that they want to be on any type of radio show,” he says. “Though I do know several guests have flown into Chico specifically to do the show, and I don’t think they would have done that beforehand.”
Back on KZFR and EcoTalk, Larsen tells us he is making his way down to Comanche Creek, where, when he reaches it, he will take a break and send us back to the studio. He does, and there’s Larsen waiting for us, live in the studio announcing the station’s call letters and the underwriters for EcoTalk. And then, suddenly, we’re back at the creek.
“I am sitting in the middle of Comanche Creek on a downed log,” he tells us. “To my right and left are two little rapids. Stereo creeks.”
Sitting in my office with the radio on, thinking back to my visit to the creek, I wonder if he’s going to mention the upside-down yellow Food-4-Less shopping cart and the other debris I had spotted. Or, I wonder, is he going to take poetic license and sanitize the scene, providing a somewhat less than accurate description.
But no, he tells his listeners of the shopping cart, as well as a number of tires lying submerged in the rushing water. He’s sharing the scene with scars and all.
“I think this creek needs to be saved twice,” he says. “Once from the development project and once from the debris.”
And then he announces that it is time for him to wind up the show and head back upstream.
“This is the sound of a man in water walking up the creek,” he says. You can hear the splash, splash, splash. Something causes him to suddenly recall the neighborhood he grew up in near Antioch and fields near his boyhood home that eventually became housing tracts. He laments their fate but doesn’t pass judgment.
“Ah,” he says suddenly. “If you don’t hear my voice anymore, call the paramedics. Ah. Man, it’s cold. Ooh. All right, OK, that’s it.”
The sound of water grows louder.
“We’re at the top of the hour, and I’m in a pickle. Ooh! I’ll see you next week, and until then, happy trails—or creek beds.
“Come on Stickeen, let’s go home."