Celebrating the 5-year anniversary of Stanford’s Generation Anthropocene podcast with a new season

Started by two graduate students, the Generation Anthropocene podcast has grown into an award-winning production and beloved undergraduate course. Its fifth year brings new insight into how humans are changing the planet.

On April 21, Generation Anthropocene, an award-winning podcast born out of a Stanford University course, launches a new season in celebration of Earth Day and the podcast’s 5-year anniversary.

Generation Anthropocene was the brainchild of Michael Osborne and Miles Traer. Both were graduate students at the time – Osborne studied geochemisty, Traer studied tectonic geomorphology – and, deep into their PhD work, they were hunting for a creative outlet. What began as a way for them to recuperate from long days of coding and sample processing flourished into a critically acclaimed podcast and a transformative undergraduate experience.

Michael Osborne, audio production director in a sound studio with students Megan Shea and Isha Salian practicing interview skills

Michael Osborne, audio production director and lecturer in the Podcasting the Anthropocene course, with students Megan Shea and Isha Salian, practicing interview skills for the Generation Anthropocene podcast in the Lathrop Library sound studio. (Image credit: Alison Fell)

“Students in this class have an unparalleled opportunity to connect deeply, one-on-one, with experts they choose, in conversations they guide, to build answers to questions they care about intensely,” said Thomas Hayden, director of the environmental communication Master of Arts program in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth) and an early supporter of the Podcasting the Anthropocene course. “They’re prepared meticulously to get the most out of every step of the process, from forming questions through the interviews, to crafting podcast episodes that really synthesize, distill and share the insights they’ve gained.”

The name of the podcast has its roots in the 2011 article “Welcome to the Anthropocene” from The Economist. The Anthropocene is what some scientists call the current geological epoch, asserting that the impacts of human existence on the environment distinguish this from previous epochs.

“I had never heard the term Anthropocene before taking the class,” said Leslie Chang, ’12, host and producer of Generation Anthropocene. She was among the first students to take the Podcasting the Anthropocene course back in 2012. “In addition to learning interviewing and podcasting skills, we spent a lot of time discussing how the term might be helpful for talking about environmental change in a big picture way – beyond traditional topics like climate change or biodiversity loss, and really getting at the relationship between humans and our planet.”

Generation Anthropocene was developed from within Stanford Earth thanks to generous support from Dean Pamela Matson. In recent years, the project has also received funding from Worldview Stanford and the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (VPTL). This year, thanks to extra support from VPTL, Stanford Earth, the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, and the HAAS Center for Public Service, the Podcasting the Anthropocene course was offered for two quarters. The first focused on interviewing and story development; the second quarter included writing for the ear, voicing narration and other more advanced audio production skills.

Who is Generation Anthropocene?

From the start, Generation Anthropocene was envisioned as a way to create a cross-generational dialogue between experts who’ve spent years studying the world and young people about to journey into it. Traer and Osborne know all too well that their students, who represent a variety of majors, are profoundly affected by the idea that humans are having geological-scale impacts on Earth.

“As we and our students have come of age, we have been confronted with Earth’s changing surface geology, driven primarily by previous generations – unbeknownst to them and without malintent,” said Traer, who is now host and producer of the podcast and a lecturer at Stanford Earth. “I think students come to our class because they have some fear of the planet that they’re going to live on.”

Over time, the issues that students want to explore has evolved. Traer said food and water scarcity were the initial hot topics, then biodiversity loss. This year, the students gravitated toward discussing environmental policy under the new administration. Members of the class are encouraged to be ambitious with their projects, stretching the bounds of what the podcast covers, reaching out to well-known experts at Stanford and beyond. By Osborne’s count, they’ve interviewed six or seven MacArthur Foundation grant awardees following hours in research and preparation. The goal is to empower the students to ask meaningful, relevant questions while also communicating their own curiosity and concerns.

“It’s made me much more conscious about the conversations I’m having in everyday life,” said Meghan Shea, ’17, an engineering major who took both Podcasting the Anthropocene courses this year. “My Stanford experience as a whole, but this class in particular, has proven to me how important it is to communicate research. I think I would be doing a disservice if, in my future research career, I don’t actively communicate the work that I’m doing.”

From late 2013 to spring 2015, Osborne, Traer and Chang took some time away from the podcast to hone their skills – and in the case of Osborne and Traer, to finish their PhDs. Since returning in 2015, the podcast has featured a mix of student pieces and episodes produced by Traer, Osborne and Chang. But with two quarters’ worth of student material for this season, they plan to come back in a big way this spring.

Something special

From the start, Generation Anthropocene has had big ambitions to influence thinking and conversations about environmental issues using stories based in research. Initially the producers collaborated with Grist, a nonprofit environmental news publication. In 2015, they partnered with Smithsonian.com to cross-promote and distribute episodes. That same year, The Atlantic named the episode “The Soundtracker” – a story initiated by a student and produced and mixed by Chang – one of the 50 best podcast episodes of the year. In July of 2016, “Sounds of Space,” an episode by Traer, landed on Wired’s list of best podcast episodes.

Looking ahead, Osborne described the potential of Generation Anthropocene as “infinite.” Any topic that somehow addresses changes to Earth’s surface can work, and some shows have defied that constraint as well. The podcast prides itself on being experimental, surprising and provocative. Although it was originally made up of long-form interviews, it is now mixed format, with both interviews and scripted pieces.

Without being explicitly so, Generation Anthropocene is interdisciplinary and students aren’t required to limit their interview subjects to the Stanford campus. Regardless, Osborne said that being here gives them unparalleled access to some of the best minds in the word and that the show certainly displays how Stanford is a “thought-leader in environmental issues.”

Summing up his co-creation succinctly, he said, “I don’t think there’s any other university out there doing what we’re doing. This is a new model for both education and the growing world of podcasts.”