Critical Frequency began the year with the wind behind their backs. The independent podcast network led by veteran climate reporter Amy Westervelt had secured a sizable grant — in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — that would have gone far in helping their plans to grow the company, bring on more shows, and expand Drilled, its flagship podcast that has garnered acclaim for its true crime-esque approach to climate reporting.
But things hit a roadblock about a month into the year, when it became apparent that the grant money had come with considerable strings attached. As it turned out, the foundation behind the money had interest in influential coverage, which was something that didn’t sit well with Westervelt, so they sent the money back.
And then, of course, came the pandemic.
“Dammit Westervelt, you and your fucking ethics,” Westervelt laughed, recounting the episode over the phone last week. Inopportune timing, but what can you do. The following months saw the network scrambling for more revenue. They launched crowdfunding campaigns for Drilled and another show in the portfolio, Hot Take. They leaned on their ad sales partners to find more cash. They also started reaching back out to all sorts of other grant funders as well.
Since then, things have stabilized, and Westervelt argues that, if anything, the events of the past year have made the company more resilient, which is probably what you want from an independent journalistic operation. Today, the company is set to be cash positive through the end of the year, it’s making about half a million dollars in revenue, and most importantly, the network is set to follow through on their plans for expansion.
Over the fall, Critical Frequency will be launching several new shows, including: Generation Green New Deal, which will offer listeners an in-depth look at climate politics, the Green New Deal, and the Sunrise Movement; Inherited, which seems to be a StoryCorps-esque project that will feature personal stories from inside the climate movement; and Hazard, an investigative podcast that will follow journalist Amy Roost in her quest for answers to her children’s brain malformations. There will also be a new season of Drilled, along with the rollout of an initiative called the Accountability Reporting Network. (More on that in a bit.)
Still, it was a tough stretch for Critical Frequency, which is already committed to the hard work of being independent in an increasingly consolidating business. And by “independent,” they mean that absolutely, with substantial pains taken to push hard against any possible scintilla of external influence. Westervelt is the kind of person who speaks critically and incisively of native advertising, consolidating media, and news organizations that don’t consciously reconcile the tension inherent when they carry advertising from certain kinds of companies. And as illustrated previously, she even views grants with considerable suspicion. “I’m under no illusions that grant money is somehow cleaner than corporate advertising,” she said. “Foundations were basically created to launder the money of shitty rich people.”
It’s a steely skepticism that comes out of years working on the climate beat, an area of journalism and discourse that has been consistently distorted, manipulated, and suppressed by corporate power for decades.
Critical Frequency was founded back in 2017. Their story starts in the mid-2010s when Westervelt, who had worked as a print reporter for about fifteen years, decided to try something new with her career. She found herself interested in audio production and called up her local public radio station, KUNR in Reno, asking if they wanted an older intern. The station was game, and she ended up becoming a staff reporter at the station, where she’d work for a few years. At one point, she started a podcast with a colleague, Julia Ritchey, called Range, which produced stories about the New American West. The show made episodes about Tesla fanboys, a cowboy poetry festival, racial politics in the West, that kind of thing. The podcast eventually drew interest from the station, which offered to license it, but the trade-off would have required Westervelt and Ritchey giving total control over to the station. Again, this was not an arrangement that sat well, given the risk of having to make editorial compromises to fit into the specific way public radio tends to tell its stories.
So Westervelt and Ritchey rejected the opportunity, and continued working on the show by themselves. Soon after, they started hearing from like-minded podcast creators, who reached out to request help on their shows. In the manner that a small collection of buildings yearns to become a town, Range and these other shows ultimately opted to band together, forming what is now the Critical Frequency podcast network.
But there was the question of how, exactly, this network was supposed to operate as a business. Having come from the print and digital media worlds, Westervelt was wary about what happened in those industries — particularly with what happened around native advertising — and had concerns that the very same things will inevitably happen in podcasting as well, so she sought to forge something different with relatively low-stakes, such that if the whole thing fell apart, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal.
Radiotopia ended up being a model for the network, both in terms of the way it is structured as a relatively disparate but connected entity as well as its emphasis on creators owning their own material, though Critical Frequency would be somewhat different by virtue of its journalistic needs, which involves a solid fact checking process — which, by the way, remains a somewhat uncommon feature in the podcast business — as well as an affordable First Amendment lawyer on call. (For those interested, that lawyer is James Wheaton, senior counsel and founder of the First Amendment Project.)
The network spent its early goings doing a good deal of experimentation, bringing on a wide range of shows that were all united by a broadly journalistic and slightly alternative orientation. It focused on being a home for beats, interests, demographics, and geographic locations that are typically under-invested or under-emphasized by mainstream organizations. On the Critical Frequency roster, you’d find shows like Katherine Goldstein’s The Double Shift, which covers motherhood in America, and Lewis Raven Wallace’s The View From Somewhere, which is an extension of his work critiquing the notion of objectivity in journalism, but you’ll also find less newsy projects like Queen of Shit Mountain, a music interview podcast hosted by the frontwoman of the rock band Thelma and the Sleaze.
Today, as the network rolls into the last quarter of 2020, it’s firmed things up quite a bit. Shows that are no longer active were trimmed off the roster, and the business has pushed hard to diversify its revenue. Critical Frequency was one of the first launch partners for Supporting Cast, the direct revenue platform, and they have also started co-producing projects with bigger podcast publishers, including Stitcher’s documentary arm Witness Docs and Crooked Media’s This Land series.
This month, they are also launching a reporting infrastructure initiative called the Accountability Reporting Network, in which the network will hire three dedicated reporters based in Louisiana, Texas, and the Ohio-Pennsylvania natural gas corridor to track environment regulation rollbacks by federal and state governments. The initiative came of something they had started noticing at the outset of the pandemic. “At the time, the Republicans were saying that the Democrats were going to use COVID to try to push radical climate policy — and I was like, ‘Have you met Nancy Pelosi?’” Westervelt said. “So that must mean that, actually, the fossil fuel companies were going to push policy, which of course they did, and we found that it was primarily happening at the state level.” The state of the local news business being what it is, there was a high chance that those rollbacks would take place without much notice, and so the Critical Frequency team worked to raise money in order to put some eyes on the matter.
Westervelt is perhaps the first person in the podcast space I’ve encountered in a long time that possesses about the same level of apprehension as I do about what the future will almost certainly bring to podcasting. She expressed concern about the pitfalls that come with podcasting going the same corporatizing path as every other media channel, about how the lack of regulations around podcast advertising makes it ripe for exploitation by bad actors and purveyors of misinformation, and about how all the stuff we worry about with the media and the world equally applies to podcasting, even as it continues to see itself as a young, scrappy upstart.
All this amounts to is, ultimately, a good kind of paranoia fitting for a distressingly chaotic era. Which is why I feel fairly confident we’ll be seeing Critical Frequency around for a long time, grant funding or no.