Sustainable Sounds

College students are tuning in to green radio.

By Jared Flesher

Princeton University and a handful of its undergrads are wagering a bet: that a mix of enthusiasm, dance tunes, and well-reported environmental stories will inspire radio listeners to better the planet.

The Student Environmental Communication Network, or SECN, produces solution-oriented radio pieces about climate change and sustainable living that are offered to radio stations everywhere. If the new project becomes successful at Princeton, the students want to bring in other universities as well, creating a national network of student-produced green programming.
“This is the main issue of our generation," says Rebecca Nyquist, student director of the SECN. "Media is my way of getting involved.”

Like many colleges, Princeton recently made a commitment to reduce its environmental footprint, and established an Office of Sustainability last year. Shana Weber, the university's new sustainability manager, first conceived of SECN and will serve as its executive director, one of several fledgling projects her office will oversee. A trained ecologist with radio production experience, Weber hopes to help set a tone for the network.

“We've all had our fill of doom and gloom when it comes to environmental reporting,” she says. “And there is reason for that--there are some grave concerns. But I believe the way to foster a cultural shift is to inspire people. Get people to a place where they're seeing the possibility, rather than the possible destruction.”

In the fall of 2006, Weber met Nyquist and they hatched their plan to make the network a reality. They recruited half a dozen students and got approval from Princeton's on-campus radio station, WPRB, to use its facilities.

For their first program, a four-minute segment titled “What We Think of Global Climate Change,” the SECN'ers interviewed fellow students about their disparate views on global warming. The second segment, “Cool and Green Pre-loved Clothing,” documented student host Meha Jain's first-ever trip to a thrift store.

“The thrift store itself looked like an old gymnasium,” Jain narrated. “The clothes ranged from elegant to bizarre. Goodwill is probably the only place in the world where a Brooks Brothers suit can be found next to an adult-sized Pokemon costume.”

The segments were a success, also airing on Air America’s EcoTalk and on several local stations from Texas to Philadelphia. Despite the program’s initial success, they were the only two segments SECN would produce in 2006.

The students had vastly underestimated the amount of time it would take to produce polished radio pieces—10 to 15 hours for each segment—even though the programs had a running time of less than five minutes.

“I spent a whole night until three or four in the morning writing out my ideas for a script,” says junior Mark Smith, producer of the thrift store segment. “The next night we spent pretty much the whole night recording and editing.”

Smith, in addition to taking a full course load in the ecology and evolutionary biology department, serves as co-president of Greening Princeton, one of the largest environmental groups on campus. Nyquist, a religion major with an environmental studies concentration, is a student athlete on the university's swim team. The busy students of the SECN came together and decided their sustainability show, in its current form, might not be sustainable.

But luckily, Nyquist and Weber came up with an innovative solution to the problem: Weave SECN into a new environmental communications course. School administrators recently approved the idea for the class, and it will be taught in the Spring 2008 semester by Weber and several guest lecturers.

“We're hitting two birds with one stone,” Nyquist says. “We're going to get students producing pieces, but we're also going to be gathering a strong base for the network.”

If the SECN flourishes, Weber's vision is for Princeton to serve as a central clearinghouse for student-produced environmental content coming in from universities across the nation

“It's not actually a network yet,” Weber says. “But everybody I talk to at other institutions is really interested in this. What we need to do here at Princeton is give it a try and see if we can create a framework that we can carry over time.”

To that end, Weber believes an upbeat philosophy can make all the difference in keeping listeners engaged, not to mention her student producers.

“These are big issues, but I think we have to meet them with good humor,” she says. “If it's not fun, it's not sustainable.”