By Jason Heppler
I am a heavy consumer of podcasts. They’re perfect forms of entertainment and information, something that I can consume throughout the day during commutes, down time, or tasks that don’t require full focus. And while there are a good number of excellent podcasts focused on history, none come to mind that focus on the American West.
Earlier this year, journalists Julia Ritchey and Amy Westervelt launched the Range Podcast, a bi-weekly show telling “stories about the New American West.” The show focused on stories, issues, and entrepreneurs of the West. They tell stories, as they describe in their pilot episode, about the “outlaw spirit” of the West and opportunities to “reinvent yourself” in the “wide open spaces that define the West.” This year is the first season, an eight episode arc balancing commentary and interviews on a given topic.
Podcasts in general have a tendency to run long—many of my favorite shows run 90 to 120 minutes. Nationally-recognized shows like Radiolab and This American Life often run an hour or more. Not so for Range, whose shows run twenty-to-thirty minutes in length. The easily-digestible format of the episodes make for perfect commute-length listening or a chance to catch the show in those moments of short time.
What is “new” about this West? For western historians the topics might feel familiar: issues about race and progressivism, sport history, cowboy poetry, the sustainable food movement, and medical marijuana made up just a few of the topics this season. This isn’t the stereotypical West dismissively derided as “flyover country,” nor is the focus exclusively on those urban centers often associated with the West, like Denver, San Francisco, or Phoenix. As someone who studies western high-tech boomtowns, their bonus episode “The 21st Century Prospector” on efforts to turn the hillsides of rural Nevada into the 21st century’s Silicon Valley illustrates the appeal of the show to anyone interested in thinking about the pasts and futures of the region. In some ways rural Nevada parallels mid-twentieth century Silicon Valley. The epicenter of Silicon Valley’s urban growth, stretching from Palo Alto to San José, was an unlikely place for high technology to emerge. The future boomtowns of central California were rural farming and ranching communities prior to the flood of Cold War funding that transformed the San Francisco Bay Area into a major center of research and development. In Nevada, the flow of capital is slightly different, fueled instead by an ambitious real estate developer, Lance Gilman, motivated by profit rather than military research. Nevertheless, just as the builders of Silicon Valley envisioned this postindustrial activity as the future for California’s economy, promoters in Nevada see high-tech as a pathway into new avenues of economic development that’s less reliant on gaming and entertainment. And when Telsa decides to build a gigantic factory for manufacturing batteries—and spending $5 billion in construction and creating 6,500 new jobs—it’s little wonder why states hitch their futures on high-tech. (There are downsides to that, but you’ll have to wait for my book to wrap up to learn more about that.)
Perhaps most enthralling, for me at least, is that they take the region’s distinctiveness seriously. The region does carry with it a kind of uniqueness we call “western,” a historical process roughly shared throughout the region just as the Northeast might be said to have a “New England feel” or that we can ascribe to the southern states a “southern hospitality.” But while it’s fair to generally refer to area west of the 100th meridian as “The West,” we shouldn’t lose sight of the idea that the West is, as David Wrobel once put it, many wests. Perhaps I’m expecting too much from short podcast episodes, but the West contains distinctive subregions defined by their environment, identity, and culture. Are there differences, for example, in ski seasons in Nevada, Utah, California, and Colorado? And if so, what does that tell us about the sport and its place in the West? Furthermore, their show is an artifact of their location: since they’re based out of Reno, many of the episodes tend to focus on Nevada and the surrounding region. But the Great Basin is quite different, both in historical experience and present-day, from the Pacific Northwest or areas of the Southwest. It may be outside the bounds of what Ritchey and Westervelt seek to achieve, but I would love to see future episodes touching on their topics across western subregions.
I’d also call on the show to provide more historical context. It’s not the case that many of these themes are suddenly new to the 21st century. Many of these topics have long histories in the West: ethnic diversity and racial strife, urbanization, new industrial activity, battles over land use, the degradation of the environment—the “new” sometimes looks a lot like the “old.” Many of the issues they bring up this season have roots in historical patterns worth touching on, even briefly, to give a better sense of what exactly is “new” about this West.
These slight criticisms aside, I loved the show and look forward to next season. Do yourself a favor and give the show a listen. And if you have an interesting story to pitch, send it their way.