Neil King is a respected voice at Deutsche Welle and the creative force behind On The Green Fence, an environmental podcast that we’re proud to call part of our Bear Radio Family. Though a treasured journalist with many strings to his bow, what is most striking about King is his dedication to remaining impartial, fair, and kind. We sat down with him to discuss his life-long love of radio, his attitude towards meat consumption, and his journey from a co-host to a single anchor.
Hi Neil, Introduce yourself to our readers!
Hi, my name is Neil. I’m the host and co-producer of Deutsche Welle’s environment podcast On The Green Fence. I live near Bonn, I’m 43 years old, and I’ve been with DW since 2007.
Where are we getting coffee today?
Oh boy. If I could choose anywhere I would go with a nice coffee maker in Florence and just sit on the square and look out over the Duomo drinking a cup of coffee. That would be beautiful.
Do you remember the moment you discovered podcasting?
Podcasting not so much, however, I did have a very early connection to the radio. My older brothers and I had a tape recorder and we used to create our own little audio segments, shows, and plays on it all the time growing up. It was a huge part of my childhood.
As well as that, I would listen to audiobooks every single evening. I remember we had a fantastic recording of The Hobbit and listened to it nightly. That hobby sparked my interest in radio shows, the news, and was what eventually led me to journalism.
However, in terms of podcasts, I‘ve been really late on the uptake. I like some true crime podcasts, but I am still a bit old-fashioned when it comes to technology. I put off using a smartphone for as long as I possibly could and still have my old block Nokia. I recognize that since I work in podcasting this is quite ironic, but I’m not an avid podcast listener – not really. Radio is still my favorite medium.
You did mention a love for audiobooks however, could you share with us some of your favorite ones?
Oh, there are so many, particularly in the English-speaking children’s market. I already mentioned The Hobbit, but there’s a terrific recording of Winne The Pooh that’s out there as well. I have three kids and now they’re getting to the age where I can introduce my favorite audiobooks to them which is really special. I get to relive the excitement through them.
So then, tell me how you ended up branching into podcasting?
Well prior to Green Fence, I worked for a radio program called WorldLink which I hosted with Gabriel, the former co-host of Green Fence. One week we had a 10-minute gap that the reports hadn’t filled and so we needed to create some new content fast.
At the time, the Rio Olympics were on and these games were the first ones to showcase gold as an Olympic sport. Gabriel, my co-host, was a huge Golfer and suggested that we go to a golf club, talk to some golfers about the upcoming Olympics and just see what happens.
I was pretty stressed because we were really under time pressure, but Gabe was just his usual spontaneous, instinctual self and it all came together really well. Once released, the feedback on the excerpt was just amazing. In fact, it was so good that our boss asked us to shift the focus of our one-hour show from rigid scripting to one-hour specials.
At first, we began creating one-hour specials that were very sound rich and human-focused, such as an episode on life as a blind person living in Germany or one on the refugee crisis, and the success of these specials led us to create Green Fence.
What was your goal when you started On The Green Fence?
Honestly, we were just interested in doing real stories justice. We wanted to get the best out of people, showcase every side of humanity, and leave our preconceptions at the door. That is the very essence of what I love about journalism. I love speaking to someone about a story of theirs that isn’t their usual PR talk or press tour material, but rather a snapshot of what they really feel. Gabe and I just wanted to talk to all kinds of people, no matter their leaning or lifestyle.
This drive to speak to all corners actually made us quite contentious. We insisted on speaking to people that the mainstream media tended to sensor. For example, we did a report on the Identitäre Bewegung exploring the fears of right-wing Germans. The fact that these episodes acknowledge the existence of these groups made some people unhappy because they don’t believe that their opinions deserve a platform, but personally, I disagree.
I think it’s counterproductive to shun certain groups. It doesn’t make any of their opinions go away, it just fuels the division that gave birth to them in the first place. Gabe and I would speak to anyone. We might have disagreed with them, but we would always speak to them.
You’ve mentioned Gabriel, the previous co-host of On The Green Fence a number of times. For readers who don’t know, the podcast used to be anchored by both of you but now you’re the sole frontman. Do you miss hosting with a partner?
You put your finger on it there, Alice. I miss Gabe. I miss the tandem, bouncing off each other, and moving through the creative process together. There’s so much more room for surprise when you create with someone else. We had such different approaches to things and this difference didn’t just push us outside of our respective comfort zones, it made our content much more interesting.
However, behind the microphone, I still have a great team on Green Fence. My wonderful co-producer Natalie Muller joined the format when Gabe left. My advice to anyone out there who is thinking of starting a podcast would be that if you’ve got a good cohost for it, I say to start this journey together.
The name ‘On The Green Fence’ seems to encompass what you aim to do, that is to showcase both sides of certain issues. In modern media, that isn’t the route taken by a lot of platforms. Tell us why adopting this somewhat impartial stance was important to you.
Well, before On The Green Fence, we had absolutely no connection to environmental journalism. This meant that we were totally thrown in at the deep end. We were hearing about most of the topics for the first time so we genuinely began investigating them giving both sides a chance.
Though overwhelming, this lack of experience grew to be our selling point. It means that we are moving through the episodes in the same way as the listener, without any prerequisite knowledge or agenda, and without being dogmatic. We navigate issues from an honest standpoint and don’t shy away from saying where we’re at. The name reflects that. It enables us to properly try on someone else’s shoes before making a decision.
It’s interesting though because while listeners might find your lack of industry knowledge endearing, it also probably acts as a sort of superpower to allow them to discover the crisis-free of judgment thereby proving to be a pretty influential tool – do you agree?
Absolutely. I mean even with my kids, if I tell them that they can’t do something, they’ll automatically want to do it.
As soon as you start preaching it turns people off. It’s actually something that I’ve spoken with activists about because I honestly believe that if you’re ‘too activist’ about something you’ll only reach people who’re inside your bubble. You won’t connect with the people who are actually producing the most CO2 emissions or doing the most harmful things unless you speak to them like you’re one of them, or at least not entirely against them.
However, now that you’re deep into the podcast, have you found that your discoveries throughout the show informed your own lifestyle?
Absolutely. I had a green attitude when I was younger, but as I grew up it kind of evaporated from my conscience. Doing this podcast has really resuscitated it. However, if I’m completely honest, this transformation hasn’t always been pleasant. Realizing all the truth about the environmental crisis can be depressing.
The beginning of the show coincided with my father passing away very suddenly. For me, coping with that loss alongside discovering this huge environmental doom and gloom put me in quite a dark place. I had to really battle my way back to being positive again.
What helped you to manage your feelings about the environmental crisis?
One thing that’s helped actually, is incorporating constructive journalism into my work. Constructive journalism is very solution-focused and prior to this dark chapter of mine, it was a genre that I had always criticized. I felt that it was a gateway stepping-stone towards directing your audience’s opinion and I disagree with that kind of practice entirely because I feel that every person is capable of making up their own minds.
However now I see that all constructive journalism does is bring solutions to the table of doom and gloom and when that table is the environmental crisis, a table of solutions is literally necessary. This realization inspired us to add a section to the end of each episode where we talk about what every person can do to take control of their footprint. Incorporating hope like this is really important to me.
You’ve had some incredible guests on your show. Do you have a standout revelatory moment from an interview?
Hmm… In general, I would say that the interviewees or situations that impressed me the most had to do with the series we did on meat. For this series, we mostly recorded on the field and spoke to a whole board of interesting people, including a cattle micro farmer.
When we visited the micro farmer, we witnessed the slaughter of two calves. This was something I was very scared to see. When the farmer actually killed the calf, Gabe was squatting down with the microphone right by the carp because he wasn’t to get the actual sound. Meanwhile, I was physically backed into a corner. I had to force myself to look. It was genuinely traumatic. I just remember thinking afterward, every single person who eats meat should have to witness this.
This was a farm where the farmer was incredibly kind. He named his cows, his children loved them, he clearly had a genuine connection with his animals. That being said, even he was aware that there was something bad or hidden about the act of the slaughter itself. I remember he made sure that his children weren’t home when it happened.
In contrast to this, we also visited a large factory for Tonnies, a major German meat supplier, but they refused to let us in. In hindsight, I am thankful they didn’t because merely being on the grounds was traumatic enough. We arrived at the entrance and although security wouldn’t let us past, we noticed that there was a constant stream of trucks flowing in and out of the factory every 20 seconds. The trucks going into the factory were brimming with pigs. They were squealing so loudly. You could smell their urine. You could feel their fear. They very clearly knew what was about to happen to them.
This image, contrasted with the micro farmer that we visited, was entirely harrowing. At least with the micro farmer, he cared for each animal. He literally held them as they died and even then the entire experience was traumatic. However, what we saw in the factory was unthinkably inhumane. It was so full of death.
How did that experience inform your lifestyle?
Well, for one thing, I haven’t bought a single piece of supermarket meat since then. I mean, we weren’t big meat eaters before but we certainly always had meat in our fridge and that’s simply not the case anymore.
However, just because discovering all of this about meat encouraged me to change my eating patterns doesn’t mean that I think everyone should immediately upheave their lifestyles. Instead, I encourage people to make little changes frequently. We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if we do something we shouldn’t or take a misstep, if we do we’ll all run out of steam.
I remember on another episode I spoke to a psychologist about this kind of all-in mentality and she said something so profound that it’s always stayed with me. She said ‘The world doesn’t need one perfect activist, It needs one million imperfect ones.’ I think that while the popularisation of labels like vegetarian and vegan might be well-intended, it encourages people to strive for this one singular mode of perfection and that’s entirely counterproductive. It kills the movement.
I believe that people have the innate ability to make the right choice if all the facts are clearly presented to them, no matter their identity, age, or IQ. I honestly think that together, we can turn this crisis around, but first, we need to provide people with the space and information to make the right choices. That’s what I want our podcast to do because that’s what I want to do myself.
And to finish, what is your favorite sound?
I think one of my favorite sounds is when somebody is genuinely laughing. Now, this person could be anyone, but there are some laughs particular such as my wife or my kids that get me every time. I love the sound of when one of my kids is laughing, like truly, truly, infectiously cracking up. I think that’s a beautiful sound.
interview by Alice O’Brien for Bear Radio.