🎤 Interview: Adriana Cargill
Adriana Cargill is the host, writer, reporter, and producer of Sandcastles. She’s also the founder of Wave Maker Media, an independent podcast production house. Previously, she’s reported and produced stories for KCRW, NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, Latino USA, LAist, Crooked Media, Wondery, VICE News, The Chicago Redeye and more.
Adriana and I had a great time talking about her work, our interest in surfing, and so went over our allotted time. While the written interview is condensed, listen to the full interview to hear more of our conversation and about a documentary film Adriana is working on. 3-word hint: Women. Big Waves.
To start, can you share a little about your journey into storytelling…
I came pretty late to the game. When I was living in Chicago, I was working for a hedge fund, in the Board of Trade downtown, and I would take the L train to work and it was like about a 30 minute ride. And I would listen to This American Life, and as you know, those episodes are like an hour long. So I'd only get like halfway through it, and then I'd spend the whole day being like, oh my God, what happened to such and such?
Or like, how's it gonna end with you know, X, Y, Z or whatever. And after months of that, I was like, why am I doing this job that I hate and spending my entire time just wanting to listen to radio? And so I basically quit and started working for StoryCorps, which was in the Chicago Cultural Center at the time.
And then I went to journalism school and got an internship at Marketplace in LA and kind of have been in public radio ever since.
As mentioned in your bio, you are the founder of Wave Maker Media. What made you want to start your own production company?
Yeah, I think it was, trying to take my frustrations and do something positive with them.
I've worked in a lot of dysfunctional and frustrating work environments, and honestly, I just got really fed up with kind of being a cog in a machine that barely works and that I really felt like didn't invest in staff or talent. And you know, live, daily news has never been my thing; I'm more of a person that likes to mull over things and kind of take time and really kind of dig into what do they really mean? What are we really talking about?
And so on one side, I started my own company because I just didn't wanna work in those kind of work environments anymore. But for the other thing, it's that I wanted to work on stuff I'm passionate about. I'd always say that at Wave Maker Media we do values aligned content. And what that really means is like, I don't wanna work on things that I think are stupid.
Sandcastles is kind of the first narrative project, but I have other clients where, you know, it's a collective of investors who are doing impact investing and ESG investing and trying to make the world a better place. And they don't have any capacity or knowledge about how to make a podcast, but they want a way for their members to be able to connect and hear their stories. And so I would say like, yes to them or to a museum, or to a nonprofit, or to agree with people who really have some way that they're trying to make the world a positive place and that feels like it's worth it to get out of bed for.
Let’s get into the story of Sandcastles, your latest podcast and the first Wave Maker Media project. Give us five words that hint at what listeners can expect.
I'd say: hope, loss, surfers, wildfires and resilience.
Going beyond the five words, the tagline for the show is “a podcast about home, how we create it and why we fight so hard for it”. Why did you decide this would be framing for this show that on its surface is about surfers fighting wildfires?
Yeah, I think there's two reasons for that, and the first one is like, this story really developed over time. When I started reporting it, it was not the same as it was now, four years later. So part of it is how it developed, but it really hooked me from the very beginning. You know, like I saw these surfers surfing in like, 50 pound generators in the middle of a wildfire. And you know, it, it was just such a surreal scene and I just completely didn't understand what was going on.
And as a person that's really curious, it hooked me, but it hooked me in a way where it was more than just that. And I was talking with a journalist friend and it's like, it's not just because I'm a surfer, it's not just because I live in Southern California. It's not that I was like, hypnotized by the power of wildfires because I come from the Midwest and we do not have wildfires like this. Like I'm used to like tornadoes and blizzards and those things you can prepare for in a way that like you usually know a couple days before they're coming or everyone has a basement or whatever. But I don't think it was that, I think it was like in just talking to him, he kind of helped me peel the layers.
And the thing that was really captivating me was just like the strength of the belonging. Just like the motivation as I started interviewing more of them [the surfers], it was like this common theme that kept coming up where it's sort of like this is their place, their home, their community. It's part of their identity. And identity is such an intangible, like amorphous thing. But, I mean, it motivated these guys to risk their lives for this, right? And, and then I realized, you know, like that's something I don't feel like I have, but also something that's such a common human experience.
And everybody has a story around it. And so I thought, you know, this is a content framework that can handle lots of different seasons, lots of different themes. This season's theme is fighting for it. The next one might be like reclaiming home, losing home, you know, finding it or whatever, right? Like it can kind of encapsulate so many different things and, and I also like to experiment, so I was like, you know, why not?
To hear Adriana and I talk about the name “Sandcastles”, tune in 12 minutes in.
About 33 minutes into the first episode, you give a description of the fire’s impact. It’s ver beautifully described and I think for people who are maybe newer to audio in terms of like being an audio listener, or maybe those who don't work in audio and don't really know how the sausage is made so to speak, it's a very, or needs to be a sensory medium in a lot of ways. What’s your process for building a fully sensory experience to capture the essence of home?
Well, I can answer that maybe in a general way. I think there's this undercurrent in any content that I do where I get artistic freedom, where I want people to feel more compassionate to people that are not like them or just more compassionate to people they don't know.
And so in Sandcastles, in terms of building the home, I actually do very little description of the actual home structures themselves. And I center most of the time on the emotions and experiences of the characters as close as I can through their eyes. Like what they would have seen, what they would have.
A lot of the people that I feature are in their mid-thirties, so they took tons of video, tons of photo, and there were live feeds on different news channels for hours during the Woolsey Fire during this same time period in these almost exact same places.
Like there's quite a bit of it from Zuma Beach, and so I [could] kind of reconstruct. But I really try and do it from, you are in the character's shoes as much as possible, because I think what we were talking about earlier, home is this emotional stakes, this emotional feeling, this like intangible feeling.
And I'm trying to get you to feel the same thing that the characters are. So I guess like in order to build that sensory experience, like I really try and get you to empathize and understand the emotional stakes for the characters in order to create a sensory scene, if that makes sense.
Adriana talks more about getting sensory descriptions from the interviewees themselves about 21 minutes in.
In episode 2 you provide some historical context for the ethos that the community has, around development, ownership, territory. Why do you think the community members opened up to you the way they did?
Yeah, so people from Malibu are really famous for not wanting to talk to outsiders. Like they're, they're very well known for it and they're very insular. And I knew that it was gonna be difficult and I spent a lot of time building relationships with people and just showing up like literally year after year. Like if they invited me to a community event, I would go, you know, and I think what I was really doing was building trust.
And I think there's so many journalists, and particularly around the Woolsey Fire, where they come in for the disaster. They do a live shot in front of your house that's burning, and then they leave and there's this like real feeling of anger in the community of like, you kind of just are here for disaster porn and to create entertainment off of our suffering and our trauma, and we hate you. So like there's definitely like that, ethos and I don't know that it's just specific to Malibu in terms of fire coverage.
And so, I just spent a lot of time not verbalizing it, but trying to show through my actions that that's not what I was there to do, and that I was there to tell a much deeper story and to give voice to something that they wanted to say, but didn't really trust anybody to say. I mean, it took, especially for the older generation, it took almost two years for me to get them to agree to do an interview with me.
Adriana talk more in the audio (~25 minutes in) about what it’s like to get stories from people who are your peers in age.
Listening to the season so far [prior to episode 5] there isn’t much explicit talk about climate change and the role it’s playing with the wildfires California is experiencing. In fact, we learn in the podcast that two other big fires started the same day as the Woolsey Fire, including the Camp Fire, which was the deadliest and most destructive in California history.
And in prepping for this interview, I actually just saw a couple of days ago that State Farm said they're no longer going to be offering new homeowners insurance policies in California due to wildfires increasing in frequency as it relates to climate change. So there's a lot happening there. Can you talk to us about the editorial decision-making related to whether you would explore a climate angle?
For me, when I look at the landscape, there's a million articles, podcasts, news, stories out there where you can read about how climate change is making wildfires more intense, more frequent, more unpredictable.
And lots of other factors that are making them bigger. You know, there's plenty of facts and figures out there, right? Plenty of reports, plenty of judgements against PGE [California utilities provider Pacific Gas & Electric] or I mean, stuff that Governor Gavin Newsom's saying. I mean, you find it anywhere you look right, and it seems to me that that's not moving the needle much on convincing people who aren't already on board.
That climate change is happening and real and something needs to be done about it, you know, I guess I wanted to try and get at it from a different way and not have it hit you over the head with the fact that this is a climate adaption story.
Like you might not even realize it, and then you get to the end and you're like, oh, wait a minute. Like here's this community that was affected by this historically. So this isn't just like in terms of Malibu burning a lot, this is not how Malibu normally burns, right?
Like this one is really exceptional, but instead of focusing on facts and figures, why don't I try and tell the story... rooted in the characters and the people that are living through it. And, and fundamentally the arc is like the story, the fire happens, it catches these people off guard, and then they step in to fill the resource gap when emergency first responders are stretched thin by three major fires on the same day. And they end up inventing new ways that communities can get prepared respond to and, handle post-fire. And they end up inventing a new model that they're in discussion right now with LA County Fire Department about, creating a pilot program for one of the most well-respected and one of the largest wildfire-fighting institutions in the world.
And it has a specialty in wild land firefighting because we have the Santa Monica Mountains here in LA County, and that's what has that high burn incidence, meaning they have a lot of practice. And so, you know, the arc of this story is very much like these people have this historic event happen while wildfires are made worse by climate change.
They adapt to it in a new way. And then are making something that can be scaled and used for other communities that are being affected by increasingly worse wildfires. So it's very much an adaption story, but you might not realize it. And I kind of wanted to just play with that of like, if I'm not making it so explicit, will people walk away with that?
You know, at least me as a content creator, I like works where I'm not told how to feel or what to think and where it's big enough that lots of different people can get different things out of it. So I guess I wanted to not go on a heavy facts and figures in this podcast and go more on a character driven, but still have it be the same climate adaption.
I will also say in episode five there is quite a bit more talk about that because I go through the actual model that they invented.
What would you say is your biggest takeaway from telling this story?
I think that that my biggest takeaway and also just the feedback that I've gotten from people is like, people love a hopeful story. I love telling a hopeful story. Like I've gotten a lot of feedback where they're like, I've never heard investigative journalists or climate reporting this relatable. You know, and I've gotten a lot of feedback that like, this is really something different and something that resonates with people and I really enjoyed doing it. So my biggest takeaway is like, I want to tell more stories like this, and I know they're out there.
Are there any other projects you are working on that you’d like to share?
I also do documentary film. I've been getting into that and I'm executive producing a film called SheChange, and it's about big wave women surfers fighting for pay equity.
Definitely listen to the recording (~36 minutes in) if you want to hear more about the story behind this documentary.
What was the last thing you listened to?
Wiser Than Me with Julia Louis-Dreyfuss
What was the last social impact action you took?
This year, LA City started running a composting program. So I am now composting because something like 40% of food in the United States is thrown out, and so I'd say trying to reduce food waste and reduce landfills.
If you could pass the mic to someone about a social issue you care about, who would it be and what would they talk about?
Isaias Hernandez of Queer Brown Vegan. He's all about making environmental education accessible and he specifically talks about raising awareness on environmental racism.