Matt Fidler (Music, ’01) is a producer at North State Public Radio (NSPR). For more than a decade, he was an independent contractor for public radio shows in New York and the Bay Area, lending his talents to radio programs, like Freakonomics, Studio 360, and The Takeaway, before working on his own podcast, Very Bad Words, which discussed the historical linguistics of profanity. He returned to Chico in 2017 and helped with NSPR’s Camp Fire coverage in 2018. Last month, his five-part podcast series called California Burning—exploring forest management, native fire practices, and how we can be good stewards of fire-prone land—became available for download. Every episode of California Burning is available on the NSPR website and wherever listeners download their podcasts.

What was your Chico Experience like?

I was a recording arts major, and Joe Alexander and Keith Seppanen were my professors and advisors. They were fantastic and really encouraging. I was just super into that program. I practically lived in the Performing Arts Center. I even managed to finagle an office in there as a student through the audio engineering department. I ate lunches in my office and I posted phony office hours even though the office wasn’t really mine. It was the Audio Engineering Society’s office. Whenever I could do some sort of recording, I would do it. Towards the end of my four years there, I was approached by someone who was doing an audio play. And I never even really considered audio plays, as a 21st-century guy. And I ended up doing sound for it and it was really cool. It was kind of my first radio show I ever really did. It was this kind of weird sci-fi script. I put a bunch of strange sounds on it and thought, “This is kind of fun.”

Matt Fidler discusses the difference between a canopy fire and a low-lying grass fire. (Dylan Head / Student Videographer)

What is it about the podcast format you like so much? 

I love podcasting because it’s really intimate. You’re talking to an individual. Most of time people listen to podcasts on headphones, if they’re commuting in their car, or something like that. I like telling stories for an audience looking for this experience. I feel like I can go a little more in-depth, and I know that they’re already interested. That’s why they’re listening in the first place. I can go a little deeper and tell the whole story instead of trying to just spark their curiosity. But I love the radio, too, because I can catch audience members that might not be interested in this, and hopefully that will spark their interest and they’ll go download the podcast or wait to listen to the local radio station.

On November 7, 2019, Chico State “pyrogeography” professor Don Hankins told Fidler that certain areas of the North State had been suppressed of fires for at least 100 years, and that it was due. The next day, the Camp Fire erupted. (Dylan Head / Student Videographer)

What’s one of your takeaways from your reporting of California Burning?

We are a part of nature. We’re not separate from our ecosystems. Our ecosystems are just a bunch of living entities and weather and geography. We’re part of that, and we have a really strong effect on it. The big difference between us and other animals is that we’re aware that we are a major part of our ecosystems. And we just need to be aware of it, and understand that no matter what we do, it has an impact. 

I love John Muir. He was a beautiful writer. The national parks are some of the greatest gifts anyone’s ever given to this country. But he got one thing majorly wrong, in that he suggested that humans destroy ecosystems and destroy the planet, so we need to take a step back when it comes to the West and all this natural beauty that we have here in ecosystem services. The truth is that the Native Americans groomed this land for at least 14,000 years before any white people showed up. And they understood that they are part of the ecosystem. John Muir and other naturalists like him were a major part of our belief that there’s human society then there’s the rest of the world—but there’s no separation. So my biggest takeaway is that we should be conscious of what we’re doing. Not for some abstract purpose of saving the earth. The earth will survive. But for saving us. What do we want out of this planet? Let’s not even be focused on the planet. What do we want out of our local ecosystem? I want a fire-resilient landscape. I want clean water. I want clean air. I think everyone does. I don’t know anyone that would disagree with me on that. That’s the common ground.

For thousands of years, Native tribes in the North State had cultivated the land and cared for it with the practice of cultural burnings. (Dylan Head / Student Videographer)

Why is journalism so important? 

Knowledge is king. We’re a democracy, and I think an educated democracy is the one that functions well. If we’re not aware of things, how are we going to make good decisions? Not just who to vote for, but which policies we endorse? Journalism is extremely important. Politicians aren’t leading very much, I think they’re just reacting a lot, and so hopefully they’re reacting to an educated populace. We’re a really divided country right now, which I find unfortunate, because I think people on all sides of the issues have important things to add to the conversation. I’ve really tried to make California Burning a nonpartisan show. Politically, we’re a very mixed community here in Butte County. And this information is for everyone. What’s good for a hunter is also good for a person who vacations in the woods or also a person who may be living in the woods in a place like Magalia, maybe slightly off the grid with a lot of acreage. Grooming that forest and making it safer is also good for their neighbor that has a vacation house, or for a hunter that likes to hunt up there, or for a logger who’s managing a forest for timber. They all need the same things, and we have to take ourselves out of our camp, no matter which side you may identify with and start going, “Let’s look for solutions that benefit all of us, because we’re all humans, we’re all living here.” 

What advice would you give to your graduating self?

I like where I am right now, so I don’t know. I struggled a lot, it was really hard. I graduated with a degree in music right before 9/11, not necessarily the most practical degree for a lot of people to get a lucrative career going. It was difficult. I went down to LA, I interned. I had one potential job offer that was basically less than minimum wage. That was a salary job of a $1,000 a month living in Los Angeles. And I might sometimes have to work over 40 hours. I turned that job down. And I was not offered another full-time job until this job [at NSPR]. So I became an independent contractor at the age of 22, and that was my entire career. To some people that might look like a really bad thing, like, “Oh my God, you’ve never even had a full-time job.” I never had benefits. But I loved it. I was able to live really frugally. I guess my advice to graduating young me is don’t try to get that big house with a white picket fence and the brand-new car right away because you’re going to really struggle, and then you’re going to end up working for an insurance company. No offense to insurance companies, I actually ended up working for an insurance company for a short period of time, just so I can pay the bills and would do side work on the weekends. And it was difficult. But, I stuck with it and just did the hard work—and I think it turned out OK.