Impact Stories: Laicie Heeley and ‘Things That Go Boom’
The first in a series of stories about what can happen when strange bedfellows join forces to spark nuclear innovation.
At first glance, you might mistake Laicie Heeley for a classic policy wonk. A fellow with Stimson Center’s Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program, Heeley is a well-regarded expert on nuclear weapons proliferation in Iran and North Korea, as well as US defense budgeting and strategy. Before joining Stimson, she served as policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and held positions at the Counter Terrorist Finance Organization and Global Green USA, where her research focused on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in addition to the financing and structure of terrorist organizations. Yep. It’s a CV that screams “defense analyst” and little else.
But Heeley isn’t your garden variety foreign affairs professional. Her resume doesn’t tell you that she’s also a former rodeo queen. Or that she’s the daughter of Oregonian hippies and yearns to open a bakery. Or that for years she has poured her intellect into her day job but her heart into her lifestyles blog, A Thousand Threads. Or that what she really wanted, more than anything, was to find a way to marry these two sides of herself—to bring entrepreneurial thinking and a natural storytelling style to the nuclear policy space. “I knew there was a more engaging and accessible way to talk about the issues I work on,” says Heeley. “But nobody was doing that.”
Through relationships forged through the Innovators Network, Heeley now has a podcast on Public Radio International designed to make nuclear issues—and nuclear urgency—an accessible topic. And she’s a semi-regular voice in PRI’s “The World,” considered public radio’s “premier daily global news program.”
“I KNEW THERE WAS A MORE ENGAGING AND ACCESSIBLE WAY TO TALK ABOUT NUCLEAR ISSUES. BUT NOBODY WAS DOING THAT.”
It happened by connecting the dots. In 2016, after attending a few N Square events, Heeley had a revelation. “I realized that N Square was doing something extremely different,” she recalls. “They were breaking down the walls that I had built up for what was possible.” Soon after, she accepted an invitation to attend PopTech as a member of a small delegation of nuclear experts assembled by N Square. The group stayed together in private homes rather than hotels so they could hang out informally, share meals, and establish deeper connections. Heeley hadn’t met many of the other experts she was suddenly bunking with, and found the opportunity invaluable. “We talked about what we were experiencing, and shared and bounced ideas off each other,” Heeley says.
At PopTech, Heeley also networked with experts totally outside her field who pushed her thinking in new directions. “For the first time in my career, the ability to really brainstorm beyond the nuclear space was available to me,” recalls Heeley. These experiences sparked a big idea for Heeley: producing a “This American Life”-like podcast series focused on sharing “cool stories” about nuclear innovators and innovations with a broader public. The idea gained even more momentum after Heeley met Elizabeth Talerman, CEO of Nucleus and Innovators Network member, at the Disruptive Futures summit in Santa Fe in December 2016. Heeley attended the summit as part of a highly diverse cohort—comprising filmmakers, humanitarians, cyber experts, and others—again organized by N Square. Talerman’s research and presentation on the need to communicate nuclear issues in more accessible and connected ways hit home for Heeley. “It was everything that I already understood but couldn’t articulate,” she says.
“FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY CAREER, THE ABILITY TO REALLY BRAINSTORM BEYOND THE NUCLEAR SPACE WAS AVAILABLE TO ME.”
Soon, Heeley started thinking about her work very differently—and feeling new urgency to share nuclear innovation stories with non-nuclear audiences in ways that inspired stronger public interest. “There are a lot of smart people working on this but we don’t know how to talk to anyone but ourselves,” admits Heeley. She credits the Innovators Network for helping her identify ways to communicate her work differently, and with different audiences in mind. “What this community needs is someone to tell us, ‘You’re all talking to each other in your secret language, and that’s why you’re not moving the ball on these issues.’”
After Heeley proposed her podcast idea, N Square connected her with Public Radio International (PRI), an N Square partner whose new corporate strategy focuses on cultivating the network effect. PRI CEO Alissa Miller, who learned about N Square by attending a TED luncheon in 2016, had signaled an interest in closer collaboration, saying she sees PRI’s job as “building bridges in a fractured society.” With that in mind, N Square facilitated a meeting with Kathy Merritt, then PRI’s VP for content strategy and development. Merritt, a 30-year veteran in radio, is responsible for identifying and acquiring diverse new talent and supporting PRI’s productions to increase audience and impact.
Merritt loved Heeley’s proposal and—with N Square, Ploughshares Fund, and others on board as funders—agreed to pilot “Things That Go Boom” and test its potential to inspire millions to feel more connected to nuclear issues. The series debuted at the beginning of 2018 and proved an almost instant success. Within weeks, the podcast had been downloaded more than 230,000 times and made iTunes’s “New and Noteworthy” list. Pilot episodes covered stories about nuclear false alarms, deterrence theory as interpreted by an 11-year-old boy, how Nancy Sinatra’s hit “These Boots Were Made for Walking” became a military anthem, and—in acknowledgment of another Innovators Network member—how Tom Weis, professor at Rhode Island School of Design, is training industrial design students to use their skills to reduce nuclear threats.
The show has hit a chord with listeners. “A nice kickoff to understanding the logic of stumbling into a nuclear war nobody wants,” said one listener about the first episode. And it manages to do just what Heeley had long envisioned. “‘Things That Go Boom’ explores national security and foreign policy in a way that doesn’t make you want to gouge out your eyes,” reads a memo released jointly by PRI and Heeley. “You don’t have to be an expert to tune in. Just grab a cup of whatever you like and pull up a seat.”