A new podcast unraveling the astonishing true story of a Northwest ranching dynasty’s downfall recently made its debut on the NPR Podcast Network.
“Ghost Herd”, tells the story of Cody Easterday, the son of a well-known farming and ranching family based in the Columbia Basin, in southeast Washington state. In a bid to expand his family’s empire, Easterday fabricated a herd of 265,000 cattle and used it to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in payments. Among those that fell for Easterday’s deception was Tyson Fresh Meats, who initially exposed the scam via a lawsuit.
Anna King, a reporter with NWPB and the Northwest News Network who writes and hosts the podcast, broke the story of the lawsuit in January 2021. As rumors about the Easterdays and Tyson swirled, court documents were passed to King by a trusted source as the two stood within the headlights of their parked cars in a dark parking lot.
“I knew I was onto something big, I just didn’t know at first how big the bull was,” King recalls.
Covering rural communities
In the months that followed Tyson’s original lawsuit, King wrote numerous follow-up stories, culminating in Easterday admitting to federal fraud charges and agreeing to pay back more than $244 million in restitution. Easterday is set to spend up to 11 years behind bars.
Throughout the reporting process, King pushed for the opportunity to continue to tell the story, acutely aware that the downfall of the Easterday family was having a tremendous impact on communities across rural Washington. What made it a great story — money, power, and how food gets to the dinner plate set in rodeo and cowboy country — also set it up for success as a podcast.
“I let myself tell the story, tell it like how my family would talk, how my friends talk,” King said. “Radio and podcasts are very special because we are trying to get to that elusive moment where you sound the way you talk, because you want to be understood in the way you lay it down.”
King is a rural kid at heart, having grown up on a small ranch in the shadow of Mount Rainier. She graduated from WSU in 2000, having completed her studies with the Edward R. Murrow College of Communications and the Honors College. Upon returning home after college, King got her first reporting job at the Nisqually Valley News, parlaying her experience there into opportunities across the region until eventually landing as the rural correspondent for NWPB and the Northwest News Network.
“I’ve spent years and years traveling down gravel roads,” King said. “I don’t think I can get away from it now. I love the ability to go up a gravel road, meet someone who’s never talked to the media, get them to reluctantly talk to me and then after a good conversation, they want to feed me a steak dinner.”
Creating a podcast
“Ghost Herd” is the first podcast from NWPB to be targeted for a national audience through the NPR Podcast Network. It’s already receiving positive reviews for its reporting, storytelling and production values, Cara Williams Fry, NWPB general manager, said.
“It’s a distinctly Northwest story with national appeal and the production team always intended to stay true to the Northwest grit with the music, interviews, and photography,” Fry said.
The podcast has picked up considerable steam since its debut last month, having been selected as one of Apple Podcast’s new and noteworthy podcasts. On Jan. 29, Ghost Herd peaked at #24 on Apple’s podcast charts and has ranked as high as #2 among documentary podcasts.
Expanding King’s reporting into a multi-part podcast required the collaboration of NWPB and KUOW. The pair of stations each lent their production, design and marketing resources alongside expertise in digital production, with King as the lead reporter and presenter.
King and the rest of the “Ghost Herd” team leaned heavily on the sights and sounds of the ranching region for the podcast and its accompanying website. Music for the podcast came from the Oregon-based country musician James Dean Kindle, accompanied by the sound of announcers at local rodeos and boots meeting rocky terrain.
The first episode of the podcast also takes time to give readers a history of the land that came to be dominated by farming and ranching operations. It was important to the “Ghost Herd” team to capture how the land came to be developed, as well as its connection to Native American tribes who continue to call it home. It was more than could be done with a simple land acknowledgement, King recalled.
“I want young people who grow up here to comprehend that this is still our home,” Bobbie Connor, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, tells the audience in the first episode of the podcast. “When you live in the Tri‑Cities, it’s still our home. When you live in Walla Walla, it’s still our home. When you live in La Grande or Hermiston or Milton‑Freewater, it’s still our home when you live at Arlington. We’ve never abandoned our relationship with the vast Homeland.”
Rural reporting and the land grant mission
King and her reporting on rural issues are valuable examples for the next generation of journalists learning their craft at WSU, Bruce Pinkleton, dean of the Murrow College of Communications, said.
“Local community newspapers are associated with tremendous quality of life for citizens and they are a vital part of the fabric of a healthy community,” Pinkleton said.
It is therefore vital that Murrow continue to fulfill WSU’s land grant mission in preparing students not just to break stories in big cities, but to become part of rural communities and tell their stories.
The first four episodes of the “Ghost Herd” podcast are now available, with new episodes premiering weekly through Feb. 14. The podcast is available on all major listening platforms, and more information on the podcast is available on the “Ghost Herd” website.