The presidential election of 2004 laid bare just how deeply issues of belief, faith and values divide America. But an ambitious public radio series debuting next month hinges on the notion that talking about belief can also foster understanding and compassion.
On April 4 , NPR launches a new version of the old commercial radio modules This I Believe, featuring Americans explaining their values in three-minute essays. The pieces will air Mondays, alternating between Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Some contributors will be famous, others not, but they “need have nothing more in common than integrity, a real honesty.”
That’s how star radio journalist Edward R. Murrow described the people heard in the first incarnation of This I Believe, developed by a friend of his, adman Ward Wheelock, and hosted by Murrow from 1951 to 1955. It became hugely popular, drawing many millions of listeners daily and spawning a book that was outsold only by the Bible during the year it was published.
Essays by ordinary Americans and by luminaries such as Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman aimed to give cause for hope in an era of deepening cynicism.
“I believe in the human race,” said baseball star Jackie Robinson, reflecting on his struggles against racism. “I believe in the warm heart. I believe in man’s integrity. I believe in the goodness of a free society. And I believe that the society can remain good only as long as we are willing to fight for it—and to fight against whatever imperfections may exist.”
The first This I Believe aired amid widespread fears over the threat of nuclear war. Murrow asked his listeners, “What truths can a human being afford to furnish the cluttered nervous room of his mind with, when he has no real idea how long a lease he has on the future?”
Different worries plague our minds today, but This I Believe producers Dan Gediman and Jay Allison say the concept remains relevant.
“The world is tearing itself up because of one thing, and that is belief,” says Allison, an independent radio producer in Woods Hole, Mass., who as host and co-producer will introduce essays and ask listeners to contribute their own.
“The idea is that rather than screaming about it, we ought to just listen. . . . It rather idealistically and rather quietly suggests another way to talk to each other.”
A hunt for shocking honesty
This I Believe bears hallmarks of its producers’ other endeavors. Gediman, an indie based in Louisville, Ky., has built extensive outreach efforts into series such as Will the Circle Be Unbroken and Breaking the Cycle: How Do We Stop Child Abuse? Allison has turned listeners into collaborators as a moving force behind series such as Lost and Found Sound and the website Transom.org.
Gediman, e.p. and project director of This I Believe, has produced little for public radio since a piece for This American Life in the late ’90s. This I Believe called to him two years ago when, suffering from the flu, he found the book of essays from the original series on his bedroom shelf.
Though the series was a phenomenon in its time, the book is now out of print. “I thought, ‘Wait a second, how have I not heard of this?’” Gediman says. “And my second thought was, ‘Why has no one else done anything like this on public radio?’”
Gediman wasn’t alone in his thinking. When he and Allison pitched the idea to Jay Kernis, NPR’s senior v.p. of programming, Kernis said he had been reading the same book just days before and envisioning it on public radio.
Gediman copied about a thousand of the original This I Believe recordings from an old-time radio collector. Rights to the recordings expired in the ’80s, allowing stations to air them today along with the new essays. (The title This I Believe was not legally subject to copyright protection.)
The recordings offer insight into the attitudes of Americans early in the nuclear age. Essays are peppered with caveats like, “If the planet survives . . .”
“It’s hard to remember how truly fearful people were during that era,” Gediman says.
“I’m not so sure that’s different today,” Allison adds. “Back then we could hide under our school desks. Now we can note the danger level according to color. They’re both equally futile and helpless feelings.”
The ’50s-era This I Believe at first had what Allison calls a “didactic attitude,” its goal being to pass down wisdom from prominent Americans. But series producers later solicited submissions from ordinary folks. “In many cases,” Allison says, “the essays from people without credentials are much more insightful.”
The best of the original essayists framed their beliefs in anecdotes, Gediman
says, and today’s contributors will also be encouraged to tell a compelling
This I Believe will strive for “shockingly honest” revelations, Allison says. But will prominent figures such as Sen. John McCain, hoopster Charles Barkley and Bill and Hillary Clinton lower their guards enough to deliver substance instead of puffery?
If the challenge arises, This I Believe’s producers will borrow a technique used for the series’ first run. In some cases producers condensed celebrity interviews into essays either by editing conversations or condensing interview remarks into a pithy script that the person voiced on tape. Martha Graham’s 600 words, for example, came from four hours of conversation.
“You would never know which ones were compiled in this rather laborious manner,” Gediman says.
Believe globally, program locally
To launch the new This I Believe, CPB contributed $500,000 and Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation put in $100,000. Farmers Insurance Group is the exclusive corporate sponsor.
The series will run for at least a year, but Gediman is hoping for an additional year or even more. It begins with an introductory piece on NPR’s Morning Edition and the first essay later that day on All Things Considered.
This I Believe is already gathering essays from listeners through a half-dozen pilot stations and the series’ web page, thisibelieve.org, and Gediman expects the first listener essay to air in April.
Initially, NPR and Allison’s Transom staffers will cull the best essays for broadcast. But in the future stations will be able to program supplemental This I Believe essays and, with support from the project, create their own to share throughout the system.
Through Public Radio Exchange, the online program marketplace that Allison also had a hand in creating, programmers will be able to acquire the ’50s-era commentaries, which Gediman bought from a collector of old-time radio, as well as text-only versions of all the contemporary essays that did not make the cut to air on NPR.
All essays will be searchable by theme and geographical location. Programmers can locate contemporary essayists in their markets, bring them into their studios and produce their essays. They can then upload them to PRX for other stations to air.
This I Believe’s pilot stations have eagerly delved into the archival material and look forward to producing their own content, Gediman says. With enough collaboration, This I Believe will be able to air five days a week, just as it did in the ’50s, Gediman says.
This I Believe’s producers seem to be scouting every possible avenue to broaden the series’ reach and extend its life well into the future. They’re working to put all the essays they harvest—even those that don’t air—in an archive, probably at a university.
Pieces also will be collected in a book and producers are negotiating with a popular weekly magazine as a partner in the project. They also hope to raise its visibility by collaborating with popular television programs.
Teachers, religious leaders and public radio staffers will oversee a vast outreach effort encompassing libraries, bookstores, coffee shops, high schools, places of worship and community and senior centers.
Gediman’s ultimate dream is to take This I Believe international in three years, translating American essays into other languages and soliciting commentaries from other countries. The original series aired on Voice of America and spawned an Arabic-language book that sold 30,000 copies in three days.
“All of us are interested in making this project extend beyond the
traditional public radio audience,” Allison says. “We want to
see if this can’t attract just plain old anybody.”
Web page posted March 21, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee