On being more than just a radio show

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August 11, 2014
By: Dylan Thomas
"On Being" host Krista Tippett receiving her 2013 National Humanities Medal in July from President Barack Obama.
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Dylan Thomas
Honored in Washington, "On Being" host Krista Tippett grows her public radio at home

LORING PARK — The sound of bells tolling filled the former Citilights showroom on Hennepin Avenue, a storefront not long ago remodeled into an airy, loft-like office and production facility for the public radio show “On Being.”

The Basilica of St. Mary’s bell towers rise just across the street, and a visitor assumed they were chiming out the hour. But Krista Tippett, the host of “On Being,” had different reaction.

“Is that your phone?” she asked and then turned toward the office’s open kitchen, where the show’s staff of seven had just finished eating lunch. “Oh, it’s mine.”

Earlier this year, Tippett’s phone rang with the news she’d been nominated for a 2013 National Humanities Medal, and in July she traveled to the White House where she was honored “for thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.” President Barack Obama hung the medal around her neck.

It was a thrilling and surreal experience for Tippett, who launched her show in 1999 as the occasional Minnesota Public Radio series “Speaking of Faith.” And it punctuated what she described as a “cathartic year” for her production team.

Last summer, a decade after the show became a weekly national broadcast, “On Being” spun off from MPR into an independent non-profit organization. (It is still distributed by MPR’s parent organization, American Public Media, and both sides describe the split as both amicable and necessary to the show’s growth.) In October, production relocated to the Minneapolis office, which houses a small studio.

At the same time, the show’s mission is expanding outside of radio. Not only is Tippett a busy and sought-after public speaker, the Civil Conversations Project is an evolving effort to help others host the kind of nuanced and empathetic discussions they hear on “On Being.”

Tippet said, “This is how I describe the shift we made this year: We went from a radio show embedded in a media organization to a social enterprise with a radio show at its heart.”

“A catalyst”

“On Being” has an annual budget of about $1.5 million, and its weekly broadcast reaches about 650,000 listeners on more than 330 public radio stations across the country. The podcast was downloaded 12.7 million times last year, and Tippett said a fifth of the show’s audience lives outside the United States.

Dave Kansas, MPR’s chief operating officer, said “there’s a spectrum of intensity of feelings” around public radio shows, and Tippett’s fans are among the most devoted. (They have to be to catch “On Being” in its current timeslots — 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. Saturdays on MPR — but Kansas said listeners find it “wherever it runs” on the schedule.)

“People were craving more than just the news or just entertainment, something that had depth and meaning around it, and she tapped into that,” Kansas said.

It wasn’t clear, though, that was the case when Tippett first pitched the show to MPR in the late 1990s. She faced skepticism that a show about faith and spirituality could avoid proselytizing, or that it would even appeal to a public radio audience.

That changed after Sept. 11, 2001, when suddenly religion dominated headlines. In the months following the terrorist attacks, “Speaking of Faith” broadcast a three-part series on belief, Islam and war that earned the show a Gracie Allen Award.

“In that sense, 9–11 was kind of a catalyst,” she said. “I’m sure the show would’ve happened anyway, but it would have been different. The world changed.”

Personal journey

As no biography of her fails to mention, Tippett grew up in Oklahoma the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist preacher. He was, she said, “the defining, the formative religious figure of my childhood” — a man who was funny and charismatic, but lived by a narrow interpretation of the Bible.

Tippett was outgrowing that worldview as a teen and left it behind when she went off to college on the East Coast. From Brown University she went in 1983 to Bonn, West Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship, and later worked as journalist in Berlin before joining the diplomatic corps.

But there, at one of the focal points of the Cold War, Tippett’s idealistic faith in the political process became strained. She left in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“I started to see things differently,” she said. “I started to question politics being the only place that was really serious and that mattered. I started to realize that these observations I was making about the choices people made with their lives were actually spiritual questions.”

On a retreat to the Spanish island of Majorca, spirituality “very gently” began to reenter her life. It started her on a path that led to Yale Divinity School, where she earned a master’s in divinity in 1994.

That’s also where she met her former husband, with whom she has two children. An Episcopal priest, he got a posting in Minnesota that brought the two to MPR land.

“I didn’t know at that point that I was going to start a radio show or wanted to start a radio show, but I could hardly have landed in many better places to do this,” she said.

 Growing up

Just about every successful public radio show, from “A Prairie Home Companion” to “Car Talk” to “Fresh Air,” went through a long period of gestation on local airwaves before launching nationally. But for “On Being” it was shorter than most, and the show, Tippett said, “grew up in public.”

“Ira Glass [the host of ‘This American Life’] said to me in the early years, ‘The hardest thing is just to sound like yourself, and it will take years,’” she recalled. “I didn’t really believe him, but it took more years than I thought it would.”

Four years ago, “Speaking of Faith” became “On Being.”

Yes, Tippett acknowledged, the former title was always something of a roadblock for the non-religious. But the change also acknowledged that the show had evolved — that religion was not the only lens through which it scrutinized what Tippett called “universal human questions”: What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? Who are we to each other?

Trent Gilliss described himself as a “doubter in every possible way” when he first began streaming Tippett’s interviews online more than a decade ago. But Gilliss was drawn in by Tippett’s curiosity, the depth of the conversations and the show’s willingness to accept ambiguity. It tackles some of the most divisive issues in American life — the intersection of science and religion, or the debate over abortion — without devolving into a shouting match.

“I think people are yearning for more of that kind of conversation,” said Gilliss, who joined the production team in 2003 and is now the executive editor and chief content officer for “On Being.”

That’s where the Civil Conversations Project comes in. Encompassing both a series of live conversations as well as an webpage with podcasts and conversation starters, it’s a lab for returning civility to civic life.

Tippett has recently started using the phrase “‘On Being’ on Loring Park,” and it may be telling that the show’s lodestar is not the Basilica to the north of its Minneapolis headquarters but the public, secular space to the south. She wants the park to be a place that’s both “mythical and real” for her audience, she said.

Said Tippett: “It stands for this aspiration and this practice of creating a different kind of conversational space: safe spaces for us to talk about hard things and to talk about them in new ways together.”