NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And joining us again today is Liane Hansen, from "Weekend Edition Sunday."
LIANE HANSEN, host:
For those of you old enough to listen regularly to CBS Radio in the 1950s, or those of you who are able to listen to NPR's "Morning Edition" or "All Things Considered" every Monday, you're familiar with This I Believe. Here's a little bit of history. The original This I Believe began in the summer of 1951. Edward R. Murrow invited Americans to write about the core values and beliefs that guided their daily lives. These essays were turned into five-minute radio pieces read by the people that wrote them. The contributors included US presidents, captains of industry, Helen Keller, Jackie Robinson, Albert Einstein, as well as taxi drivers, high school students and homemakers. The original series reached 39 million listeners and lasted until 1955. Fifty years later the series has returned with a new host, Jay Allison, and a wealth of new contributors. He's our guest today, as we examine what we believe on this Thanksgiving Day.
CONAN: And we'd like to hear from you. If you're old enough to remember the original series 50 years ago, what did you believe then and have those beliefs changed? If you're a new listener to the series, was there a moment in your life when your beliefs were put to the test? Also give us a call if you have questions about how the series is put together or how it sounded to you. Our number is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jay Allison is a longtime public radio producer and the host of This I Believe and he joins us now from the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco.
JAY ALLISON (Public Radio Producer): Hey, Neal. Hi, Liane.
HANSEN: Hey, Jay. Happy Thanksgiving.
ALLISON: And to you.
CONAN: Jay, somehow it seemed fitting to focus on a series about our beliefs on this Thanksgiving Day and I wanted to take time out of--thank you for taking time on your holiday to join us and our listeners today.
ALLISON: No, I'm happy to be here.
CONAN: Now this new series started in April of this year. Half a century later, how did you start getting word out about soliciting contributors to this?
ALLISON: Well, we began by sort of seeding it in little--in a small way by calling public radio stations around the country and we would dig back into the archive. My partner in all this, Dan Gediman, has now listened to about 1,000 essays from the 1950s. And we've put them in a database and catalogued them. And so say we would send them to Austin, Texas, the ones that were written 50 years ago in Austin, or by Austinites, and they would broadcast them and then call to their listeners to think about that same question: What are the principles that guide your life and would you be willing to write 500 words about it? So we set up a database. It's at npr.org. And essays started poring in.
CONAN: You also set up parameters, guidelines about how to construct these essays.
ALLISON: Well, we've been guided almost entirely by what the Edward R. Murrow team did in the 1950s. And, you know, they say, `We want you to make a very great contribution, nothing less than a statement of your personal beliefs or the values that rule your thought and action.' And then they told people what they wanted and what they didn't want. They didn't want polemics. They didn't want dogma. They didn't want what they don't believe, but the kind of peel back to the center of yourself, not what your parents taught you or even what your church taught you but to drill as deep as you can and find out what's at the center of you and what you live by.
CONAN: And what do people--as it turns out, what do people write about most?
ALLISON: Oh, my gosh. You know, it--the--I could even tell you--do you want a little list of some of the ones that came in yesterday?
ALLISON: One about--from a man who'd been in 17 foster homes, finding salvation and being an agnostic; a pregnant girl whose family is shunning her, leaning on her belief in God; a poem from a young woman whose addict father overdosed; a hearing-impaired woman who expresses gratitude for what she does have; an essay from Japan on the importance of language; tributes to parents; some inspired by Penn Jillette's recent essay on "Morning Edition" about the god in each of us; and one about the woman who believes in the guinea hens who live on her roof. And this is all yesterday.
HANSEN: How do you then choose? I mean, chances are you get piles of really good ones. You probably have a lot that are similar. How...
ALLISON: That's right.
HANSEN: Yeah. How do you choose?
ALLISON: You--there's a team of us in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, who gets up every morning and sits down to their computers and then--and gathers in maybe a dozen or two dozen or three dozen to sit and read. And I would say that team--first of all, I think they feel it a real honor to be able to do this, to hear people's inmost convictions. And each one is treated with great care. As for choice, it--you know, they sort of--they leap out at you. There's something true, there's something maybe that you've never thought of or something that you always knew but hadn't thought of in that way. And they're more than we can use. There are--as you say, there are many that are similar. Beliefs are often catalyzed or called to the fore in times of trauma, and so we have an awful lot of belief based in hardship and suffering and death and many essays talk about--here's a little fragment. I've just got some here in front of me, if I can find this excerpt. Oh, I can't, but...
HANSEN: Well, let us...
CONAN: Well, it's nice to know you're just as disorganized as we are, Jay.
HANSEN: Jay, let us help you out a little bit, because we do have an excerpt of one of the essays that aired in this series. And this is not--this is one that is sort of unexpected, you know when people send you things that--what they believe in and it turns out, you know, to be far and away beyond what you think people might write about. This is by Sarah Adams and she's a community college English instructor from Port Orchard, Washington.
Ms. SARAH ADAMS: If I have one operating philosophy about life, it is this: be cool to the pizza delivery dude. It's good luck. Coolness to the pizza delivery dude is a practice in humility and forgiveness. I let him cut me off in traffic, let him safely hit the exit ramp from the left lane, let him use his blinker without extending any of my digits out the window or towards my horn because there should be one moment in my harried life when my car may encroach or cut off or pass and I let it go. Coolness to the pizza delivery dude is a practice in empathy. Let's face it. We've all taken jobs just to have a job because some money is better than none. I've held an assortment of these jobs and was grateful for the paycheck that meant I didn't have to share my Cheerios with my cats. In the big pizza wheel of life, sometimes you're the hot, bubbly cheese and sometimes you're the burnt crust. It's good to remember the fickle spinning of that wheel.
Coolness to the pizza delivery dude is a practice in equality. My measurement as a human being, my worth, is the pride I take in performing my job, any job, and the respect with which I treat others. I am the equal of the world not because of the car I drive, the size of the TV I own, the weight I can bench press or the calculus equations I can solve. I'm the equal to all I meet because of the kindness in my heart, and it all starts here, with the pizza delivery dude.
HANSEN: That's Sarah Adams, a community college English instructor from Port Orchard, Washington, and her essay aired on the current This I Believe series.
Jay, that essay--humility, empathy, equality--it's sort of big lessons that are drawn out of the daily minutia of life. In essence, is this what the series is all about?
ALLISON: You know, it is that and another one I think of is one where the topic line was Always Go To The Funeral, and the notion there was that, no matter what inconvenience it is for you, that for you to be present on the time of another's need is the most important thing you can do. And the stories, the little parables often are very humble, but the beliefs that underlie them, you know, they give you kind of--they give you a central principle that you can rest on.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. If you'd like to join us, our number is (800) 989-8255. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
And let's talk to Fred. Fred's calling us from Minneapolis.
FRED (Caller): Hello. I--it seems to me that one feature of the series that I dislike a bit is that it tries to make everybody have unique beliefs. And it seems to me that it would be useful to try and figure out if my belief that most people have compatible beliefs, or should have, is true; that is, you know, the pizza thing, at core, seemed to me to be close to what I would say is we kind of all have to learn to live, you know, together.
CONAN: Yeah. Can't we all get along?
FRED: Yeah. And it--that--you know, the emphasis on, you know, having a unique contribution to the series doesn't help draw out those similarities and, you know, it seems to me that we need to figure out how those of us who believe in pro-choice sort of values can live with the folks that, you know, put, you know, making anything that has a heartbeat, you know, supreme over anything else. I mean, there has to be some core beliefs that we all share. Otherwise hope for us is not very great.
HANSEN: But isn't there--isn't it also that we have to understand that different people believe different things and that there should be--by learning what other people believe that perhaps there's a middle ground we can all reach?
FRED: Well, certainly there are specifics in the differences about what we believe, but it seems to me that there has to be a common core that we all accept; that is, if you believe that murder is OK, then you're--you know, we have to deal with that. But, you know, if we all believe that there's something sacred about human life, that, you know, there seems to me to have to be some cores of beliefs that we all accept. And I--my guess is that, you know, the people that are shooting at Americans in the Middle East have some core beliefs that are compatible with ours if we're able to find those.
ALLISON: Well, I take his point. I--our intent, though, is not to impose or codify or universalize a single belief. Rather, we want to kind of drill down into an individual and see what lies at their core and maybe simply by listening to them and experiencing what--something of what they live that it'll resonate with us. And I think each of these essays--you know, each of these essays is a glimpse into the center of a person, and whatever commonality may arise from it, I mean, that'll be something that you will hear. If you go look at the essays at npr.org, I think you'll find all sorts of common themes that resonate with the ones you just mentioned.
CONAN: Fred, thanks very much.
We'll have more with Jay Allison and with This I Believe executive producer Dan Gediman after a break. This is NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
HANSEN: And I'm Liane Hansen. We're talking this Thanksgiving Day about the NPR radio series This I Believe. But apart from both this series and the 1950s CBS Radio series, there have been times in popular culture when fictional characters stated their beliefs. One perfect illustration is the 1988 movie "Bull Durham," starring Kevin Costner as a washed-up baseball catcher called Crash Davis. His co-star, Susan Sarandon, played Annie Savoy, a woman who believed in the church of baseball. When she suggested that Crash didn't believe in anything, in this scene, he set her straight.
(Soundbite of movie "Bull Durham")
Mr. KEVIN COSTNER: (As Bull Durham) Well, I believe in the soul, the small of a woman's back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good Scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, open your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.
CONAN: Kevin Costner from the film "Bull Durham." So what about you? What do you believe? (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We're still--still with us is Jay Allison, who's the host and curator of This I Believe and joining us now is executive producer Dan Gediman, the man who first came up with the idea to reprise the radio series. He's with us from the studios of member station WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky.
Happy Thanksgiving, Dan. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
DAN GEDIMAN (Executive Producer, "This I Believe"): Hello, Neal. Hello, Liane.
GEDIMAN: Delightful to hear you hosting together.
CONAN: Well, thank you.
HANSEN: Happy Thanksgiving, Dan.
CONAN: So what made you decide to try to bring this back to life?
GEDIMAN: Well, it's the flu actually I have to thank for it. Two years ago approximately I had a bad case of the flu and was sick in bed and couldn't do much of anything except read, and I was looking for something to read and my wife, it turned out, had a secondhand copy of a This I Believe book that had been an anthology of This I Believe essays from the 1950s. And I picked it up and couldn't put it down and I thought surely someone out there has already thought of bringing this back to life and I checked on Google a little bit and I was certain I was going to stumble on that it had already been done or it was in the works. And it didn't seem like anybody was doing it, so I thought, `What the heck.' And I called Jay and Jay agreed that it was a good idea and we contacted NPR. NPR thought it was a good idea and here we are, about a year and three-quarters later.
HANSEN: Dan, was it also something about it being the 50th anniversary of the series or was there something about us now that made it feel compelling to bring it back?
GEDIMAN: Well, at the moment in time when I read this book, it was the late winter of 2003, and 9/11 was still very much with us and the Patriot Act and sort of a fear that was almost palpable of people speaking their mind, speaking out against the beginnings of the war in Iraq, and this whole notion of it being unpatriotic to dissent from the government. And sure enough, that--for anyone who has seen the new Edward R. Murrow movie, "Good Night, and Good Luck," that was exactly what was going on in the late 1940s, early 1950s in this country: fear of speaking your mind, fear of being considered unpatriotic. And that was, I have to say, a major connection for me in looking at that time and this time and also just a fascinating kind of juxtaposition of what was similar in those times, like what I just described, and what was very different. I was intrigued by--and you heard a little bit of this in Norman Cousins' excerpt that you ran at the top of the show, a certain hopefulness, a certain notion that even though the Cold War was going on and the bomb had just been exploded, that somehow we would be better. We would solve the world's problems. We would get along and I don't know that in 2003, I felt that many people felt that way.
CONAN: Let's get another listener in on the line. This is Steve, Steve calling us from Nottingham, New Hampshire.
STEVE (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead.
STEVE: Thanks. By the way, it's a great show and I listen all the time, so I want to tell you my core belief is you need to do something, you need to be active, you've got to be involved. And the severest test of that came with the assassination of President Kennedy. If I have to choose one event which galvanized my life and still I think of every day was his loss, because he meant all the idealism, all the things I wanted to believe in, and it was suddenly gone. And all of these things that have come out, what he did in the Lincoln Bedroom, doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is his dynamism, his message, `Let's go out and do it.' And so the way I solved his assassination was I said he wanted me to climb Mt. Monadnock, which is a mountain in New Hampshire, because I felt I couldn't just sit around and watch television. That was the worst thing to do. So in his name, I went out and climbed Mt. Monadnock that weekend.
CONAN: Steve, that's a great story.
Jay Allison, you must get a lot of stories like that?
ALLISON: I was thinking, in terms of the power of the individual, we have one that hasn't aired yet from Jody Williams, the Nobel Prize winner for her work in land mines. And her central message is just that. It's in the belief of the power of action of the individual and that, without action, belief is empty.
STEVE: I have a quote in my office that says, "One man can make a difference and every man should try," from John F. Kennedy.
CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call. Happy Thanksgiving to you.
STEVE: Happy Thanksgiving. Keep the show going.
CONAN: All right. We will.
ALLISON: I'm reminded of an essay we had from the pediatric surgeon at Johns Hopkins, Ben Carson, speaking of television and television is a waste of time. His mother wouldn't let him read--let him watch TV. He had to read books and write reports on them when he was a little boy in a very sort of disadvantaged situation where he grew up. And his mother would mark up the reports. His belief, by the way, started very plainly. He said, `I believe in my mother.' And she would mark up the reports and hand them back to him and he only found out years later that she herself couldn't read. She'd only had a third-grade education, but he continued to read and think that she was correcting him and he's now a pediatric neurosurgeon, world famous, and his mother went back and got her own degree and now they're both doctors.
CONAN: Both series, the original one in the 1950s and the revival, have allowed both, well, famous people and everyday people to talk about what--This I Believe. Let's go back to the original series. One of the things that this new series has done is--well, as Dan Gediman said, go back and re-read some of those and they're pretty interesting. Here's a clip from Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.
Justice WILLIAM O. DOUGLAS: These days I see graft and corruption reach high into government. These days I see people afraid to speak their minds because someone will think they are unorthodox and, therefore, disloyal. These days I see America identified more and more with material things, less and less with spiritual standards. These days I see America drifting from the Christian faith, acting abroad as an arrogant, selfish, greedy nation, interested only in guns and in dollars, not in people and their hopes and aspirations. We need a faith that dedicates us to something bigger and more important than ourselves or our possessions. Only if we have that faith will we be able to guide the destiny of nations in this, the most critical period of world history. This I believe.
CONAN: William O. Douglas, Supreme Court justice from the original This I Believe series in the 1950s.
And, Dan Gediman, you could certainly see--hear parallels to this day.
GEDIMAN: Sure. His is one of the ones that sends shivers up my spine for the--you know, being entirely timely for our time. And there are a bunch of others that really feel like they could have been taken off the OP-ED pages of, you know, this week's New York Times. You know, one thing I wanted to mention to you, you were talking about sort of the juxtaposition of famous people and everyday folks. The original tag line to this series when it was first premiered in 1951 was the personal philosophies of successful men and women. And it was originally intended to be Nobel laureates and politicians and captains of industry telling the regular folks how they did it so as to inspire them to have a better, more contented, successful life.
And within I think the first month or so that the series was on the air, they got a letter from a housewife who said, `Well, this is all good but where are my people? Where's anyone that I can relate to?' And so she sort of shamed them into introducing essays from everyday people. And so they changed their tag line to the personal philosophies of thoughtful men and women from all walks of life and they asked--the very first non-celebrity to write an essay was this housewife from suburban Philadelphia I think. And from that point on, they sort of checkerboarded their broadcast schedule between people like Helen Keller and Justice Douglas and Norman Cousins and the taxi cab drivers and dock workers and others that you mentioned earlier. And so we're trying to follow in those footsteps and do the same sort of mixture today.
HANSEN: We want to get another caller in to the discussion. Sara Jane joins us now from Boulder, Colorado. Hi, Sara Jane, happy Thanksgiving.
SARA JANE (Caller): Hi. Thank you so much for giving part of your holiday to us.
HANSEN: No problems.
SARA JANE: It's really great.
CONAN: Happy to do it.
SARA JANE: Thank you. The question that I have relates to what you were just talking about. Do you--and it's got several parts. Do you use different standards for evaluating the submissions of celebrities or famous people and not famous people? Do you edit anything that comes in? Do you ever solicit from famous people? You know, how does that work?
ALLISON: Yes, we do. They're about half and half. We solicit. We ask people. We have a huge list. We've talked to really everybody we know and said, `Who would you like to hear from? You know, who in the world would you like to hear from and know what lies at their core?' And then we go ask them. And, lo and behold, some of them are willing to do it, which I see as an act of extreme bravery. And we edit every one of them, really. I don't think--none of them have passed without some editing, but that's really done because--I mean, our expertise, what we bring to this is some sense of how to, you know, use the radio, how people--how to get people close to their own voices.
CONAN: And how long it actually takes to read something.
ALLISON: Yeah. So there's that. And, you know, just sharpening language and making it so that they, you know, sound the best they can.
SARA JANE: Yeah.
ALLISON: And then we put out the wide call. Some of the essays that have come in over the transom, through the Web site, get very little editing, some get quite a bit. You know, we've had essays from people--I think the youngest is 12 years old to in their 90s.
SARA JANE: Wow.
ALLISON: And, you know, everybody gets their--we work in different ways. We work by e-mail. We work on the phone. Sometimes we work in person. Just to figure--you know, until we're happy and they're happy.
SARA JANE: Right. And I guess related to that, I know that one of your rules, or guidelines, is don't say what you don't believe, say what you do believe...
ALLISON: That's right.
SARA JANE: ...which I think is great. I found Penn Jillette--Is that his name?
SARA JANE: He spent so much time talking about the things that he didn't believe in such--frankly, in such an offensive way, such a dismissive way, such a disrespectful way, and I wonder why you didn't apply that rule to his essay.
ALLISON: Well, I didn't hear it that way. I thought he was very careful to frame it in terms of what his belief--for those that didn't hear it, his--the fundamental belief was I believe there is no God. And then he spent quite a bit of the essay, we thought, kind of very reasonably and rationally trying to bolster that premise and describe the gifts that belief gave him. I mean, he was clever, as we said in the introduction, to not be--you know, to not express a negative belief. But we found it provocative and so we felt it passed muster.
CONAN: And what's been the response to that? Has it been--it's certainly been controversial.
ALLISON: It hasn't been--I think it's probably been on the NPR Web site more forwarded and sent than any other piece on NPR in quite a while.
SARA JANE: Wow.
HANSEN: Sara, thanks so much for your call and have a happy...
SARA JANE: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Thank you.
SARA JANE: You, too. Thanks. Bye-bye.
CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And we're talking with Jay Allison, the host and curator of This I Believe, and with executive producer Dan Gediman about the radio series that's been airing on "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition" since April. Of course, those of you old enough to remember will recall the original radio series in the 1950s on CBS Radio.
Let's get another caller on the line and this is Tom. Tom calling us from Mesa, Arizona.
TOM (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Tom.
CONAN: Happy Thanksgiving.
TOM: Well, and a very happy Thanksgiving to you, Neal Conan, and you, Liane Hansen.
HANSEN: Thank you, Tom.
TOM: And if I may hitchhike on what Jane said before, I believe that it is in giving that we receive and you're giving of yourselves today and I really appreciate that.
I believe that one of the most important things for us as--I'll be 62 next February, a youngster compared to your dad I'm sure, but--that wonderful man, but I believe it's very important to stay in touch with young people. And I try to make an effort, if I go into, say, a Subway sandwich shop or something or encounter young people, especially teen-agers, you know, while I'm shopping and so forth to talk to them and find out what's on their mind. And I remember one occasion in which there were a few teen-agers and they were listening to some rap music. And I kind of knew it was rap but I went up and said to them--I asked them a question. I said, `Is that rap?' And they said, `Yeah. Yeah.' And I said to them, `Do you have any idea how long that's been around?' And they kind of said, `Oh, it's fairly new,' and so forth. And I said, `Actually, no, it isn't. It's about 350 years old.' And the original rap really started with opera and oratorios and it's called recette, where they sing in an operatic voice on one level.
CONAN: Well, Tom, you could go a little bit further than that and say that this Greek guy named Homer did a rap about the war against Troy.
TOM: Wow. You know more about history than I do. But I find that there's been a trend in the country to--a lot of kind of--people becoming divided and ideological about a lot of things, and I believe that by asking questions and finding out how people think and feel and giving them the opportunity to speak--in effect, that's part of our Constitution, and I think it's part of our responsibility as an American citizen to talk to people, especially young people, and stay in touch with them. And we're becoming so much more of a multicultural society that, if we don't do that, we're gonna be in a lot of trouble.
CONAN: Tom, thank you for the thought. Thanks for the call. And, again, have a great holiday.
We'll have more on "This I Believe" after a short break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
HANSEN: And I'm Liane Hansen.
CONAN: Tomorrow at this time, it'll be "Science Friday." Ira Flatow will be here with a broadcast of highlights from this year's Ig Nobel Awards, a tribute to strange and silly science. That's all tomorrow on "Talk of the Nation/Science Friday."
HANSEN: And today we're talking about the radio series "This I Believe" with Jay Allison and Dan Gediman.
(Soundbite of "This I Believe")
Unidentified Man #1: I believe in the power of love.
Unidentified Man #2: I believe...
Unidentified Woman #1: I believe...
Unidentified Man #3: I believe in the importance...
Unidentified Woman #2: I believe that everyone...
Unidentified Man #4: I believe in people.
Unidentified Man #5: This I believe.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line and this will be Shrekompf(ph). I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. And Shrekompf is calling us from Madras in India.
SHREKOMPF (Caller): Thank you so much. I am Shrekompf from Madras in India. I mean, I haven't--don't have enough words to describe NPR--wonderful. And this I believe. I believe that we human beings have no right to have a good bank, have fun and be happy while millions around the world are languishing in misery and poverty. You know, I think we all should do something because we are the United Nations. It's not a building out there in New York. We should all do something. And the greatest thing is we don't really help our--who we are. We can do it. We can all work together, do it, and we can achieve it because I feel that we have defeated smallpox, and we have sent men to the moon, and so we can do it, and we should do it.
Until then, I mean, everyone in the world should get basic things like food, security, health and so on--I mean, education, everything. And until we do do that--and we can do it. And we have got to do it here and now. And until then there's no point in saying that another 10 years we'll reduce world poverty by half. That's not the point. Everything has got to be done here and now. As Diamond Boyd(ph) said, `If one mouth goes unfed, let us destroy the whole world.' That should be our spirit, and we don't really help out who we are, and we don't realize how good we are. We can do it and we should do it. We have got no choice. Thank you so much.
CONAN: Thank you so much.
HANSEN: Thank you.
CONAN: I guess it's not appropriate to say happy Thanksgiving, but this is an American holiday and we wish you...
SHREKOMPF: Oh, I wish you a very, very happy Thanksgiving Day.
CONAN: Thank you so much.
HANSEN: Thank you.
SHREKOMPF: Thank you.
CONAN: Dan Gediman, I'm hearing a call for an international version.
GEDIMAN: Well, you know, it's funny you ask. We are actively involved with this. We are in the home stretch of discussions with the BBC World Service to create an international version of "This I Believe," which, if all goes well, will premiere in April of next year, and will be available to the gentleman in Madras. And we are keenly interested--I'll just speak for myself. I'm keenly interested in hearing what the world has to say and what the beliefs are throughout the world. And we're going to start with the English-speaking world and then we have dreams of creating sort of outposts of "This I Believe" in various indigenous languages.
GEDIMAN: ...something we're keenly interested in.
HANSEN: Dan and Jay, your own work has sparked several local projects on the same theme, "This I Believe." Cheryl Levitt is manager of KTOO, the public radio station in Juneau, Alaska, and she's in charge of the "This I Believe" project at her station. And she joins us now from Salt Lake City, Utah, where she's spending her Thanksgiving holiday. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Cheryl.
Ms. CHERYL LEVITT (KTOO): Hi. Thank you. And thank you for inviting me on the show today.
HANSEN: Well, it's interesting because you're involving--What?--your local high school, college, newspapers. Everybody's partnering in on this project. Tell us how it's going.
Ms. LEVITT: Yeah. Well, it's been really exciting so far. The response has been great. About--well, starting this summer, I got really interested in trying to do a really big local push on this and so I called a bunch of teachers and, of course, they're all still on vacation but I was able to get some of their attention, and many were encouraged to try and use it in their curriculum this fall. And then I just--I made a big list of folks who I thought could start to seed the project, people who I know are good writers or maybe have done really interesting things in Alaska or specifically in our community and I put out many phone calls to people, inviting them to be a part of this on a real local level.
And then finally we've just been doing big outreach through our Web site, and, of course, using our airwaves to solicit essays. I've put fliers up all over town, inviting writers to get involved, and we haven't actually started putting them on the air, but I've been working with a lot of them. In fact, last week I taught five of the English classes at our local high school. I read through about 90 high school essays. I've got about a dozen from the community at large that I've been reading and going through. And those have now gone on to our review team to get them to the next level as far as being able to be on the air.
HANSEN: What's your criteria? What exactly are you looking for?
Ms. LEVITT: Well, I think the criteria is actually the same as what is being put out nationally. We are casting our net as wide as possible and I'd love to hear as many voices and belief statements as we possibly can get from as many different people in our community as possible. In terms of essays that are successful, they're the ones where someone has very clearly stated what their belief is and that it really is a life philosophy vs.--I can explain to you in a minute what--some of the original essays I've gotten from the high school students don't quite get at that. But so, yeah, an essay that really states a clear life philosophy and then that belief is supported with life experience from, you know, explaining how they've come to that, or how in their way, in their own day, they act out their belief.
CONAN: Alaska is a unique place. Are you getting some unique opinions?
Ms. LEVITT: Well, you know, it's interesting. I've thought about that a little bit, especially before coming on this show, and what's actually coming out is the themes are really universal. I think that a lot of the themes that we're getting in Juneau are the same as the ones that you would get in Washington, DC, and the same that you might get right here in Salt Lake City, Utah, and I think that it actually--what this series does so well is that I think that it exposes our shared humanity, that we actually have a lot more in common with each other than we might initially believe.
CONAN: Well, what about Thanksgiving? Is it celebrated the same in Alaska as it is there in Utah?
Ms. LEVITT: Oh, yes. If you mean lots of food and gatherings, absolutely.
CONAN: Well, Cheryl, thanks very much for being with us today. And have a wonderful holiday and good luck with the series.
Ms. LEVITT: OK. Thanks. Thank you.
CONAN: Cheryl Levitt is the manager of KTOO Radio, that's KTOO in Juneau, Alaska. And she joined us on the phone from Salt Lake City where she's celebrating her Thanksgiving holiday.
HANSEN: We have an e-mail from Dave in Chandler, Arizona, and this is directed to both you, Jay, and you, Dan. `You've been very careful to reproduce the model of the Edward R. Murrow broadcast for very good reasons. He's a monument and the original series was quite moving.' But he's curious `if you were setting out to create the series from scratch today, is there anything that you would do differently? Has there ever been a moment when keeping to the Murrow model has been uncomfortable or awkward and you wish that you were doing this as an original idea?'
ALLISON: This is bound by the...
GEDIMAN: Well, we don't...
ALLISON: ...precepts of the Murrow team. We're simply guided by them, and they were wise and smart, and so, really, no. I would say we don't feel inhibited by it. We're going some things differently. And we don't feel any obligation not to. I mean, it is 50 years later. For one thing, putting out the on-air call for essays and using the Internet are options that the Murrow team didn't have. And, you know, we've gotten--about 8,000 people have sat down and written 500-word statements of belief. Every morning, there are dozens of them in our e-mail box. And that's something they did not do.
CONAN: Let's get another call...
GEDIMAN: This is...
CONAN: Oh, I'm sorry, Dan. Go ahead.
GEDIMAN: No, it's OK. Go for it.
CONAN: All right, we're just going to get another caller on the line, Dee(ph). This is Dee calling us from Michigan.
DEE (Caller): Hi! It's--first of all, I want to thank you so much for entertaining me every single day and night and giving me real news. I'm a truck driver and so being able to listen to you is just a treat. Thank you so much.
CONAN: Well, thank you for listening.
HANSEN: You're welcome.
CONAN: We're not much unless you're out there, Dee.
DEE: Oh, well. I just want to keep it a little light, although it goes deeper than that. One of mine, as a driver, is that if you drive far enough, you will get someplace.
DEE: And that comes when you're lost and you think, `Oh, no, oh, no, I'm not gonna get to where I'm supposed to be.' But if you just keep driving, eventually you'll get somewhere.
DEE: And my other one is you're exactly where you're supposed to be, otherwise you'd be someplace else.
CONAN: Sounds like you may have been studying some Zen there, Dee.
DEE: Well, yeah, I'm a Buddhist truck driver. How's that?
DEE: It helps keep things in perspective. I can tell you that. And, you know, it can--people think truck driver--you know, and have some bad ideas of what that is, but it truly can be a faith-building sort of Zen experience, if you let it happen.
HANSEN: You're not on the road today, are you, Dee?
DEE: I am. Actually, I'm sitting at a rest stop. I'm on my way home.
HANSEN: All right, well, we wish you a very happy Thanksgiving and thanks for taking the time to call in today.
DEE: Thank you so much for making my day every day.
HANSEN: You bet.
CONAN: Drive safely, Dee.
ALLISON: You know, it may be--it may take off from what she said about the long drive of life, but a lot of the essays have a core belief it--in what I would describe as loss, the pain of life, the suffering, watching their loved one with Alzheimer's, or their own cancer, and they--what these things have taught them is not bitterness or sadness but it's given them a kind of faith and they feel a kind of gratitude. I've got one--this one came in today. It says, `This I believe. My life changed forever the day my son died. It was the worst day of my life, but only because he had brought me the best days of my life. I'm a different person now. I laugh and smile and enjoy life a little more than I did before I knew what death meant. There is great sorrow and great joy. The joy does not come without remembering the sorrow nor does the sorrow come without remembering the joy. I am so thankful to my son for these gifts.'
HANSEN: It's interesting how dramatic moments in one's life can have an effect on one's belief system, even, you know, positive or negative.
ALLISON: Mm-hmm, they're tested or they fail and you have to replace them. We find this a lot.
CONAN: We're talking with Dan Gediman, the executive producer, and with Jay Allison, the host and the curator for the public radio series "This I Believe." It's been broadcast on NPR's "Morning Edition" and on "All Things Considered" since April. Of course, it's a revival of the 1950s radio series that was inaugurated by Edward R. Murrow so many years ago, and, as we heard news today, it may become an international series as well.
If you'd like to join us, our number is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is email@example.com. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's get another caller on the line. This will be Vicky(ph). Vicky calling from Tucson, Arizona.
VICKY (Caller): Yes. Hi. How are you?
CONAN: Very well. Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving, Vicky.
VICKY: Well, thank you. I'm busy cooking. I'm rememb--I'm enjoying the series very much and I was very struck by the piece by Newt Gingrich several months ago where he spoke of going with his stepfather as a child and seeing the graves in France from World War II and how that shaped his belief in the need for safeguarding freedom, and Newt Gingrich is not a favorite politician of mine, by any means, and so it was interesting that I could share the vision that he had and that core value even though my ways of safeguarding freedom might be quite different than his.
CONAN: Dan, in a way, isn't that the point, to listen to people who--in a different way? People with whom we may disagree?
VICKY: Absolutely. Right. Absolutely.
GEDIMAN: Yeah. That's been...
VICKY: I enjoy the series and I often think of `What would I say?' My beliefs are not always quite so well-shaped and formed, but I'm thinking about them.
GEDIMAN: This is Dan. I was just going to say that my dream in starting the series up again is exactly what your caller has said, that people would--and this would--is probably most common with a famous person like Mr. Gingrich, that, you know, you thought you had one idea of, perhaps, who he was, or what he had to say, and then, perhaps, you would have a moment to rethink that. And, similarly--we got a wonderful e-mail that we've referenced a couple of times, the essay that ran this Monday, with Penn Jillette talking about, in essence, his atheism, and we got a listener e-mail--I don't have it in front of me, but it, basically, says, `As a committed Christian, I enjoyed his essay. It made me think deeply about what I believe and why I believe it. And I respected him for his beliefs.' And I thought that was profound that--and this was, you know--it is so hard to agree to disagree. Or not so much even agree to disagree but to respect the other for their beliefs. It's not something that we do a whole lot of in 2005 in this country. Or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world. And I think anything that we can...
VICKY: Yes, and we...
GEDIMAN: ...do in a small way to fan the flame of that, or extinguish, I suppose, the flame of the anger, that often goes with that, I think if we could do a little of that then I would consider this series a rousing success.
CONAN: Vicky, you were trying to get in there?
CONAN: Let's hear from Vicky.
VICKY: Yes, well, I was just going to say we have so few venues for doing that, for hearing how people who think quite differently than we do, what they're going to say, because most of us don't listen to the things we don't want to hear.
CONAN: Yeah, that's true.
VICKY: So I do appreciate your bringing voices of diversity to the program, and it's a great series.
HANSEN: Vicky, thanks so much for your call.
VICKY: Thank you.
HANSEN: And happy Thanksgiving to you. Good luck with your cooking.
VICKY: Thank you.
ALLISON: It's the word listening that she used that I think is at the core here. And that there's no rebuttal. We don't provide time for people to argue. You--really, your only choice is to listen. You don't have to agree. But your only rebuttal is to think in your own heart `What would I say?' I mean, that's the question this series asks. It isn't `What do you think of what he said?' It's `What would I say?'
CONAN: And in that respect, Jay, I suspect that every single one of your correspondents, everybody who's written one of these essays, shares another belief and that's in the word `courage,' staring at that blank screen and trying to focus in on 500 words about what you believe. Boy, that isn't easy.
ALLISON: It really isn't. And the--you know, we provide a place for reflections. If you go to the Web site at npr.org, you can find how to submit your essay, but there's a space for reflections and people write often extremely eloquently in there about what their experience was of taking on this challenge. One woman said it was like trying to pack a month's worth of clothes into an overnight bag. And that she just had to keep throwing things out and throwing things out until she got down to the socks and underwear.
GEDIMAN: Right. And we've been told, even by professional writers like John Updike and others that have done essays for us that this was one of the hardest writing assignments that they've been given because of its very concise nature. It's--we're not asking for sonnets. We're asking for haikus. And just figuring out, as Jay was saying, what to throw out and what to focus on is a real challenge, and, by the way, if your listeners are trying to get to the Web site, very specifically it's npr.org/thisibelieve. That will get you straight to the part of the Web site that has "This I Believe."
HANSEN: We received an e-mail from Judith and she writes `I believe that people can grow and change and make things better for their lives and their children. I work with various populations, including parents who are in recovery, post-divorce, high conflict and whose children are in foster care because of abuse and neglect. So often we write off the possibility for change in ourselves and others and close the door for future goodness and good things happening. If we never lose sight of the fact that others in our world can grow, make changes and that we can do this, we can keep the focus on a hopeful outlook in our lives.'
CONAN: Let's thank you guests today: Dan Gediman, executive producer of "This I Believe," who joined us from the studios of member station WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky. Thanks, Dan.
GEDIMAN: Thank you so much, Neal, and, Liane.
CONAN: Jay Allison joined us from the western outskirts of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and San Francisco, California, and the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Jay, always good to talk to you.
ALLISON: And you. Happy Thanksgiving, both of you.
CONAN: And to everybody listening. In Washington, I'm Neal Conan.
HANSEN: And I'm Liane Hansen, from NPR News. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.
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