Public radio host Jay Allison challenges listeners—and readers— to lay bare their personal credo
Who decided to resurrect the 1950s radio program This I Believe, and why?
It was just about 50 years to the day that the original series ended. [Executive producer] Dan Gediman was home with the flu, when he found a copy of a book from the original series on his bookshelf. He recognized that the country is facing a lot of the same issues now that we were facing 50 years ago—conflict over belief and how we as individuals and as a country should deal with race, immigration and America's place in the world.
What do you see as the role of the program?
When we began, the notion of an uncontested moment to reflect on the most important things in our lives was markedly absent from public discourse There was plenty of argument, attacking, mockery and defensiveness. But it was rare to have a spot where individuals could simply reflect on what matters. There are no rebuttals. We're all Internet-savvy, and there is every opportunity to create discussion boards and opportunities for threads and counterarguments, and we chose to do none of that. We envisioned the series as a place for listening.
The series debuted on NPR just over a year ago. What has been the response?
Our hope was that people would embrace it and want to participate, and that happened immediately. We're pushing 15,000 submissions now. It's remarkable, because we're not just asking someone to vote for which performer sang the song best! People take this assignment seriously and really invest themselves. We've had whole families write, and school groups. They've been read at weddings and funerals. People have taken it very much to heart.
What are you hoping the book will accomplish?
For me, the power of this idea is the question that it asks of everyone. The real question is not, "What do you think of what that person said?" but rather, "What do you think you would say? How would you respond to this invitation?"
Are there plans for any additional This I Believe books?
It depends on the response to this one, of course. We've got a lot of material. We're looking at a possible program on PBS, for which we shot a pilot. We're also talking to broadcasters in other countries. The third thing is developing this in institutions. A whole town in Vermont put this challenge forward and hosted an evening at the local library where the people read their essays. Our goal is just to put it out there and see how it grows.