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‘On Being’ gives spiritual seekers of all stripes a reason to believe in the new year

A 2008 Peabody Award winner for her show on the 13th-century Muslim mystic and poet Rumi, Tippett can be heard every weekend by 600,000 listeners on 250 public radio stations.

Krista Tippett
Krista Tippett

“I’ve always thought I was part Betazoid,” cracks Krista Tippett, leaning into the conversation and across the table at her “home away from home,” the Birchwood Café in Minneapolis. That self-description – in reference to “Star Trek: The Next Generation” commander Deanna Troi, whose empathic powers are finely tuned to human emotion – is as good as any explanation and description of why Tippett is the most interesting talk radio personality in the Twin Cities.

A 2008 Peabody Award winner for her show on the 13th-century Muslim mystic and poet Rumi,  Tippett can be heard every weekend by 600,000 listeners on 250 public radio stations, and her podcasts are widely shared among students, seekers, artists, theologians and scientists of all stripes. But at the moment, she remains a blip on her hometown’s radio radar, that painfully predictable and imagination-stunted yellathon of sports, politics and celebrity gossip.  

“I’m really proud of the shows we’re producing, and I would like more people to hear it, but I don’t measure success in numbers,” she says. “Every week I get an email from someone who says a show helped them stay alive or keep loving their life, or get through a death, and I feel like if that’s the only impact we had all year that would be enough.”

Gaining traction

More than enough, and more to come. At a time when talk radio’s popularity is on the decline, the smart, funny, mind-blowing and soul-engaging “On Being With Krista Tippett” (formerly “Speaking of Faith”) is gaining new traction. The National Public Radio show (which airs Saturday and Sunday mornings on MPR) has become a go-to source of wisdom and inspiration in these tumultuous times, and if the last two months of Tippett’s 10-year radio career is any indication, 2013 portends great things for her and her growing audience.

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To wit: In November, during a historically combative presidential election, Tippett hosted “The Civil Conversations Project,” a four-part series held at the Humphrey School that gave voice to ideas, issues and people otherwise obliterated by the campaign noise. In December, she penned an essay, “Why I Don’t Do Christmas,” that went viral due to its refreshingly frank and thoughtful disgust with the materialism and shallowness of the season, and concluded her broadcast year by introducing listeners to the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest, philosopher, and paleontologist who coined the concept of the Noosphere and the next stage of evolution, born of the sweeping technological connectivity that we the guinea pigs are just now learning to surf.

“He helped excavate the Peking man fossil, homo erectus, which was definitive proof of pre-human history, and he was this incredible spiritual thinker,” says Tippett, nursing a coffee. “He foresaw that the mind – but not just the mind, but our whole consciousness and spirituality – would create its own reality and envelop the earth with this layer of this reality over the biosphere. He predicted the next stage of evolution would have to be spiritual. And I think that’s where we are – spiritual – in a very expansive sense of that word.”

In the wake of the Newtown massacre, Tippett’s rebroadcast of a show on grief, loss, and meditation in the wild was a real source of sanity amid the media carnage. All the above doesn’t even include Tippett’s normal workload in November and December, which included shows on vulnerability, mindfulness, technology, the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, and her ongoing exploration of this unprecedented moment of upheaval the human species is living through.

Or are we?

‘An especially cathartic moment’

“There have been other moments, but I think we’re in an especially cathartic moment right now,” she says, with the same lilt of curiosity that fuels “On Being.” “I say we’re ‘turn of century people’ a lot: We’re living in one of these moments where all the old forms that seemed to work don’t work anymore, and we can’t yet see what replaces them, and it’s true in everything from how we structure our families to how we structure our work places and what government is and what economies are.

“But if you’d been born into this time last century, it would be on the eve of World War I. That’d be pretty cathartic, too, right? But we don’t have that total destruction; we have all these fundamental things and basic definitions getting turned inside out. There’s no ground beneath our feet. Even though you can look at human history in the last few hundred years and you can say, horses to cars and isolation to trains and all that, I think the digitally driven pace now is so unprecedented. And a lot of it is really exciting – I discovered blogging, and I just got on to Twitter – and the potential of it is thrilling …”

To be sure, the sea change is on, which prompted the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mark Morford to recently maintain that “the time is more ripe than ever to entertain a certain kind of raw, yelping willingness to become less convinced you think you know what it’s all about, to harness the opportunity afforded by this accelerated culture, and to really get it on with our inherent shared humanity.”

Yes, please. But are we equipped for seeing all that we see and experience through the wonders of modern technology?

“That’s what we’re called to do, right? To rise to the occasion,” Tippett implores. “We have to shape this, and it’s really hard because we’re in the middle of it. It’s happening in real time. So we’re supposed to grow it up and grow ourselves up as it feels like it’s taking over our lives.

“We’re in this transformative moment that is stressful and may just, as much as any other point in human history, require us to find the best of ourselves that we don’t even know that we’re capable of. ”

Tippett is doing her part – by asking questions and being an engaged listener. Her interviews with such thought leaders as the Irish poet John O’Donohue, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, author Andrew Solomon and many more are timeless and edifying, which gives “On Being” legs well beyond its time slot in the here and now. To be sure, the “On Being” archives are a treasure trove of ideas and a very deep rabbit hole to go down.

‘Hockey mom’ from Oklahoma

Their creator is a divorced mother of two and self-described “hockey mom” who grew up in Shawnee, Okla., amid a fervent Southern Baptist church culture. She studied history at Brown University, was an exchange student in East Germany and later a Fulbright scholar in West Germany. In 1984, she started work as a stringer for the New York Times and the following year became a chief aide in Berlin to the U.S. ambassador to West Germany.

Her stint in politics was short, however, because she realized she wanted more out of life as a seeker – a word, as a matter of fact, she doesn’t use.

“I don’t use the word seeker much. Not because it’s a bad thing. I’m really careful with words in my show,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of cliché around a lot of words around this part of life, and then there are things that are ruined by overuse or politicization. I think the best thing often is to use fresh words, and talk about what we’re talking about, rather than use labels.

“So “seeker” to me feels a little unrooted, and to me the most interesting seekers are actually quite grounded and searching at the same time. I once interviewed Robert Coles, who wrote ‘The Spiritual Life of Children,’ and he used the world ‘delving,’ and I like that word.”

In 1994, Tippett received a Masters of Divinity from Yale University, which planted the seeds for the personal and conversational approach that has become the hallmark of “On Being.” She pitched the idea for a spirituality-based radio show to Minnesota Public Radio, and “Speaking of Faith” became a monthly series in 2001 that went weekly in 2003.

‘You have to do it’

“It seemed like a crazy idea, because I’d never done radio before,” she says. “I’d been a journalist and I loved public radio, and I knew all these ideas were out there from going to divinity school. I spent about a year talking to people about it: ‘I know you can do this conversationally, and the conversations can be listenable, and thrilling, and funny, and warm.’ And every time I talked about it, and it was here in this (Twin Cities) community, people said, ‘Do it, do it. You have to do it. If you don’t do it, someone else will.’ ”

These days, the budding popularity of “On Being”’ can be traced to a prevailing distrust with organized religion and, due to the reach of the World Wide Web, an increasing appetite for mainstream media content with more meaning and mystery.

“The pattern we have now is people are constantly discovering it,” she says. “I hear it every day: ‘I can’t believe this is happening and I didn’t know about it. You make us feel less alone.’ To grow the show, we have to find those people, but we’re not going to do it by finding more stations. It’s a new frontier for us.”

For all of us – and it’s heartening to have wise souls like commander Tippett at the helm.

“This deliberation – and it’s not just a discussion – it’s contemplation; it’s inhabiting this reality, and taking up the question of the time: ‘What does it mean to be human?’ So when I think about the future of this, I think it could absolutely evolve into something very different. Bigger than a radio show, and maybe not a radio show in a couple of years. I’m going with this.”