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Behind the Scenes of "This I Believe" with Dan Gediman

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Dan by Nubar Alexanian

My guest today is Dan Gediman, a veteran public radio producer and Executive Director of This I Believe, Inc.  "This I Believe" is a five-minute radio segment, featuring a different individual each week reading his/her "personal credo" essay.

JB: Welcome to OpEdNews, Dan. Please tell us more about "This I Believe." Where did the idea come from?

DG: I was home sick with the flu in 2003, exactly at this time of year, March, if I recall. This was a year and a half after 9/11, just on the cusp of the US going to war in Iraq. That was being discussed publicly at that time and there were protests around the world,  especially here in this country. I personally knew people who were really strongly against the war but were afraid to speak out because of the Patriot Act and the chilling effect that that was having on free speech. So, that's the backstory. And I was home, sick with the flu, looking for something to read and found a used copy of one of the anthologies of essays from the 1950s Edward R. Murrow version of the This I Believe series and started reading it. I had never heard of This I Believe and I thought I knew a good bit about Edward R. Murrow's career.

I started to read through this book and was immediately struck by parallels between what America was going through in the early 1950s and what America was going through in the early 2000s.  We were about to embark upon an unpopular war, back then it was Korea, in this case, it was Iraq. Then, there was the chilling effect on free speech and other civil rights. Back then, it was the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and the beginnings of Joseph McCarthy's shenanigans. People were very much afraid, and had good reasons to be afraid, back then about speaking out about their beliefs.

I was struck by the courage that these essayists back in the 1950s series showed in speaking out publicly. In some cases, they were oblique and in some cases they were very direct about how what was going on in America, at that time, was very unAmerican, in the sense of the founding principles of the country and the Constitution and all of the formative documents of the republic. I was struck by that, and I was also struck by the intimacy of this essay form and what it asked of the writer. I was struck by the consistency of it, meaning, everybody gets 500, 600 words, whether they're an ex-president like Harry Truman or a cab driver. And I found that very intriguing and sort of populist and democratic. And that rang true with me.

I had been in public radio my entire adult life and had sort of taken a hiatus from it and was working for another nonprofit organization not related to public media and was questioning whether I was ever going to go back to public media. I read this and I thought to myself, "You know, things drop in your lap for a reason sometimes. And maybe this is dropping into my lap so I can do something with this idea now." I proceeded in my feverish state to write out about 10 pages of notes about how a contemporary version of This I Believe could be attempted, utilizing the internet, having some sort of educational component. I didn't really know exactly what that would be, but in the various radio series that I had done previously for public radio, there had always been an educational component and some sort of curricula. Also, I was thinking in terms of what could be done locally: that there could be This I Believe Cincinnati, This I Believe Indianapolis and This I Believe Boston, and that it might potentially have even more resonance locally than a national series would.

So, I wrote all of this stuff out and then sort of forgot about it. Then, I ran the idea by a couple of friends of mine who were public radio veterans who I had worked with on other projects. They were both very enthusiastic about it and encouraged me to pursue it. So, I typed up my notes more formally into a proposal and we sent them to the then head of programming for NPR, a guy named Jay Kernis.  

Jay had been an early staff member of NPR back in the '70s, had started Morning Edition, was the first producer of that. He really conceptualized the show and then had gone off to CBS for about 15 years and had just come back to NPR as an executive. We sent this proposal to him and he wrote back within the hour saying, "This is really uncanny. This weekend, I was at my place in the country and was dusting my bookshelf and I pulled my copy of This I Believe off the shelf. And I started to look through it and [these are his approximate words] thought this would make a wonderful NPR series." And then he put it back on the shelf and went on doing his chores.

So, to get this fully formed proposal a couple of days later, he thought, was really something. He immediately said, "I want to do this. Don't go to anybody else with this proposal. I'm all in; I'll help you raise money for it. I love this." And, true to his word, he did exactly that.

So, we have Jay Kernis to thank for greenlighting the project and in every way, shape and form supporting it while we were on NPR. We were on NPR from 2005-2009, but it was always intended to be a one-year project and then it was going to end. Our initial proposal to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was actually for a two-year project: the first year was going to be a national series on NPR and the second year was going to be focused on pieces produced by local stations, which we would then distribute through syndication to the entire public radio system. That was the big idea. We have never actually done that yet, however we're actually poised to do that again in the next year or two. It's still an idea that's very much of interest to me.


Edward R. Murrow by http://museum.tv

JB: How is what you've done different from the Edward R Murrow's original? How exactly does new technology enrich and enlarge it?

DG: Murrow and his team did a daily series and we have done a weekly series. We never really ever seriously considered doing it daily, primarily because we knew the pieces were going to be embedded in NPR news programs, and it was going to be hard enough to find five minutes a week in the schedule of those shows, among the most listened-to programs in all of radio. Also, it would have been just an enormous undertaking production-wise.  I am in awe of what they did back in the '50s because I know exactly how much work is required in soliciting essays, editing essays, then recording them and getting them on the air.

And back in the 1950s, they had a very small staff. They had a show producer and there were two different men who were in that role. There was one guy whose name was Edward Morgan and a guy named Raymond Swing. One of them did it the first couple of years and the other one did it the second couple of years. And then they had two assistant producers and they had a secretary. And that's it.  So, effectively, there were only four staff members at any given time.

And then Murrow was host and another guy named Ward Wheelock was executive producer. Murrow would come in every couple of weeks and just record his scripts. He had very little to do with the day-to-day operations of This I Believe which was handled by this fellow Ward Wheelock. He came up with the initial idea for This I Believe and pitched it to Murrow and to William S. Paley, who was the head of CBS.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)
 
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...looking for essays, and even contributed one! B... by Meryl Ann Butler on Sunday, Apr 28, 2013 at 9:51:54 PM
I agree completely. I couldn't wait to finish the ... by Joan Brunwasser on Sunday, Apr 28, 2013 at 10:19:44 PM
Great interview! Thanks so much.... by b. sadie bailey on Monday, Apr 29, 2013 at 5:55:41 PM
I loved doing this story because I am a huge fan o... by Joan Brunwasser on Monday, Apr 29, 2013 at 6:18:51 PM