'This I Believe' Returns to Radio

Nubar Alexanian

Jay Allison, host and co-producer of NPR's "This I Believe" series

LEO Weekly | March 25, 2005
“There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say.” -- Then White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, Sept. 26, 2001.

“So the New York City police could do worse, in the end, than to allow the (Iraq war) protest and send two witnesses along for each participant, with an eye toward preserving at least the possibility of an eventual treason prosecution.” -- New York Sun Editorial February 6, 2003.

“And it is our duty as loyal Americans to shut up once the fighting begins.” -- FOX News commentator Bill O’Reilly Feb. 27, 2003.

“There exists a real danger that the right of dissent, the right to be wrong, may be swamped because the instruments of communications are too closely held.” -- Former CBS reporter Edward R Murrow, from the foreword to “This I Believe,” 1952.

“This I Believe,” a weekly radio program hosted by Edward R. Murrow from 1951-55, grew out of events at the dawn of the Cold War and the growing fear of Communism across the United States. That fear arose in 1949, borne of the Soviet Union’s testing of an atomic bomb and the conviction of 11 U.S. Communist leaders of conspiring to overthrow the government. The fear grew after Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin gave a speech in Wheeling, W.Va., alleging that there were Communists in government. McCarthy later became chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and a leader of what has become known as a Communist witch hunt. His allegations and the committee’s hearings led to an array of people, many of them directors, writers and actors, being branded as Communists and subversives.

Another related and significant thing happened in 1949; Ward Wheelock, head of a wildly successful advertising agency, pitched an idea to Murrow and CBS President William Paley over lunch. Wheelock later wrote that the group agreed on a project that would “have a chosen number of men and women unfold their personal philosophy, tell what they deem important in life, and give the personal rules by which they run their own lives — in a 5-minute radio program daily, and a 600-word newspaper article weekly.”

The group saw it as a necessary antidote to the political climate of the time. The lesson McCarthy was teaching America was that beliefs, in themselves, are dangerous, if they veer too far outside the norm. With the Cold War and the nuclear age both in their infancy, many Americans clung to that notion, hoping, perhaps, that their sameness would lead them to safety. The perfect rebuke to such an attitude was to present people stating what they believe, consequences be damned. The beliefs weren’t always political, but they carried a political message: namely, that none of the essayists were going to be intimidated out of their beliefs.

It worked. The public, starved for something to hold onto in a frightening time, fell in love with “This I Believe.” The radio show boasted 39 million listeners, and, to satisfy the demand, CBS began broadcasting it several times a day.

In “This I Believe,” a book that grew from the radio project, contributors included Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Helen Keller, Jackie Robinson and Aldous Huxley, as well as average people in everyday positions. The only qualification was that the people had to be interesting, introspective and unafraid to state their beliefs. Writing such short, bold statements in a time when viewpoints were generally not discussed is an experience that Gen. Lucius Clay, who served under Gens. Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower, likened to “taking off your clothes in public.”

The book sold 300,000 copies, and went on to outsell everything but the Bible that year. Then a British version of “This I Believe” was produced, followed by an Arabic version — not an Arabic translation but a new series featuring all Arabs, which sold 30,000 copies in three days.

Then it stopped. Wheelock’s advertising agency lost its biggest client, which meant that Wheelock — and by extension “This I Believe” — lost funding. Soon after, Wheelock sailed his boat into the Bermuda Triangle and disappeared. Murrow and CBS busied themselves with other ways of confronting McCarthy, and the world listened to other shows. The whole “This I Believe” enterprise vanished as quickly and permanently as Wheelock himself.

Keith Wheelock — Ward Wheelock’s son, and a contributor to “This I Believe” — described the phenomenon: “‘This I Believe’ was the most significant publication of its time … It shows if you took the core beliefs of a hundred different people, you couldn’t tell which ones were Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Islam. It ought to be resurrected and expanded around the world.”

Half a century later, in the days of The Patriot Act and global terrorism, when beliefs themselves are again considered dangerous, Louisville’s Dan Gediman is taking Wheelock’s advice to heart. A brand new version of “This I Believe” hits National Public Radio’s airwaves on April 4.


“I’m a student of history, but this whole thing took me for a loop,” Gediman says of the first time he read “This I Believe.”

After 50 years, many of the essays seemed dated or antiquated, but some struck him, not only for their rhetorical power, but their timelessness. “I kept thinking, ‘This could have been written today.’”

Gediman, a neat, well groomed man with sandy brown hair and a soft smile, speaks with quiet but sustained enthusiasm, as though he is still too excited about his discovery of “This I Believe” to keep still. Despite a long career in public radio and a decent knowledge of Murrow’s biography, he had never heard of “This I Believe” until one morning in the spring of 2003 when, sick with the flu, he picked up a tattered copy his wife had bought 15 years earlier at a used book store. Although he left radio work in 2001 and had been pursuing other opportunities, Gediman still had his antenna up for potential radio projects.

“My first thought was, ‘This would make great radio,’” he says. His second thought was, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m a grown-up.” Recently married and with infant twins, Gediman was cautious about taking on a behemoth project that would consume his time and energy.

He took the idea to his friend and collaborator, Jay Allison, a radio journalist and director of transom.org, a Web site that showcases new work. Allison, who has earned the Peabody Award, the prestigious award for radio journalism, five times, was enthusiastic. “The time is right,”Allison says. “We’re afraid of each other again. We’re afraid of the other, those far away. The patriotism of dissidence is called into question. Neighbors are asked to keep an eye on each other.”

A straightforward statement of beliefs, he reasoned, could help alleviate that fear, in much the same way it did in the 1950s.

That message resonated with Gediman. “Right after 9/11 people were scared to voice opinions,” he says. “Fairly innocent writing and conversation can be (considered) seditious.”

Gediman and Allison then wrote up a proposal and e-mailed it to NPR Senior Vice President Jay Kernis. As Gediman recounted, Kernis called them 20 minutes later and said, “You won’t believe this. Just the other day, I picked up this book and thought, ‘This would make a great radio program.’” While telling this story, Gediman leans forward and flashes a quick smile. “I don’t think this is just rhetoric. This project is serendipitous.”

Getting ‘everything’

For all of the success of the original “This I Believe,” the finished project never attained its creators’ vision. They had meant for it to be a guidebook for ordinary people. Even the original subtitle — “The personal beliefs of successful people” — indicates the project was intended to be more instructive to society, rather than reflective of it. “They saw it as the meritocracy preaching to the Hoi Polloi,” Gediman says. “It got away from them.”

Part of what happened was that contributors recommended other contributors. Someone would say, “My barber,” or “I had a great taxi driver the other day.” Those people, in turn, recommended others, and before long the Hoi Polloi was doing as much preaching as listening.

“It was an extraordinary cross-section of the world at the time,” says Gediman, who noted that by the time “This I Believe” wrapped up, it featured contributions from all walks of life — even three convicted felons.

The current incarnation of “This I Believe” has no intention to preach. “We are fundamentally different,” Allison says. “We want to be less didactic.”

Meanwhile, he welcomes the prospect of the final project getting away from them. “I’m looking forward to being surprised about this,” he says.

Their intentions are, in fact, more ambitious. They hope to create an oral biography of America as it is today. Unlike the original, where contributors were all invited, they want to end each program by saying, “Now it’s your turn,” and asking listeners to submit a “This I Believe” essay of their own. But they won’t stop there.

“We’re interested in getting voices on public radio who don’t usually listen to public radio,” Gediman says. He and other staff of the “This I Believe” project are negotiating with a large-circulation weekly magazine to publish the essays and invite readers to write and submit their own and with a literary agent to help develop “This I Believe” companion books. Staff also have discussed launching related projects in other parts of the world with the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

“It’s like industrial fishing,” Gediman says. “Throw down your nets and get everything.” He drums his fingers on his coffee cup and smiles. “We’ll get everything.”

While the radio project itself is important, Gediman’s ultimate goal is to spark a national conversation about beliefs. “We want people sharing it with each other, talking about it with each other,” he says.

With the Internet and cable television and everything else that’s available these days, it is hard to believe America needs more conversation, but Gediman says the Information Age makes it more necessary than ever to have a frank discussion of beliefs. “This provides a filter,” he says. “What we’re really inundated with is feelings and dogma. Precisely because we are inundated with that, everything stops having meaning.” With the amount of condensing, editing and revising the essayists must go through, Gediman says the finished pieces are less like rants and more like haiku.

Belief vs. reality

Keith Wheelock, as a history professor at a community college in New Jersey, currently assigns “This I Believe” essays to his students. He says the difference is not the breadth of opinion we now have, but the depth. “Authorities on television are lecturing and discussing their beliefs, but that’s different than digging down and examining beliefs. … Some call it spiritual, but I go back to Socrates: know thyself.”

Allison hopes the directness and the honesty of the essays can cut through the squall of daily political arguments. “What we’re trying to create is not more noise, but a quiet place. (The essayists) aren’t yelling, they aren’t bragging. They’re a little bit the opposite of that. Attention will come to it, not because of its clamor, but because of its calm.”

One of the most striking declarations in the book “This I Believe” comes from Jackie Robinson, describing hearing the national anthem at the 1947 World Series and, for the first time, feeling included.

“What I have always believed has come to be,” he writes. He goes on to define what it is he “always believed,” but what sticks out is that he admits to believing something he knew was untrue. That is, Robinson believed the races were equal and that Americans understood that. They didn’t, and he knew it. He had to wait 28 years to feel included in the National Anthem. Nevertheless, he believed it, and it speaks to a problem with beliefs. No one believes that clouds bring rain, or that man is mortal. Those are facts and they don’t need belief to make them true. Is there always a schism between belief and truth?

“You can hold a belief in the face of a reality that doesn’t back it up,” Gediman says. “There is inherent good in everyone. That’s a belief I want to have.”

It may be a sincere belief, but he can’t say it without laughing. It’s a disarming laugh, in part because laughter sounds so unexpected in the face of a sincere discussion of beliefs. That in itself may pose the biggest hurdle of all to “This I Believe,” because what punctures more beliefs than laughter? Moreover, in this age of irony, how will the idealism and sincerity of “This I Believe” withstand the cynicism of modern life?

Gediman understands more than anyone how people have hardened since 1952. “We are a permanently cynical people,” he says. “The notion that the golden age is around the corner is gone.” In the ’50s, “They thought they were going to hell in a hand basket, but they weren’t cynical. There was a real feeling that, ‘We could do anything. We just have to try.’”

Nevertheless, he is quick to point out that the biggest publishing phenomenon of the last decade was “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” hardly a cynic’s handbook. “People might be cynical, but they want to believe in something.”

The modern version of “This I Believe” begins on April 4 on NPR’s “Morning Edition” with a historical feature story produced by Allison and project manager John Gregory that will invite listeners to write and submit their own essays for possible broadcast. That afternoon, NPR’s “All Things Considered” with air the first new essay.

Then, each week, NPR will air one person’s contribution to “This I Believe,” alternating between broadcasting on “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”

So far, many well-known writers, actors, politicians, and medical experts have have agreed to contribute essays, including John Updike, William F. Buckley, Bill Clinton, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Ron Howard, Her Majesty Queen Noor, Robert Redford, Charles Barkley and Dr. Andrew Weil. The producers are working to get contributions from other celebrities such as Jimmy Carter, Sandra Day O’Connor, Oprah Winfrey and Lauryn Hill. They also hope to collect statements from others via e-mail and snail mail as they promote the project, which has received grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Farmers Insurance Group and Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation to fund its operations for the next two years.

In his belief that his project can nourish the great American hunger, Gediman sounds like no one more than Ward Wheelock, writing his introduction to “This I Believe.”

“(This I Believe) will fail of its purpose if it does not open your mind and suggest that you try charting your own belief. It will succeed if it does. Thousands have dug deep and found gold. May you do likewise!”

The golden age may no longer be around the corner. Still, the belief that it might be may prod America into a new golden age: an age in which every citizen has examined the lower levels of his or her own beliefs and is unafraid to share them.“

To learn more about This I Believe or to submit your own This I Believe essay, go to www.npr.org/thisibelieve.


The project is guided by the original “This I Believe” series from the 1950s. Below is the producers' invitation to those who wrote essays. Their advice holds up well and we are abiding by it. Please consider it carefully in writing your piece.

The best essays from the 1950s found a way, at least in part, to tell a story. The writers took belief out of the ether and grounded it in the specifics of their lives, sometimes writing of moments — or parables — when belief was formed or tested or changed. They wrote about the source of belief, how it was forged and those who influenced it.

The memorable essays were not litanies, but focused on a core, because three minutes is a very short time.

Finally, it's important that these essays be personal, honest, and real. They should sound like you. This is radio. Try to write in a way that's comfortable to speak. We recommend you read your essay aloud to yourself and keep editing and simplifying until you find the words, tone and story that truly echo your belief and feel right to say.

An Invitation from “This I Believe”

Listeners can make contributions — a roughly 500-word statement of your personal beliefs, of the values which rule your thought and action, that would take about three minutes of speaking time.

We know this is a tough job. What we want is so intimate that no one can write it for you. You must write it yourself, in the language most natural to you. One faces an intensely personal moment when he draws up his will disposing of his belongings. Even more personal is the testament of his faith. It is this we ask you to write in your own words and then record in your own voice. You may even find that it takes a request like this for you to reveal some of your own beliefs to yourself. If you set them down, they may become of untold meaning to others.

We would like you to tell not only what you believe, but how you reached your beliefs, and if they have grown, what made them grow. This necessarily must be highly personal. That is what we anticipate and want. It may help you in formulating your credo if we tell you also what we do not want. We do not want a sermon, religious or lay; we do not want editorializing or sectarianism or “finger-pointing.” We do not even want your views on the American way of life, or democracy or free enterprise. These are important but for another occasion. We want to know what you live by. And we want it terms of “I,” not the editorial “We.”

Although this program is designed to express beliefs, it is not a religious program and is not concerned with any religious form whatever. Most of our guests express belief in a Supreme Being, and set forth the importance to them of that belief. However, that is your decision, since it is your belief which we solicit.

But we do ask you to confine yourself to affirmatives: This means refraining from saying what you do not believe. Your beliefs may well have grown in clarity to you by a process of elimination and rejection, but for our part, we must avoid negative statements lest we become a medium for the criticism of beliefs, which is the very opposite of our purpose.

We are sure the statement we ask from you can have wide and lasting influence. Never has the need for personal philosophies of this kind been so urgent. Your belief — simply and sincerely spoken — is sure to stimulate and help those who hear it. We are confident it will enrich them. May we have your contribution?

Adapted from the invitation sent to essayists featured in the original 'This I Believe' series. Excerpted from 'This I Believe 2,' copyright © 1954 by Simon and Schuster.

Where to Hear “This I Believe”

“This I Believe” will begin airing on National Public Radio's “Morning

Edition” and “All Things Considered” beginning April 4. The series can be heard locally on WFPL-FM.

Updated, March 14, 2005. Originally published in the Louisville Eccentric Observer on June 16, 2004.

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