Making Great Radio

I remember I was 8, maybe 9 years old. I had a portable radio in my room. I mostly listened to rock 'n' roll on WCGQ. But one night - I don't remember the day, but maybe it was a Thursday - they took a half hour and programmed something different.

It was the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. This would have been 1980 or '81 - but they were hearkening back to the golden years of 1940s radio drama. Voices created a movie in my head. I followed the story from start to finish, captivated.

Good radio makes you feel things. It doesn't just inform you, it engages you. Great radio is the radio that gets you caught up in the story, and keeps you there. When I think of my interviews, I think of them in terms of the story.

Talking to someone on my show is not just about information. It's about moving the conversation and the listener through a journey. Through the many years since that epic Thursday evening, there have been few things I have loved as much as radio. I am thankful that it continues to be a part of my life - and that now I can contribute something to the conversation.

I hope you enjoy the work we do. here on my staff we literally think about you and talk about you - the listener - with every show that we make. We constantly seek to make this the best possible experience for you it can be.

At our best moments, I want to give you something like what I felt back on that night in 1980. Or was it '81?

No matter when or how you do it, thank you always for listening.

Did you hear Bill Clinton's Convention Speech?

Dear friends of the Sunday Evening Club,

A few moments ago, I listened to former President Bill Clinton begin his speech at the Democratic National Convention. 

Among the several stories he told about meeting and courting Hillary Clinton, he mentioned a pivotal moment. He talked about the trip she took to downtown Chicago to hear a speech by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bill said that this event helped to awaken Hillary to the importance of social justice. It was a moment that helped to shape her life, and her political career.

I am proud that it was the Chicago Sunday Evening Club that invited Reverend King to speak that night. 

I am even more proud that we offered Dr. King our stage and our support not once, not twice, but a total of six times.

For more than a hundred years, the Sunday Evening Club has been creating moments like this. We have helped to kindle faith, and we have invited that faith into positive civic action.

And for more than a century, we have been able to do this work because of your prayers, and because of your support.

Thank you.

My sincerest regards,


You can help us continue to inspire young leaders to put their faith into action. Click here to make your tax-deductible donation now.

#FridayFive for July 1st, 2016

As we prepare for the long weekend, the staff of CSEC sends our best wishes to you and yours. 240 years ago, our nation began a great experiment in democracy. We included religion and religious tolerance as a key factor. Two and a half centuries later, we are the most religiously diverse and vibrant nation in the history of the world.

I never cease to marvel at the miracle of that. I hope you are inspired by it, too.

In case you might have missed them, here are five news items concerning religion in Chicago from the past couple of weeks:

1. Ex-newscaster Robin Robinson lands $150K gig at Chicago Police Department for strengthening faith relations - Full story here

Note: This fall we will host a public conversation at the Chicago Temple with new police Superintendent Eddie Johnson. Watch our website for details.

2. Former Bear Matt Forte talks about passion for football, religion - Full story here

3. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel hosts Iftar for area Muslims - Full story here

4. Muslims, Catholics break bread, build bridges - Full story here

Note: If you are interested in more stories about Muslims and Christians in dialogue, you might like to watch the public conversation we hosted between Dr. Larycia Hawkins and Ahmed Rehab recently at the Chicago Temple - Full story here

5. I wrote an op-ed last week for Crain's about a missed opportunity at their recent #FutureChicago event - Full story here and mirrored on our website here

Note: If you are interested in ways to bring Chicago's business and faith communities together, then please consider joining us for this year's Chicago Leadership Prayer Breakfast on December 2nd. Our Chair is Charles Tribbett, Managing Director of Russell Reynolds Associates, and our keynote speaker is Archbishop Blaise Cupich.

Look for another roundup next Friday - 

Thanks to our summer interns, Adam and Karissa, for helping me compile this list. You can find out more about them here.

Meet our Summer Interns, Part 1

At the beginning of June, our small staff grew. We welcomed two interns for the summer, Adam Hudnut-Beumler and Karissa Wheeler.

Karissa is a rising sophomore at the University of the South (Sewanee) in Tennessee, where she studies English and Theatre. She became interested in working with the Sunday Evening Club because of its faith-based media work. She hopes to explore possible careers in journalism and broadcast. Coming from Nashville, Chicago was a bit of an adjustment. But after two weeks in the city, she is liking what she has seen so far.

Adam is a rising senior at Princeton University, where he studies Religion, with a focus on American culture. An avid fan of podcasting, Adam sought out the Sunday Evening Club to learn about the technical side of audio production. After graduation, he hopes to continue studies in a doctoral program in American Studies or Religious Studies. Fun fact: Years ago, his grandfather, Robert Hudnut, was a guest on our program 30 Good Minutes

Behind the Scenes, Documentaries

A shift in focus for this blog


From David Dault, President and CEO:

When we redesigned the CSEC website recently, we added this blog - but weren't quite sure what to do with it. For a while, I thought it would be a place to write up various musings, while walking around the city, or a way to react to things encountered while surfing the web.

Well, now that has shifted a bit. There is a new blog, which I (David) am writing for the Tribune Corporations ChicagoNow blogspace, is called #FaithLoop. You can connect to it here.

So whence this space? We've decided that we'll use it for letting you know about projects we're working on. We'll post updates and behind-the-scenes glimpses of how we develop and craft the stories we tell.

We hope you'll enjoy a peek behind the curtain. Thanks for reading, and please let us know what you think!

Things Not Seen

On the Passing of Phyllis Tickle

It is with a heavy heart that I report the passing of Phyllis Tickle. I received word just a few moments ago. Apparently, she died peacefully in her sleep, earlier this afternoon.

Dr. Tickle was a pioneer in religious publishing, having founded and served as the first editor of the religion section of Publishers Weekly. She was a widely regarded lecturer, and the author of more than three dozen books on various spiritual and religious subjects.

She was a good friend to the Chicago Sunday Evening Club , appearing twice as a guest on our show 30 Good Minutes over the years (watch here and here). I also had the privilege of interviewing her for Things Not Seen Radio.

Moreover, she was a dear friend to my family. We were introduced to her several years ago by a mutual friend, Roger R. Easson, when we lived in the Memphis area. She welcomed my wife and me, and our children, to her Farm in Lucy, TN. 

Since our moving to Chicago, we stayed in touch. We grieved with her early this year, when her husband, Sam, passed, and we were heartbroken to hear of her own diagnosis of cancer just a few months after. 

She was loved and beloved. She was wise and she was fierce. She blazed trails and she gathered others for the journey. She has left us. She was ready. She will be missed. She will be missed.

- David Dault
President and CEO

Behind the Scenes

Above all, Compassion.

In the 1950s, Kurt Hahn, the man who would eventually become the spiritual founder of the Outward Bound movement, had a profound insight about young people:

The experience of helping a fellow man in danger, or even of training in a realistic manner to be ready to give this help, tends to change the balance of power in a youth's inner life with the result that compassion can become the master motive.

In my own experience, as a colleague and a manager, I have discovered that people become trustworthy when they are invested with trust. They become responsible as they are given more authority to do things as they see fit to do them right. People grow in spirit when that spirit is watered with care and compassion.

The Outward Bound movement creates events that model situations of rescue - even when they do not call them by that name. It invites young people - and older people - into those situations. Not to create macho individuals, hardened and tough. But to invite those qualities inherent in our common humanity - "an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self denial, and above all, compassion" - to come to the fore.

I'm not saying that Johann Hari's views are the perfect answer, nor that I agree with everything he says. But there is a core in what he says that rings true to my experience, and to the wisdom I have seen work in the world - the wisdom I heard first, years ago, in the writings of Kurt Hahn.

Behind the Scenes, Video

Touching the Snake

I am lucky. I get paid to "be creative." At least, a good part of my job is centered on this kind of behavior. But that does not mean it is easy. Or fun. Or always successful.

I have been open with a good number of my friends about the creative blocks I have, so I am comfortable speaking a little about them here. First and foremost, since 2009, I have suffered from graphophobia - an intermittent but absolutely crippling fear of writing. When it has a grip on me, it is more than just a "writers block." It is a complete and total inability to write: handwriting, emails, anything.

As a result, I have had to totally reconstruct and restructure my creative life. It was in part my graphophobia that took me out of academia - if you can't write, it's hard to be a scholar. At the time, it was my dark secret. Nobody but my wife knew. But i would sit in my office, staring at a computer screen, day after day, in raw and growing terror. Why isn't this working?

A dark secret will gnaw at you, and it gnawed at me. One of the best steps I ever took was finally starting to admit the problem, to talk about it, to out myself. Being honest about the struggle and the times of sheer impossibility have helped me realize that I have a group of supporters and champions around me - and that has been fantastic for my creative life.

Working and struggling with the graphophobia has also opened new avenues of creativity for me. I came to realize that my inability to write did not cause the world to stop turning. If I could not complete a project on time, or at all, there were other doors that opened. That does not mean that folks were always cool about my blowing a deadline - but even when they were not, something good often came of the exchange.

The other piece of this was that giving myself the option of other outlets led to radio. At the time, the desperate rationale was "I can't write, but I can still talk." So I began interviewing colleagues, friends, and fellow scholars. This desperate gambit was a risk, and did not necessarily create a line of scholarship that would lead to tenure. But in its own way it led me to Chicago, and the work I am doing now.

So there are good days and there are bad days. Obviously, any day that I can sit and write a blog post like this is a very good day. They are happening with more regularity, I am happy to say. After five years in the woods, I am seeing more light through the trees. 

But there are still days - a lot of them - where there is an absolute wall. On those days, I am thankful that I am able to talk to my friends and my staff about what is going on, in addition to my family. The understanding and support of these incredible people sustain me.

Two thoughts, as I conclude:

First, a little insight from my friend Peter Ochs. He and I were catching up last fall in San Diego, and I told him some of the details about the graphophobia. Instead of acting like this was a problem, he praised the block, and (looking at the big picture - the move to Chicago, move into radio, etc) he remarked that the block seemed to be taking care of me so far.

So that's the first insight - a creative block is not necessarily a "problem" to be "solved." Instead, it might be an avenue to a different, but equally valid and worthwhile, way of being creative.

Second, is a quotation from Peter Gabriel that I read some years back. I don't have the exact wording, but the gist of it was, if someone put a gun to your head and said, "By a year from now you will create a great work of art, or I will kill you," his bet was that almost everyone could do it. They would find in themselves a way to create a great work of art.

What I love about this is not just the notion of everyone having the chops to do great work. I also love it because - if you know about Gabriel's track record - you know that he takes an insanely long time to create new work, often going four years or more between new releases.  

So, even though he's got this optimism about the creative process, he also is willing to give himself the space and the time for the brilliance to work itself out. 

Because it's not always easy for me to write like this, I hope you know how much I appreciate your taking the time to read my work. As always, thank you.

Documentaries, CSEC Docs

Back again, with more stories of This American Life

When I get frustrated with my own creative process (which happens often), I borrow someone else's.

My experience of my own creativity is deeply frustrating. I never seem to be able to get at the problem head-on. Instead, I have to sneak up on things. Concretely, this means I spend a lot of time fretting with writer's block, anxiety, and late nights of trying to get my creativity in gear.

It is at such moments that I start looking around to those that inspire me, to see if they can offer insights from their own process - either to goad me into something helpful, or just to give me reassurance that people I admire have the same kind of struggles that I do.

Because I am a radio nerd, a key inspiration for me is Ira Glass, creator and host of the Chicago Public Media mainstay, This American Life. Glass's advice on narrative and creativity are essential touchstones for all producers.

So I was especially happy to find this little gem - a behind the scenes look at the frantic process behind the early days of This American Life. (thanks, Chicago Tonight!) 

Seriously - we see Ira literally rewriting the show at the last minute, switching things out and fighting to make the show better, right down to the wire.

These sort of moments are gold to me. Seeing my own struggles to get a narrative to come into focus, to get a documentary to take shape, it gives me courage to see Ira and the team go through their own battles with the material. As Ira once said, "Your purpose is to find your story's purpose."

So there you have it. On a Tuesday afternoon, when I'm struggling to find my way through the script of the upcoming documentary we're working on, this is where I go for inspiration. Hope it helps you, too.

Things Not Seen, Radio Interviews

Interviewing Jesse Jackson

When I started my radio show, Things Not Seen, I had modest ambitions. I expected I would mostly get to talk to friends of mine - other academics, mostly - and ask them questions about their work.

It didn't take long, however, for the idea to take hold that maybe - just maybe - we could aim for something higher. In our first season, back in 2012, we managed to get several authors on the schedule who were getting national attention just as their interview with us aired. Probably the best examples of this at the time were Rachel Held Evans and Joanna Brooks, who had both gotten national coverage right as their episode aired.

What I am discovering is that success breeds success. As we demonstrated that the show was a good venue for guests, more editors and publicists took notice. Since our first season, I've been increasingly pleased with the mix of guests - both local and national - we have had.

But this week we kind of hit the big time. Thanks to our friends at Chicago Theological Seminary, I got the chance to interview a truly internationally-recognized figure, the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

How It Happened

I was invited to interview Rev. Jackson through the folks who are organizing the upcoming Chicago Theological Seminary conference, Selma at 50: Still Marching. The Sunday Evening club is a co-sponsor of the event. 

So the opportunity came up - at somewhat the last minute - for the interview.

Rev. Jackson was most gracious with his time. It was clear he had not been briefed on what to expect; I mentioned that my interviews usually last about 45 minutes or so and he replied "Oh, I don't have enough to say for that." 

Despite his protestations, however, we had a very good conversation - one which looked backward to the past and forward to the future. 

Mary, who I work with a lot when I record at WBEZ, used to be the chief engineer for Studs Terkel. After the interview was over, i asked for her feedback. She thought I did well, though she did have some constructive criticism about the order of questions I asked.

In a couple of weeks, you'll get to hear for yourself! 

Before I close - what kind of guests would YOU like us to try to interview in the future. The sky's the limit!