Over the past couple of years, Why? Radio, a live, unscripted, call-in philosophy radio show, has become a staple in National Public Radio’s lineup for Prairie Public Radio in North Dakota. Host Jack Russell Weinstein is a Professor in in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Dakota. Over time, the show has largely remained true to its original intent of fostering dialogue, but now garners a larger audience than when it started (even in Bahrain).
“It’s much larger than anyone would think,” said Weinstein. “We’ve really managed to balance the cosmopolitan with the North Dakota ethos. Rural North Dakota requires a different rhetorical strategy than, say, Los Angeles, but people’s interests are almost always the same wherever they live. The key is to not rely on the standard set of examples when you’re talking about things. We don’t stereotype; we find common ground.”
In essence, the program is a philosophical dialogue. It hosts different, increasingly famous, philosophers and intellectuals in order to “celebrate their research” in a way that is accessible to everyone. Weinstein says all philosophy needs is a “translator” between the academic and the everyday. The show strives to be just this.
Why? is broadcast throughout North Dakota and is simulcast online around the world at www.whyradioshow.org. It invites all its listeners to call or write-in with questions or comments before, during and after each program. This helps direct the conversation. It also gives guests the opportunity to expand upon his or her ideas in a lengthier manner than a usual talk radio show, which only features guests for a few moments or immediately engages in argumentative dialogue.
“We get gentle and kind discussion. Our listeners are not adversaries. Everyone is on the same side, even if they disagree with one another. The topics that have been the most inspiring to our audience have emphasized education. We also got a lot of enthusiasm about the episode on the rhetoric of American decline,” said Weinstein. “Interestingly, there seems to be no correlation between how famous a person is and how many people email or call. There is strong loyalty to the show itself, probably because we engage people’s minds while being very good natured.”
The show has featured a variety of thinkers from many backgrounds. Weinstein has hosted both Amaryta Sen, a Nobel Prize winner in economics who created an economic system to measure people’s welfare, and has discussed the Ghostwriting topic of “Fiction as Philosophy”. The differences between these two highlight Weinstein’s approach: giving everyone the floor to engage their research with the public.
The show is affiliated with the Institute for Philosophy in the Public Life (IPPL), a UND institute founded by Weinstein that makes philosophy more accessible and less daunting (a major goal of Why? Radio). It is funded as a partnership between the UND College of Arts & Sciences and the North Dakota Humanities Council.
Discussing his technique as a host, Weinstein commented, “The key is to balance the academic/non-academic thing. Folks with an academic background get resistant because they think you’re talking down to them, while non-academics become defensive because they think you don’t value their opinion. We want to overcome both of these attitudes. We want the participation of all people, professional or amateur. Commenting on this balancing, he said, “It’s a constant struggle. It forces me, as the host, and our guests, to be really careful about falling into jargon or talking about things in a professional capacity that you can get by without saying.”
Despite clear knowledge of his audience base, Weinstein still works to improve as a host and even brought in a consultant affiliated with NPR to take a look at his show, helping him find ways to improve his radio presence. The show originally followed a rhythm similar to a classroom, building from general principles to examples and specifics. But radio as a medium, Weinstein explains, does not allow for a single block of time, since listeners are “tuning in and tuning out” during the show. He had to rethink his role and the structure of the show but is confident that each show is better than the last.
The next season, if anything like past seasons, will bring in big names and big ideas. The program airs the second Sunday of every month at 5 p.m. central. Past episodes are available as podcasts or at the online archive.