In a loud world where conversations routinely devolve and civility is severed, Krista Tippett is an anomaly. For starters, she has an indoor voice, a calm and steady cadence once compared to “honey." But that doesn’t mean Tippett’s asking easy questions on her popular public radio program, “On Being.”
Tippett, 58, wants to know what makes us human, what connects us, and what makes us hold fast to hope when troublesome news bombards us. Her show dates to the early 2000s when it was “Speaking of Faith,” but it evolved into something beyond religion, she told The UpSide. Guests have included the late poet Mary Oliver; conservative radio host Glenn Beck; and a slew of scientists, artists, psychologists, and musicians.
“In the early years, people would get an invitation to be on the show and say, ‘I’m not spiritual, I don’t know what I have to offer,” said Tippett in a phone interview. “Often, I want people to comment on what it means to be human, about the connection between interior life and the outer world. That’s what we’re looking for.”
On April 28, the Peabody Award-winning broadcaster will be in Philadelphia to accept an award for her work from Interfaith Philadelphia as its yearlong Civil Conversations projects comes to an end. Tippett, whose own Civil Conversations project inspired Interfaith Philadelphia, will be given the 2019 Dare to Understand Award at the Episcopal Cathedral in University City. The following night, she’ll record an episode of “On Being” at Congregation Rodeph Shalom. Tippett’s guests will be Omar Saif Ghobash, ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to France, and Shane Claiborne, leader of Red Letter Christians, which is based out of Kensington.
Claiborne, 43, has been on Tippett’s program several times. He calls Tippett a kindred spirit.
“She stirs people’s curiosity, and invites them to lean in," Claiborne said. “One of the things we really need right now in America is spiritual conversation. Meanness doesn’t have a political camp."
Tippett grew up in Shawnee, Okla., and was raised in the Southern Baptist Church. She graduated from Brown University in 1983 with a history degree, then studied at the University of Bonn in West Germany on a Fulbright scholarship. She worked as a journalist and diplomat in Cold War Berlin and lived in Spain and England.
Later, she earned a master of divinity at Yale University, a life-changing experience for her.
“I studied aspects of the human experience," she says. “I was there to contemplate life and live the contemplative life,” she said. “You should have to go to divinity school. We should all be able to delve into this and experience this and investigate this in full.”
Tippett said “Speaking of Faith” began as an oral-history project for a Minnesota college, but in the years immediately after 9/11, talk of religion was often divisive.
“The language of faith was such a lighting rod,” she says. “What I wanted to do was open up imagination about all walks of life. I fell pretty quickly into the place we’re in now. "
“On Being” was launched in 2003 as a weekly national public radio show. According to the show’s website, it is broadcast on 400 public radio stations across the United States and has been downloaded more than 200 million times. Tippett has had many well-known guests, including authors Brene Brown and Ta-Nehisi Coates, but some are outside the mainstream, like Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist who recorded the world’s last quiet places. Hempton’s episode is full of lush sounds: the call of a loon, a rain shower, peeping frogs in a bog.
As she does for every guest, Tippett opens with a question about the subject’s spiritual tradition as a child.
“I really can’t say that I’m religious today, although I am spiritual. I don’t go to church that’s inside of buildings, but I do go to church that’s outside,” Hempton said.
Tippett, who received a National Humanities Award from President Barack Obama in 2014, said listeners will recommend guests and often they’ll find their way onto the show. When Tippett had the vociferous Glenn Beck on the show, she said, some listeners “reacted badly,” but she is not out to interview only people she agrees with.
“Discomfort is part of reality and teaching and learning,” Tippett said. “I’m trying to make a different move when I interview more controversial, lighting-rod people. I want to create a space to try to understand where they are coming from."
Tippett said radio lends itself to intimacy and she hasn’t thought much of branching into television.
“Radio actually taps into your brain,” she said. “It helps paint pictures in your brain. It requires more of you, and I think that’s a much more enriching experience."