Quaker Radio

Department: 

Perhaps you know the joke, “What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Quaker? Someone who knocks on your door and then refuses to speak to you.” At the same time that we want to create the Peaceable Kingdom, we’re a bit hesitant about making too big a deal about the event, figuring others need to find their own way to it, without us being too pushy.

With that institutional bias in mind, it might seem like I chose to swim upstream against a strong current when I established a Quaker-rooted radio program (two actually) back in 2005. A new radio station was about to launch in Eau Claire, Wisconsin – WHYS-LP FM. The producers were pulling together ideas for shows, and someone suggested some kind of spiritual-related activist show for Sundays. Since I was well known as a local Quaker peace and justice activist, someone suggested me as a potential host. It took a few months for me to get on-board with the idea, feeling over-committed as I usually do. But with the help of a clearness committee and inspiration from Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak, I finally did say, “yes.” The first episodes of the two programs I produce, Spirit In Action and Song of the Soul, were broadcast in Eau Claire the summer of 2005.

It’s now been eleven years. I’ve established Northern Spirit Radio (NSR) as a nonprofit organization, and both of these weekly one-hour shows are carried on some twenty-five community radio stations in twelve states, among them California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado.

In the early days, more than one Friend suggested that I should broadcast a solid hour of silence. But joking aside, it has remained a real question for me from the beginning: What kind of radio programming is Quakerly?

If we only created programs with and about Quakers, we’d have a very small audience indeed. Fortunately, Quakers being who we are, “Quaker concerns” are not limited to parochial Quaker issues. In fact, I would even say that the fundamental “Quakerliness” of NSR is exactly what makes our shows appeal to a wide array of people – that aspect of our faith and practice that tries to answer that of God in everyone.

Many of the guests we’ve featured have told me that being interviewed by NSR is a unique experience. It’s not about the typical sound bites or got’cha moments or airing dirty underwear, but about inviting the deep to come out into the open. It’s about lifting up good and listening profoundly. Good Quaker listening is transformative. Consider this comment that one of our guests, author Peter Brown Hoffmeister of Eugene, Oregon, posted on his website:

I was fortunate enough to do forty or so radio interviews this summer with local, regional, and national radio shows . . . Every once in a while, a radio interview feels like a conversation with a friend, like a long involved talk about life and what’s important to both people. My interview on Wisconsin’s syndicated Northern Spirit Radio was like that. We talked about Graphic the Valley, and the host, Mark Judkins Helpsmeet, was a thoughtful and involved reader. He engaged with the novel in a way an author can only hope for. He considered the extended metaphors and had insights I hadn’t considered . . . and that’s just one of the reasons that this interview was one of my favorites.

Even though Hoffmeister didn’t mention spirituality specifically, the implication is clear in his comment, “like a long involved talk about life and what’s important to both people.” That’s how NSR typically uses the medium of community radio to do Quaker work in the world.

Sometimes though, it does get Quaker-specific. I estimate that about a third of my Spirit In Action guests have been Quaker-affiliated. And of course, there is always at least one Quaker (me) in the discussion. What has stunned me is the number of guests who reveal, out of the blue, some Quaker connection. Oregon-based activist-musician David Rovics mentioned unexpectedly that his mom is Quaker. Frances Moore Lappé (of Diet for a Small Planet renown) told me that she not only went to Earlham College, but she later attended a Quaker-based activist training program.

I was asked to share a bit about NSR for a workshop at the recent FGC gathering, and I considered all that I could talk about. These radio programs have been transformative for me. NSR calls forth the best in me, which allows me to meet the best in my guests. It feels a bit like serving on a good clearness committee.

But in my workshop at FGC, I actually said little. I used most of the time to lead participants through an exercise in “answering that of God” in each other. I asked them to identify the role (interviewer or interviewee) they gravitate to most easily and then asked them to try being on “the other side.” They broke into pairs and held short conversations in which the interviewer’s role was to listen for and invite out “the deep” from the other. With very few guidelines, but a very clear intention, the pairs heard and shared far more than they imagined they could in such a short time. I take this as an affirmation that we can all meet and “know each other in that which is eternal.” Doing this on the radio, I hope, spreads the good news of this possibility.

There are so many stories that can make the world better when we pass them on. Consider how your community could be different if deep sharing and stories of transformation were broadcast regularly on your local community radio station. Friends meetings in Washington State, both on Lopez Island and in Bellingham, grabbed this possibility and started sponsoring NSR programs on their local stations. That’s just one of the possibilities. You can also introduce NSR to possible guests in your area – activists and musicians whose gifts we could share more widely. Or you may even want to produce a radio program or podcast that NSR could host on our website, NorthernSpiritRadio.org. There is so much we can do when we open to the world, invite forth the deep, and find a medium that births our visions onto the planet.  ~~~

Mark Judkins Helpsmeet has traveled widely in the Quaker world, USA and abroad, especially as a Quaker international folk dancer (see FriendlyFolkDancers.com) and has been producing Quaker-inspired syndicated radio programs since 2005, under the name NorthernSpiritRadio.org. He is a member of Eau Claire Friends Meeting (Northern Yearly Meeting).