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On air with the world's humanitarians

From the April 7, 2003 issue of the Christian Science Sentinel

A radio producer and his search for people who are making the global village a better place to live

It stands to reason that a radio program called Humankind would be produced by a humanitarian, but says he only delights in finding humanitarians. Spend some time talking with him, though, and you soon sense that he belongs among the spiritually animated people he interviews. He is also executive producer of Humanmedia, a radio production outfit based in Belmont, Massachusetts.

Freudberg is the kind of person you could talk with for hours—about the people he's met, their stories—all told with his self-effacing sense of humor. But a good conversationalist is also, by definition, a gifted listener. And Freudberg's programs are always about the subject—about the interviewee's justly famed or previously unknown humanity, and about the ideas that animate our individual searches for meaning and wholeness—and not about himself as the interviewer.

Freudberg has received several prestigious radio journalism awards, and cassette versions of his programs have been selected by Book of the Month Club and Editor's Choice.

Even in a public radio world that tends to be more cerebral than sensory, it's unusual to find programs about the transcendent values that connect us with one another and with the sacred. Freudberg delights in discovering people who inspire him because of the way they face difficulties, and for the lessons they've learned on life's hard roads. His subjects have included healing, hospices, freedom, hunger, equality, service, volunteerism, spirituality, peace, philanthropy, and conflict resolution. He has interviewed or profiled the Dalai Lama; Betty Ford; Habitat for Humanity founder, Millard Fuller; and Jimmy Carter.

But there are also the lesserknowns and unknowns who are doing extraordinary things. On the Humanmedia website's program index, you'll find these listings about a series called Uncommon Ground:

#42: UNCOMMON GROUND (I.) Tragic shootings force prochoice and pro-life activists to hear and love each other in remarkable five-year dialogues.

#43:UNCOMMON GROUND (II.) How to listen even if you sharply disagree.

Following are excerpts from my December 2002 interview with David Freudberg.

Since the 1970s, when you were a young intern at what is now WHYY in Philadelphia, you've consistently brought the humanity of humankind to public radio. How did you get your start in public radio?

I grew up in a suburb just outside of Philly, and I had the remarkable good fortune to call the station about a week after they had laid off about half the staff in a budget cut. They were desperate for any warm body. Within a space of a few months, I was doing a weekly live show. It was called One to One. It was simply an interview program by a somewhat self-important sixteen-year-old, with whomever he could persuade to come into the studio.

This was in the formative years of public radio in the US?

It happened to be the first year that National Public Radio (NPR) went on the air. I'd never even thought of public radio. I'd had some exposure to public television. I tuned into [NPR's] All Things Considered [ATC] one night within a couple of months of when it went on the air, and I was just enthralled. [Hearing ATC said to me that] you could do things that were in-depth, intelligently written. It had some integrity. It really appealed to me. Within a few weeks of that, I knocked on their door; and actually started freelancing for ATC while I was a junior in high school. I've always had a somewhat older-sounding voice, and I'm not sure they entirely knew how inexperienced I was in the beginning.

How did you start reporting?

I think the first broadcast I did was covering the anti-war trial of Father Philip Berrigan in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which was a couple of hours from where I lived. That opened this whole door to rubbing shoulders with Pultizer Prize-winning journalists and network TV reports—and I was just in heaven.

That summer I went to cover the Daniel Ellsberg-Pentagon Papers trial for NPR, which was being heard in L.A.I ended up covering for a Washington Post reporter one day when he had an assignment out of town, and then I began reporting for the Post. When I moved up to Boston in 1974, I was covering the historic school desegregation case that brought about [court-mandated school] busing. I was in Federal Court, and witnessed the violence in South Boston, and was of course covering that for NPR as well. I was the leading contributor out of Boston for NPR during my first seven or eight years here.

You are now doing long interviews and documentaries about more personal and spiritual issues. How did you make the transition?

I eventually noticed that, at WGBH [in Boston], the most interesting people seemed to be the ones that actually went out and got grants and conceived grand projects. [They] were able to devote many months to grand documentaries, and I thought, "Wow, that's very appealing," because you can have substance, and you can do that as opposed to having to turn in a new story each day.

Around that same time my own spiritual journey was starting to blossom, and I became enamored of Quakers, studied extensively with a Sufi master, and became fascinated with Unity and many traditions. I was always interested in the inner dimension of what was happening, so my budding life as a documentary producer and my budding life as a soul began to intersect.

What kind of programs did you produce?

I produced a lot of programs on the human spiritual quest. For five years in the early '80s I did a weekly [show] that aired around the country under the title Kindred Spirits. There I had a chance to stretch out and talk to people in a wide variety of traditions, beliefs, and experiences, to really find out what it was they had in common. In a sense that was the part that interested me the most—what were the universal themes that make us human?

I got to spend some time with the Dalai Lama in the early '80s [during] one of his very first trips to the West, and with Muhammad Ali, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, and Rabbi Harold Kushner. That was a wonderful introduction for me to so many aspects of living and dying, living and being in the world, and being in it but not of it.

Producing radio can be "just a job," or it can be inspiring. What is it for you?

There is something almost in the way of a meditation when you are listening carefully to audio, editing the words of somebody, pondering their voice and their inner life as expressed through their tone of voice. It's almost like I feel as if I'm praying at the digital workstation. I'm trying hard to listen to my inner voice and hear its guidance on how I might present words and ideas through radio to touch people.

We have so many, many people who write and call and e-mail saying that they've been deeply touched. So, I have to conclude that my prayer is answered—that in fact the words do touch people.

How do you prepare for an interview?

I try, when it's not awkward, to take a moment of silence before an interview with the interviewee there—unless I sense that they"ll be uncomfortable with it. That's an opportunity for me to try to center and focus and essentially ask that the words be given to both of us that might help people. I think trying to have a high intention like that can make a huge difference.

What programs have made the greatest impact on you?

I've done a lot of programs on themes of health and history, when there is an aspect that speaks to the human condition, like the biography of Helen Keller that actually was mixed at Monitor Radio [see sidebar] in 1993. It is this amazing story of this woman who had nothing and yet gave everything. How inspiring! How can I actually with a straight face complain about any little woe or annoyance in my life, in the face of someone who was totally deaf and totally blind and yet had happiness and was able to render service?

Tell us about the series you are producing now.

In 1997 we premiered a series that we call Humankind. Its very title indicates its focus—looking at universal themes again through the stories of people who're trying to humanize our society. I'm fascinated by humanitarians. Who are these people? Where do they come from? What are their motivations? I'm endlessly inspired by them. I love the opportunity that this work grants me to hang out with them and to listen. I keep hoping one of these years it's gonna rub off on me!

Do you see your work from a spiritual or religious standpoint?

I don't actually view this work as a religious focus because, first of all, I don't feel myself limited by a particular doctrine. Sometimes there's a difference between religion and spirituality. I think of spirituality as the life-giving force that happens whenever anybody is cognitive of somebody else—whenever they can bring themselves to forgive someone, or can overcome a prejudice that seems to have been instilled in so many of us. That stuff, whatever you call it, is spirituality.

Was there a point where you realized that your stories had an impact on people?

I'm rather clear that it's not I [doing the stories], but whatever the force is that mysteriously connects a human being to a radio at the right time to hear a relevant, interesting program, working behind the scenes.

But you know, we [get] ... thousands of letters from people [who say they were] weeping as they were driving down the highway .... I keep praying that we haven't been responsible for any traffic accidents, given the flood of tears that people reveal in their letters! You know, they [the letters] sustain you [as a radio producer].

We did a show on gratitude. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, mostly because it hasn't been contaminated by commercialism, plus it's an exuse to eat pecan pie. It also is an amazing message—"What is Thanksgiving all about?" We recorded people who had a number of stories to tell about what they were grateful for. A woman wrote in ... she was listening, and had quite an experience.

[Freudberg reads that listener's lond e-mail message. The program on gratitude, she said, had meant everything to her because she had been ill and in pain. She felt that those who were on the program had discovered the "secret to life," and those discoveries gave her great comfort.]

Isn't that nice? Totally mysterious, right? I'd never made her acquaintance before, and somehow the human connection was made on the highest level.

I'm editing a documentary right now ... "Walking through the Storm." [The program was distributed to participating radio stations in January 2003.] The focus is people who have been diagnosed with cancer who avail themselves of various forms of support—mind/body techniques that include support groups, and prayer—really challenging the negative, unproductive thoughts of worry and anxiety and despair and fear that so typically accompany the diagnosis of something as serious as cancer.

One of the people in the show chose not to have surgery and instead to rely upon her faith in God, but that's not typical of the others. Most of the people are doing a combination of medical treatment. [But] they have really sought out this complementary [spiritual] piece, which I think is very interesting indeed. Our focus is upon ways to deal with an illness beyond surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, which are the main things that allopathic medicine offers for cancer.

It's interesting listening to the people—how they've been transformed by it [their search for cure and for peace], how they take life more seriously, how they are in a position where they see life as precious.

What's your sense of the role that a spiritual life plays in this time when we in the US are looking at making huge decisions?

I guess we have to try very hard to get quiet enough that we can actually hear the voice of conscience. And I think the voice of conscience is whispering to everybody at all times. I hear it when I take the time and make the effort to be quiet inside. Just to sit for ten or 15 minutes a day can make a huge difference.

We need community. We need spiritual community. I've done so many shows on service, and it's almost the cliché that when people talk to you about their service experience, somewhere along the line in the interview they are going to come out with the phrase, "I get so much more from it than I give." How many times have I heard that in interviews on the subject of community volunteerism, and service of different kinds? I think those are some of the ways in which a spiritual life can be instructive in making some of the choices we face.

Humankind programs can be heard on your local public radio station, free online, or purchased on cassette at


• The public radio system in the US consists of roughly 1,000 independent but loosely affiliated stations. These stations are primarily listener-funded via on-air fundraising, and most of them pay fees to affiliate with National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Radio International (PRI), in order to purchase network programming. Stations also purchase specific programs from NPR and PRI, from other networks, and directly from independent production companies such as Humanmedia.

Humankind is aired by more than 200 public radio stations. Call or write to your local stations for program schedules.

Kate Dearborn was director of radio for Monitor Radio (see her sidebar on public radio), a former production of our sister publication, The Christian Science Monitor.

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