Preaching To Myself: Five Heretical Sermons In Five Minutes

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Editor’s Note: This speech was delivered as a “provocation” on the opening night of the Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago, November, 2016. (photo by Jay Allison)

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I confess I like preaching, but don’t want you to feel preached to, so I claim that these sermons are for me, and they are . . . even when I don’t heed them.

They’re heretical in that they’re the opposite of a lot of advice, but they’re some of the things I tell myself when I stray from what feels most abidingly important.

Maybe they’re exhortations to stay true to my younger self — not to be as foolish maybe, but to be brave and good-hearted — something that feels more critical than ever in these days.

 

Sermon 1: Don’t Ask Permission

You want to get on the air, be on a show, have your story out there — but as you make your pitches, keep something precious in reserve and don’t pitch it. Just make it. Don’t even really plan it or predict what the narrative or sound will be. Just follow it and see what happens.

Be dogged in the expedition. The joy of this work is the exploration and discovery — both of which are antithetical to pitching, which even for the best of us, can inadvertently cripple the imagination by determining your trip before you walk it.

Walk in the dark, microphone extended, and don’t ask permission.

 

Sermon 2: Be Odd

Here’s the convention: Listen to the work you like or shows you want to be on, and then work in that style. Okay. But also: Don’t produce in someone else’s mold; don’t subscribe to someone else’s existing theory of narrative, musical tone, structural traditions, in a voice we’ve already heard. Find a new one. Make something we’ve never heard before.

Sure you can copy, and learn from the exercise, but sometimes: Be a poet. Be odd. Stick out.

I miss the whacko fringe in public media. It’s important, because the edges can move the center. So, nourish the Fringe in yourself.

And, while you’re at it, as useful as group edits can be, choose not to submit to them sometimes. Groups can make things that sound like groups made them. The edges are worn off, the individual fingerprint gone.

How fine it is to see someone out on a limb by themselves. That’s how new things happen — by following a seemingly crazy impulse. You will fall and fail sometimes, but it can be important, for yourself and for others who witness your risk. Once in a while, fail nobly, on your own.

 

Sermon 3: Stay Home

Don’t just connect with like-minded strangers far away. Radio producers are fundamentally dysfunctional. We want disembodied intimacy, which is a bit weird. We create detached connection, blind one-way communication. Remember to counter that.

Do something on the ground with people who share the spot where you live, including the ones you disagree with and that don’t look like you. Build something from place. The Internet promised to connect us, but it has us hunkering in our chosen silos. Interview your neighbors, and look them in the eye.

Maybe, where you live, you can introduce people to one another, calm one person’s fear, enlarge the civic space by inviting everyone to participate.

Don’t necessarily move to Brooklyn. Find a place you love and dig in. Make it better.

 

Sermon 4: Don’t Try To Be Cool

Don’t be afraid to be sincere. It’s a snarky world; we all want to be in on the joke and we don’t want to be the butt of it. When you’re sincere, you are close to earnestness and open to mockery. It’s much, much riskier to be sincere than to be ironic. The heartfelt is rare, especially when it comes from an ironic person.

Even as I write all this, I’m combing for corniness . . . am I saying something too sweet that’s too close to what I feel? Should I hide a little, make a joke, undermine with a wink?

Don’t cover up the good impulses in yourself, because it can be become a habit. Spread them instead, through your stories.

 

Sermon 5: Stop Competing

Many of us, and this conference itself, were incubated in public broadcasting — a haven for public service and broadly educational goals. We are mission driven. But mission is always fragile. We need to guard it from seeming quaint or corny, or being ignored.

Our mission is to shed light, spread important stories, fight ignorance and hatred, embrace many voices, expose injustice and bigotry, tell the truth. Our goal is nothing less than improving the quality of public discourse and society itself.

We are a commons, outside the marketplace, open and free to everyone. When one of us does well, we all do well. We are not competing. God bless the marketplace — it’s America, after all — but a marketplace does not have the goals of a civil and fair society at its heart. Public broadcasting does.

These days, some of us are succeeding in the marketplace. That’s great. We’re in a golden age of storytelling — with the ability to reach audiences directly, to be popular, to make money. Great work is being done. But what’s the endgame? Competition for audience, ratings, advertisers, cash? So, what else is new? The marketplace is already ubiquitous, but public media is unique.

Happily, many in this room, in both the for-profit and non-profit worlds, are still operating with the inherent spirit of generosity born of public broadcasting’s ethic. This conference proves it. We’re here to pass on our skills, to share ideas, to build the commons. In the competitive marketplace, you keep secrets, guard assets, covet resources, and you don’t want new talent nipping at your heels. That’s still not true around here, so far.

In our commons, we want company. We want to hear new things from all corners of life. We want to overcome the failure of listening in this country, on all sides. We seek insistently to promote decency and truth, and we can do it by working together to make sure the truth gets out there, from whomever in our collective is telling it best at the moment. We can champion one another.

I want our boats to rise together. I’ve often been disappointed with public broadcasting (the stations, NPR, the other institutions), but it’s a precious local and national system, founded on a beautiful idea, and we should protect it. In the coming days, it will be ever more under threat. If it fails, it will never be built again.

For the producers here, the job is to bring our creative energy to construct a social positive. We are bonded by a desire to help others, not just ourselves. With that purpose, it is the responsibility of public media to welcome us, and if they don’t, well, we’ll do our job anyway . . . and good luck to us. Either way, it’s time to get to work. There’s lots to do. Go forth.

 

Go Forth.

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  • Michael Casey

    11.16.16

    Reply

    Mahalo for the insightful sermon… While I know you intended this as a call to audio producers at Third Coast Conference – your points certainly ring true as reminders for pretty much everybody!

  • Keith Talbot

    11.21.16

    Reply

    Jay:

    Got to hear your talk on the “CURRENT” podcast. Outstanding. Beautifully written, appropriate, appreciated, timely and inspiring. Thank you. Perhaps “Heretical Sermons” are your new format.

    -Keith

  • Jay Allison

    11.21.16

    Reply

    Ladies and Gentlemen… KEITH TALBOT! Great to see you here, Keith. Those sermons spring from the spirit of the work you were doing at NPR in the 70s and 80s.

    Thank you again for the loan of my first field recorder, the Sony 800B reel-to-reel, from the equipment closet at M Street.

  • Chris Hall

    11.26.16

    Reply

    I second Michael’s comment that these thoughts are useful for everybody. I’ve started podcasting up near Hartford, CT. It’s no Brooklyn, but your words encourage me to keep looking for stories in a place where few are. Thank you!

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