Arts, Culture & Media

John Hockenberry gives us his takeaway

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John Hockenberry

Credit:

The Takeaway 

So, what do you say about nearly 10 years of your life measured out in radio programs?

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For me, it's that long, though not for most of you, because this show was birthed in the shadows of a long-forgotten mission to become a public radio alternative in morning drive time. That goal, which was written into grant proposals and pitches, launched The Takeaway. Then two of the biggest stories of the century — the election of Barack Obama and the financial debacle that almost took down the global economy — lifted us steadily as a place where people could hear ideas mixed with the news.

It's in the occasional laugh, a way of speaking and thinking that said you could have power over the things you could control, by understanding them beyond scandals and silly showdowns and even unsatisfying elections.

But as a Don Quixote tilting at windmills, the likes of me and my co-hosts in those days, Adaora Udoji and Celeste Headlee, were not about to slow the mighty vanes of Morning Edition.

Five years ago, The Takeaway became a one-hour daytime program.

There, another, to my mind, more worthy mission would thrive.

I've always felt that the news is a bit of a con — or less than meets the eye sometimes. So much talk about the United States in the world media makes no sense; the antics of Trump, Putin, Modi, Merkel, Xi Jinping; how much do they matter in your lives, really.

I've always sensed there's a hunger out there to find deeper answers to haunting questions like: What do I do in civic society? How do I make change when voting seems so beside the point? Why do things seem so broken? Why do smart people seem so silly once they get political power? Why do some of them proceed into flag-waving debacles that go on for years and manufacture enemies that don't really threaten us, kill our best and bravest for nothing, turn others into the burned and maimed for life, turn still others into vessels of confused rage?

How can being interested in the news be the beginning of something bigger than finding out what happens tomorrow?

That's been my mission throughout my career. During my time in the Middle East and Africa, when looking at a little Palestinian boy holding onto a carton of eggs while soldiers and militants battled in the streets, that was the memorable image that taught me to think that the headline that day was less important than what that little boy would grow up and feel as a man. That boy was the story, but the reporters all ignored him. 

Or how in Somalia, how a village of well-fed, even obese people allowed the people in the next village to starve and die. "We don't want to become skeleton people," one woman said, teaching me that famine is political when a society breaks down completely.

Then, on a show called "Heat" back in 1990, we were doing a lot of shows on religious conservatives and their impact on politics and wondering about the influence of Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly. That is until a little girl on the show read her poetry and said in one line, "religions are like radiators everywhere and nowhere."

It blew me away, I never forgot it; it stayed in my mind and has deepened my understanding of religious politics — and it was delivered by nothing we would call news.

I met up with that little girl, all grown-up, married with a daughter. She came to an event in Boston one time to thank me for a moment that taught her to value her own thoughts.

For me, that's public radio: people with confidence about their truths sharing them. A way of speaking that makes people turn on their curiosity. A way of questioning that makes listeners want to also ask their own questions. A public radio that's suspicious of feeling like a club of all the same kind of people, that believes curiosity is the birthing room for political action and that engaged communities are the lifeblood of politics.

Here at the end of my work on The Takeaway, this show is being held aloft by arguably another of the biggest stories of the century: the Trump phenomenon.

We mean to explore, investigate, be unafraid in our critiques and uncynical in our hard looks at what we believe is really going on.

It's what this show does. A show about democracy and the power of all of us, prodded sometimes, I suppose, by a host who isn't just reading.

It's what I'll be doing wherever I go next and what I'm sure this show will still be doing long after I'm gone. Long after I say goodbye.

For nearly 10 years, John Hockenberry has been the voice of The Takeaway. Today is his last day with the program. Listen to his audio essay by clicking the "play" button.This audio essay originally aired on The Takeaway.