Jack Russell Weinstein’s ‘Why? Radio’ program celebrates 10 years on the air waves
A radio show about philosophy? It was a long shot.
Ten years and 125 shows later, Why? Radio: Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life, is the most popular podcast on Prairie Public Radio, with an average of 12,000 live listeners and about 30,000 total per episode, in 116 countries.
“If you heard a conversation like the ones Jack has with his guests at the next table, you’d order another cup of coffee and eavesdrop,” said Bill Thomas, director of Prairie Public Radio. “Radio listeners talk about it. It’s a combination of Jack’s ability to get A-list guests and his on-air personality.”
Founder and host Jack Weinstein said the show is all about having a fabulous discussion.
“Why? Radio asks the questions that we take for granted and puts them on the table to explore together,” said Weinstein, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Philosophy & Religion and the founder of the Institute for Philosophy in Public Life. “It aims to show that all philosophy is relevant to our day-to-day lives, and that everyone is doing philosophy all the time. We just don’t know it.”
From how to read a comic book to what animals can teach us about free will, from Buddhism to Sharia, the show covers it all, with a special emphasis on everyday philosophy. The more than 100 guests include Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner, activist Gloria Steinem, Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, graphic novelist and cartoonist Scott McCloud, and local guests that Weinstein said are just as interesting.
“Controversial issues are actually fun to communicate, and the silly stuff – like comics – that we take for granted is actually sophisticated,” Weinstein said. “The best shows are the ones where I have no idea what I’m talking about.”
Weinstein celebrates the work of others.
“I advocate for my guests,” he said. “I’m not adversarial. I show them at their best and learn with the audience.”
“Jack makes it work with a great combination of good guests, interesting topics and great conversation,” said Tony Cunningham, professor of philosophy at the College of Saint Benedict/St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minn. “One of the marks of a great conversation is that you don’t usually notice the wheels turning. Good conversations require really good listening and thoughtfulness.”
“Jack brings a lot of personality to the show, which is fantastic,” said Skip Wood, who engineers and edits the show. “He helps make philosophy accessible. The guests invariably like doing the show. It seems that every time, after we’re done recording, the guest expresses warm appreciation for the opportunity and the quality of the conversation. That’s exceptional.”
To celebrate 10 years, Why? Radio will record live at the Empire Arts Center, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26. The guest will be Weinstein’s father, Mark, on “The Logic of Jazz.” Admission is free, and refreshments will be provided.
“My father is a brilliant man,” Jack Weinstein said. “He has a Ph.D. in philosophy and mathematical logic, and is a world-renowned jazz flutist. I hope the show will be the best of all worlds – music, logic, my father and a live audience. This is a natural way to celebrate.”
Mark Weinstein, a professor of Education at Montclair State University in New Jersey, has also recorded 19 jazz albums. His music is the soundtrack to Why? Radio, and donors to the show receive his albums as a thank-you gift.
The show has always been a family affair. Daughter Adina, 13, helps with social media, and Weinstein’s wife, Kim Donehower, (professor of English) does the announcements. Both have appeared on the show; Adina interviewed Steinem when she was 11 and Kim has discussed her work on literacy.
Weinstein, who has been at UND 18 years, is also an active scholar who has authored three books, has five edited collections and dozens of publications. An award-winning teacher, he’s also something of a Renaissance man who plays guitar and piano, a hobbyist baker with an Instagram food blog, and trains for triathlons.
He’s even working on a bachelor’s degree, very slowly, he says, in music.
“Being in class was the best thing to happen to my teaching,” Weinstein said. “It helped me remember what it was like to be insecure, to not be able to do something, and to relate to students in a different way.”
Labor of love
“The show is a labor of love on many levels,” said Weinstein. “I grew up in a big city, and loved the feeling of being able to talk to anybody. This is my way of capturing that. I can’t fix cars, if I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity I’d make things worse. This is how I bring something I can offer to North Dakota.”
The show is entirely self-sustaining, and succeeds through donations and word-of-mouth. A shortened version of the show is broadcast at 5 p.m. on the second Sunday of each month, and the podcast version has extra material.
“Jack is fiercely passionate about his work, and he’s dedicated, taking on as many roles as needed to make sure his work is able to continue,” said Crystal Alberts, associate professor of English and director of the UND Writers Conference. “I consider Jack a friend, a colleague and fellow advocate for the arts, humanities and liberal arts. As a result, he’s established a global audience and interviewed some of the most influential philosophers and scholars in their field. Jack truly is someone who has an international reputation.”