In June, the public radio show and podcast On Being aired a conversation between its host Krista Tippett and writer Isabel Wilkerson. It made sense that Tippett had invited Wilkerson to come on the show, which has been a forum for intimate, sometimes anguished conversations about the human experience since 2003. Wilkerson had a new book, Caste, due out later in the summer. And its themes—the oppressiveness of racial hierarchies in America and around the world, the pernicious, lethal effects of discrimination—were a topic of discussion nationwide as millions of people took to the streets to demand racial justice and an end to police violence.
With Tippett (whom Wilkerson would thank in the book’s acknowledgments), Wilkerson compared the United States to an old house, as she also would in Caste. “I love old houses. But old houses need a lot of work. And the work is never done,” Wilkerson said. It was time for a renovation—an honest appraisal first, then structural overhaul. “I think that’s what we’re called upon to do where we are right now.”
But the “right now” to which Wilkerson referred was not June 2020. The show had been recorded in 2016, in the aftermath of the election. This was a re-air.
“It works,” Tippett tells me, reflecting on how it is that in the age of Instagram stories and contextless subtweets, an old episode of On Being can still feel current—“because that’s how wisdom works, which is different from information. I’m looking for those people, those voices, that wisdom that holds, and that is going to hold.”
That doesn’t mean drowning out the news or attempting to live out of time. It means finding a new path into the moment—one that CNN isn’t taking. She doesn’t cover Donald Trump, but she talks about ego. She doesn’t debate policies, but she has called for revolution—spiritual and otherwise. Cable TV beams out photos of smashed windows. Tippett avoids the scramble for “content.” When the breaking news alerts threaten to overwhelm, she pulls a choice episode from the archive.
Some podcasters interview cabinet-level officials or celebrities. Tippett interviews nuns who oppose capital punishment, priests fighting for racial reconciliation, rabbis, healers, poets, authors, artists, and, in at least one case, an “acoustic ecologist” on a mission to protect the world’s last silent places.
In the era of newsletter outfits like Axios, which promises to make readers “smarter, faster,” and a podcast outro so maddening that the New York Times once published an explainer titled “Here’s What Else You Need to ‘NoTuhDay,’ it might come as a surprise that the audience for “wisdom, not information” is growing. But the evidence is unequivocal: The podcast version of On Being has over 200 million downloads. A recent Zoom event that Tippett hosted maxed out at 10,000 registered attendees.
It has now been almost two decades since Tippett sat down to record the show’s first episode. At the time, she was coming off of a stint living in divided Berlin, working as a journalist, and had just earned a degree from Yale Divinity School. The project became a space for the existential, with most episodes circling a question that had consumed her while she lived abroad: What makes a life worthwhile?
Tippett—who grew up in a small town in Oklahoma—pitched what would become On Being to American Public Media (APM) at the start of the new millennium, hoping to use it as a platform to do some of what she felt the journalism she’d practiced could not. Tippett doesn’t often discuss her own faith, nor does she ask her interviewees to detail their observance. Some things are private, sure. But Tippett is also mining for more universal truths, catering to an expanding group of people that sees itself as “spiritual, but not religious” and is no less in need of guidance and deep meaning than their ancestors.