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Speaking With Conviction: The Revival of 'This I Believe'

Today's statements of belief are more personal, more revealing. (It's hard to imagine someone today expressing the 1950s reserve of industrialist Jared Ingersoll: "I feel very presumptuous and uncomfortable about trying to explain out loud the things I believe in.") "The rhetoric in the old series is more formal, a little more in the head than from the heart," Gediman says.

That may stem in part from a change in how the essays are solicited. Whereas the 1950s pieces were all the result of invitations from the producers, the NPR series also solicits pieces from prominent figures, but in the spirit of the citizen journalism that has grown out of the Internet, the producers invite listeners to submit their own essays. More than 7,000 people have done so, and about 50 of their pieces have been used.

The producers of the new series see "This I Believe" as a response to the polarization of the nation's political conversation, as a place where people of different religious convictions and political allegiances might find common ground. But can that message get across to a wide swath of Americans on NPR, which reaches an audience that is considerably more affluent and well educated than the nation as a whole?

"From the very beginning, we wanted to get beyond the public radio audience," Gediman says. "We didn't want to hear from just one segment of society." So "This I Believe" pieces also appear as written essays in USA Weekend, the Sunday magazine published by Gannett newspapers, as well as on the NPR Web site and in a forthcoming book. (The essays are available at http://www.npr.org/thisibelieve .)

The audio essays pack an extra punch, especially those from untrained, unfamiliar voices, the random listeners who felt compelled to share their beliefs with their countrymen. If they sound tentative in their performance, the words and stories carry a rare strength.

The message Americans sent in the original "This I Believe" series was a more confident one. The basic theme of many of the 1950s essays, written in the aftermath of World War II, the Holocaust and the use of the atomic bomb, was "People are innately good and things work out," Gediman says. "It was 'We will prevail as a people and as a nation. We can lick it, whatever it is.' "

This time around, he says, "People are amazed when people behave well. There is a presumption in many of the essays that politicians are corrupt, that people are selfish and self-centered. A main theme of many of the pieces is: Something bad happened, people rose to the occasion and I was amazed -- it renewed my faith in humanity."

The common thread from the '50s to the new series is the belief that ideas are essential, that "I" am important, that voices ought be heard.


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