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The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — or SETI — goes beyond hunting for E.T. and habitable planets. Scientists in the field are using telescopes and satellites looking for signs of outright civilizational intelligence. One of the founding pioneers in this search is astronomer Jill Tarter. She is a cofounder of the SETI Institute and was an inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact, based on the novel by Carl Sagan. To speak with Tarter is to begin to grasp the creative majesty of SETI and what’s relevant now in the ancient question: “Are we alone in the universe?”

Ross Gay’s poem “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt” uses an everyday task to examine what is made and unmade in small moments. He imagines his fingers opening and closing things, like buttons, the eyes of a dead person, relationships. In doing so, the poem asks us to simply pay attention, today, to what we’re doing with our hands — to understand them as intimate pathways into the stories of our bodies and the stories of our lives.

A question to reflect on after you listen: What have you done with your hands today? What are you opening? What are you closing?

Allison Funk’s poem “The Prodigal’s Mother Speaks to God” tells the age-old story of The Prodigal Son through a new voice: the unnamed woman of the parable. This woman is truthful, wise, and loving. She knows the dedications and limitations of love. She seeks to see clearly, even though it’s hard to see clearly.

A question to reflect on after you listen: When has love been complicated for you?

The wise and beloved Vatican astronomer Father George Coyne died last week. Like most of the Vatican astronomers across history, he was also a Jesuit. More than 30 objects on the moon are named after the Jesuits who mapped it and ten Jesuits in history have had asteroids named after them. Father Coyne was one of the few with this distinction, alongside his friend and fellow Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno. In a conversation filled with laughter, we experience the spacious way the two of them approached life, faith, and the universe.

Jane Mead’s “Substance Abuse Trial” is set in a courtroom where a daughter hears her father’s name mispronounced at his trial. As she watches this, she wishes that the court could see the fullness of her father and his story — to bear witness to him as a human being, defined by much more than his addiction.

A question to reflect on after you listen: When was a time when you were judged based on a mistake you made, rather than the fullness of who you are?

Ocean Vuong’s poem “Seventh Circle of Earth” is an homage to the love and intimacy shared by Michael Humphrey and Clayton Capshaw, a gay couple who were murdered in their home in Dallas, Texas. In the midst of recognizing the violence and threat LGBTQI communities face, the poem holds space for tenderness — and honors their love.

A question to reflect on after you listen: What examples have you seen of love and power enacted, even in the face of threat?

The House on Mango Street by Mexican American writer Sandra Cisneros has been taught in high schools across the U.S. for decades. A poetic writer of many genres, she’s received a MacArthur “genius grant,” a National Medal of Arts, and many other accolades. Cisneros grew up in an immigrant household where it was assumed she would marry as her primary destiny. In this warm and lively conversation with a room full of Latinx teens, she gives voice to the choice to be single — and, single or not, to know solitude as sacred.

Pádraig Ó Tuama and Marilyn Nelson are beloved teachers to many; to bring them together was a delight and a balm. Nelson is a poet and professor and contemplative, an excavator of stories that would rather stay hidden yet lead us into new life. Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian, conflict mediator, and the host of our new podcast, Poetry Unbound. Together, they venture unexpectedly into the hospitable — and intriguingly universal — form of poetry that is prayer.

Editor’s note: This episode includes a preview from our new season of Poetry Unbound featuring a poem by Joy Harjo.

Alison Gopnik understands babies and children as the R&D division of humanity. From her cognitive science lab at the University of California, Berkeley, she investigates the “evolutionary paradox” of the long human childhood. When she first trained in philosophy and developmental psychology, the minds of children were treated as blank slates. But her research is helping us to see what even the most mundane facts of a toddler or a teenager — from fantasy play to rebelliousness — might teach us about what it means to be human.

Civil rights legend Ruby Sales learned to ask “Where does it hurt?” because it’s a question that drives to the heart of the matter — and a question we scarcely know how to ask in public life now. Sales says we must be as clear about what we love as about what we hate if we want to make change. And even as she unsettles some of what we think we know about the force of religion in civil rights history, she names a “spiritual crisis of white America” as a calling of today.

Joe Henry faced his mortality in 2018 when he was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer and told he might only have months to live. Now in remission, the singer-songwriter and producer has created a gorgeous new album, The Gospel According to Water. Henry’s wisdom on living — and the loss that strangely defines it — ran all the way through this conversation, recorded before his cancer, in 2015. Beloved by fellow musicians as much as by his fans, he’s produced over a dozen albums of his own and written and produced for other artists, from Elvis Costello to Madonna.

Poetry Unbound features an immersive exploration of a single poem, guided by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Short and unhurried; contemplative and energizing. Anchor your week by listening to the everyday poetry of your life, with new episodes on Monday and Friday during the season. Currently working on season 2 for release in Fall 2020.

Season one features poetry from a diverse cast of poets: current and former poets laureate Joy Harjo and Tracy K. Smith; T.S. Eliot Prize winner Ocean Vuong; classic poets like Emily Dickinson and Patrick Kavanagh; spoken-word artists like Raymond Antrobus; and more.

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