Dan Gediman was home sick with the flu and looking for something to read when he came upon his wife's old copy of "This I Believe," a compilation of personal essays originally read by the essays' authors on a popular 1950s CBS radio feature of the same name.
"I was utterly fascinated when I started to delve into this book and read essay after essay," said Gediman, an independent radio producer based in Louisville, Ky. "And I was astonished that this thing could have been such an enormous phenomenon in its day and I didn't know a thing about it."
He read a sobering essay by Will Thomas, a black war veteran so disgusted by the Jim Crow world he came home to that he was moving his family to Vermont to give the country he loved one more chance. The searching words of 16-year-old Elizabeth Deutsch contemplating faith and duty. And revealing reflections of national icons such as Jackie Robinson.
A seed was planted.
Two years later, Gediman's chance sickbed encounter with "This I Believe" and the enlistment of Jay Allison, an old friend, collaborator and ground-breaking public-radio producer, and Jay Kernis, senior vice president for programming at National Public Radio, has blossomed into an ambitious reprise on NPR.
The new series, also called "This I Believe," made its debut April 4 with an introduction hosted by Allison, who explained the history of the original series, hosted by Edward R. Murrow. Allison replayed snippets of some of the original essays, including the piece by Deutsch, now a Cornell University professor, and invited listeners to join the new effort by submitting their own essays.
A moving essay by author Isabel Allende about the inspiration she received upon the death of her daughter was the first essay featured. In it, Allende talks about her daughter's death as a cleansing experience.
"I am happier when I love than when I am loved," she said. "I adore my husband, my son, my grandchildren, my mother, my dog, and frankly I don't know if they even like me."
"But who cares? Loving them is my joy."
"It is in giving," Allende concludes, "that I feel the spirit of my daughter inside me, like a soft presence."
Regular and prominent Americans are being asked to describe in 500 words their core beliefs and values, and each week NPR will feature a three-minute essay read by the author.
The producers already have received hundreds of essays online at www.NPR.org, and have enlisted as essayists notable Americans ranging from boxing champion Muhammad Ali and activist Gloria Steinem to former Secretary of State Colin Powell and movie director Ron Howard. Former President Clinton will contribute, as will former House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich.
Allison, a Trinity College graduate, said there was an ongoing effort to provide a good balance of perspectives.
"That's key: We're inviting all comers," he said. "We're not interested in political harangue, not campaign or policy statements or negative statements.
"We're not interested in what they don't believe," said Allison from Woods Hole, Mass., where he is founder and executive producer of two new public-radio stations.
In a nation where it's become the norm to caricature people based on their politics or beliefs or sexual orientation, the essay project may have the power to encourage common ground, its creators say.