Transcript: Interview with Krista Tippett – The Incomparable, Insightful Host of On Being

In October 2015, I interviewed Krista Tippett, creator and host of a top radio show and podcast in the world, named On Being.  Krista received the Humanities Award from President Obama in 2014 for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence, on the air and in print.” Below is the full transcript of our 30-min conversation. The recording of our interview can be found here.

I learned so much more about Krista after being her loyal listener for over 10 years. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did, and share the knowledge with others who can benefit from it. Thank you!

Fei: Hello, this is Fei.

Krista Tippett: Hi Fei, it's Krista.

Fei: Hi, Krista. I so wish you were in the room right now. I would totally run up and give you a huge hug.

Krista: Thank you, I'm glad to be connected with you.

Fei: Oh, likewise. Thank you so much for your time and I know I haven't had a chance to really introduce myself, so here's my one minute pitch. So, I am Fei and I am a digital producer at Arnold Worldwide by day, and in the evening, one of my passion projects is Fei's World podcast where I interview people from all walks of life and most of them are my own mentors. And I only started doing this last year, and you are certainly, absolutely one of my top inspirations. And so far, there's nothing compared to On Being, but having so much fun.

And one of the reasons I would like to connect with you is whenever I search for Krista Tippett interviews with Krista, I feel like there are just not enough interviews about you. So, I am so thrilled to be here, but I feel like I'm going to add an introduction. I'm so impressed by On Being, Peabody Award-winning, and the funny thing is yesterday, there was a Webby Award representative here at Arnold telling us that Webby Award is the industry's most competitive award out there and I realize your podcast along with your website actually has won a Webby Award, it's so incredible.

Krista Tippett: Yeah, yeah, I know it's exciting.

Fei: Yeah, before we jump into your empire right now, I wonder if there's an opportunity for us to kind of go all the way back and ask about Krista's origin story, like when you were a little girl, what were you like?

Krista Tippett: Well, I grew up in a very small town in Oklahoma and it was...I didn't have much of a sense of the big wide world out there, and I grew up in a Southern Baptist family - my grandfather is a Southern Baptist preacher. It was a very kind of immersive religious world. So it kind of feels like a bit of bubble that I grew up in, but when I was about 16 I did a lot of drama and debate. I didn't read a lot of books or do as much, nearly as much thinking as I do now, but I did drama and debate and I think that's how my mind became alive. And I went to a debate camp the summer after my junior year in high school, to Chicago, and it kind of opened the world up to me. And then after that, I just never stopped moving.

Fei: Wow. That's like completely unexpected.

Krista Tippett: What did you expect?

Fei: I read your bio, I feel like it just...if I take a step back, I thought to myself, whenever I hear your name and I mention On Being to other people, and when people say...and trust me, I'm sitting in kind of a blocked room right now, stopping from all your fans from rushing in. One gentleman said, "Please tell Krista that" - he's married - "please tell her that I have a spirit crush on her, and she is in the conversation between me and my wife every single day and we love talking about it.

So, for me when I think of you, I feel like I am just so glad that there is a female figure out there for us to learn from. Personally, I'm 32 and I've been able to learn from you since my early 20s. And from public radio to the past few years, you are front and centered on my podcast app and I feel like I have access to you all day long. And to me, you represent this wealth of knowledge that I feel like you must have started since you're an infant.

Krista Tippett: Well, first of all, thank you for all that. And well, you know - you're doing a podcast - you do radio and you send it out into the void and then you keep going, and so it means so much to me to hear this. And I do love it when I hear about being a conversation starter between other people, like the conversation becomes infectious and that makes me so happy. But I think people often say, "Oh, you must have grown up in a family of great listeners." And that the truth is I think I'm the other story, which is just as human, that I have ended up pursuing things that I didn't know. Right? And because I hadn't really been exposed to the life of the mind or to great listeners or great questioning, I was just so hungry for that when I found it. And I appreciate every moment that I do what I do. So that's the other way we operate.

Fei: For sure. So it sounds like the success of On Being, did it surprise you? Did you expect it to grow to now the world's top 50 podcast of all podcasts, not even just a certain category. And for my listeners, there's a quarter to like half a million podcasts out there.

Krista Tippett: Yeah. Well, it's been this real trajectory. Right? I mean, I started with two radio stations back in 2003, and it's been something that started really small and was always growing. So to me, I don't think of it as something that suddenly got big, and it was also something that I had to work very hard to get into the world. There was a lot of skepticism and I had to really fight for this, and I had to fight for it for years. So it's really only a couple of years ago that I realized that I was very comfortable in the role of seeing myself as a guerilla warrior, and I was pretty good at that, and that that wasn't appropriate any more. Right?

And as you say, I have something that's grown and it's solid and you can kick the tires, and that it does look to other people like this success. But it's a funny thing, because I've been with it all the way from its infancy. That's still something, I don't think I see it the way other people see it. And I think that's also just fine, like it's okay for me to continue to go on feeling like this is this infant that I have to nurture.

Fei: Yeah, and then you're a mother of two, and I feel like there's that parallel and comparison. What are some of the struggles that you had to deal with or manage at the beginning?

Krista Tippett: So, it was a different world. It was the pre-9/11 world. It was the end of the 20th century, early 2000s. We were coming off a stretch in American life where, after a period where religious voices had been pretty much on the sidelines, they had just a very few strident voices had burst into view, you had a lot of politicized religiosity. And then, of course 9/11 happened and you had people, Americans being introduced to Islam as a religion by way of this horrific act of terror. So it was a moment when religion was in the news with a new intensity, but it was just such a sliver of what this part of life is about.

And so, what I wanted to do was say this part of life that we call religious, we talk about the spiritual life, we use the word faith, each of these words has a different meaning in every single life that lives them. And this part of life is so fluid, is so diverse, and it's so important in all the different ways people grapple with it. So, but the struggle was that because so many of the forms and the voices that people heard were really divisive, and in some cases very toxic, the struggle was to convince people and especially in public media that you could create a program around this subject and it would not be proselytizing, and it would open imaginations rather than shutting them down, and it wouldn't alienate people and it wouldn't be inflammatory, and it wouldn't make people feel excluded.

So the struggle was, because there was nothing like this, I had to fight for the idea that we should see, that we should give it a chance. And I think this whole part of life again is very fraught with stereotypes, so I think that in some ways that struggle is always there to convince people that we can be spacious and that we can talk about these subjects, all the things we talk about when we talk about spirituality and religion, and that it can be intelligent, that it can have intellectual content as well as spiritual content and that we can surprise each other and this won't be divisive. All of those things were not...a lot of prior experience tells us that that's not possible.

Fei: And you made it possible because I, of course I had to read Speaking of Faith, and I am so glad I listen to it on my...when I go to sleep when. . .

Krista Tippett: Oh, really?

Fei: Yeah, when I go to. . .

Krista Tippett: Sure. But recording a book is just its own experience.

Fei: Wow. What was it like?

Krista Tippett: I'd just hate how it sounded, but I'm glad you like it.

Fei: Oh, I love it. When I'm really, well, I commute to work. In Boston, as you know, we have the train that was made in 1898 and is super loud and I just love your podcast quality, I love the quality of the book, and it's impossible for me to hold a book because I have the balance on one foot most of the commute anyway. So, I was so happy that you are the narrator because I cannot stand having anybody else read your book. I have to hear your voice.

And I feel like your book, I know it was your first book published in 2007, that made me feel very empowered because for the...I forgot to mention, I'm originally from Beijing and I've been here since I was in high school, but I know that there's one topic, one area which is religion that I absolutely cannot really put it in any social conversations because...and then your book, really empowered me to say, well I can...I now know how to talk about it. And one quote that I love always warms my heart is "The more we can understand the world and its intricacies, the more we can begin to connect with our own beings." I thought it was just so lovely stated, and therefore...

Krista Tippett: Well, thank you.

Fei: Yeah, I think that therefore that's why you're able to connect with so many other people. And when you interview other people, I think your spirit not only is represented in print in the book but certainly is in your voice. I can sense all your emotions. I can see how you're opening your soul to your audience and to your guests. And consequently, your guests have done the same to you and you are their guidance and in a way that they're very, very familiar names. And whom I consider my mentors - Seth Godin, Maria Popova - those episodes I've listen to, embarrassingly, at least 5 to 10 times each. And at the same time, you've spoken to so many other people honestly who are not really popular in today's sort of the public media, and help people like myself and many people outside of this room right now to be exposed to their work.

Krista Tippett: Yeah, that's really important to me because there's this phrase we have in English, "below the radar". There are a lot of great, wise, wise people below the radar, and I think that's where history has usually been made. And some of the people who are really nourishing the world that they can see and touch, because they're so busy doing that, they don't have publicists. They're not getting quoted or photographed. But it's easy to...the expected thing when you have a media project is to interview people who are already famous, and I do interview people who are famous for good reason, but it's really part of my mission also, and I love it that you say that - to introduce some of these voices who are so important to the people in the world they inhabit, that are just not visible in the larger world beyond.

Fei: Yeah, and then I can imagine that some of them are not, this is not what they do. They don't probably do a lot of public speaking. I can think of a few names like Grace Lee Boggs, what an amazing...

Krista Tippett: Yeah.

Fei: I didn't know there were Chinese people in America a hundred years ago.

Krista Tippett: Yeah, or women, much less immigrant women, who got PhDs in philosophy when they were in the 1930s. And yeah, her story was incredible.

Fei: Yeah, it's so different, and I think about that the wealth of knowledge that she carried with her. And the clarity - I know when you interviewed her she may already be 97, 98 - the clarity of her thinking and when she talks about that she would have these young people, I guess some possibly in their 60s and 70s, that gather in her living room, and they're...I just imagine that it's sort of the harmony and that community right there in her living room.

Krista Tippett: Yeah, yeah, it was amazing. Did you know that she died? She just died very recently.

Fei: I saw that, I saw a post from you.

Krista Tippett: Yeah. Was it maybe two weeks ago? Or, I don't know. Anyway, but she lived such an amazing life to the very end, to the very end.

Fei: Yeah, yeah, for sure. And then my heart, because of listening to the podcast first and then learning that she passed on. And my heart, I was at work and just realized that something so profound as such a connection between me and another Asian women, in this case, 70 years older than I am, but I just feel like she was part of me for some reason. And I feel like I consider her as one of the pioneers who established sort of our presence and how American people first get to know Chinese people, and she's this incredible human being. Made me so proud.

Krista Tippett: Well, I just can't tell you how much that pleases me that the show can have that effect, and it's wonderful. And it also says something about this medium of radio, of podcasting, of audio, it's so intimate. Right? So, I met Grace Lee Boggs in her living room and also I'm talking about intimate things. This is a subject that is intimate. But you also, the magic and the mystery of radio is that you, in some way, you also were in the room with us. You experienced everything, that discovery that I experienced, and then to think of it rippling out like that and being so meaningful for your identity is just beautiful.

Fei: Yeah, I feel like, I'm not sure about you, Krista. I feel like you've been in my life for the past 15 years.

Krista Tippett: Well...

Fei: Yeah, it's very intimate. Especially for the past five years, the quality of your podcast and I just literally feel like you're in the same room with me. And then another area I, ever since I started my own podcast, I received certainly a lot of encouragement as well as some of the criticism. A lot of people my age, or as you know, sort of the common theme now is the lip service. It's these 25 men who continued to interview each other and saying why each other is so great. And then, yet, you established...I tell people that to me you're very different because you could very well be, like everybody else, find your niche and say, "I'm in financial services. This is exactly what my interviews are about. This is the only thing I'll ever focus on." And some of them start with episode number one, "Seth Godin, what are you going to do about this?"

But at the same time, you chose a very different path, and for that reason, we love it. And I guess one of the questions that I feel like I can feel for you as a reporter, when I was 16 I worked at China National Radio Station and I had my own show for just one year. I think it's not really worth bragging about, but I know very well just the amount of devotion you have to dedicate to this line of work. And for you to wake up every single day, make your coffee, make your tea, and go back right into it. And I'm so curious about your creative process, and how do you really believe in the process and dedicate yourself every single day?

Krista Tippett: Well, I have to say importantly that I'm surrounded by great people. And it's true that in 2000-2001 was when I first starting this, it was often me all by myself, basically sneaking into the radio station in the middle of the night, didn't have an engineer. I had about two people who believed in it, but that's not true any more and it hasn't been true for a long time. I have wonderful people with me, producers and also my colleague Trent who creates our website, he really is the one who won those Webby Awards.

And the process is, it's collective. Obviously, I'm the one who finally has to say "Yes, I want to interview that person. I want to take on this subject." I'm the one who has to be in the room and excited about it, but I would say there's this kind of ongoing process of there's always a long list that we have of people who I would like to get to one day, or ideas that I'd like to get to one day. We're always asking who would be the right voice to flesh that out. And then of course, things are happening in the world, people are sending ideas.

We get a lot of ideas. I think everyone has an idea about who'd they like to hear on this show. Whenever I'm out speaking, people come to me and although we have way too...there are many more ideas than shows we can get to immediately, those things do rise to the surface, a lot of them. So, it's a combination of what is planned and what's a long time in the planning, and then things, voices, ideas that just arise in the moment and we can be nimble and spontaneous. It's very unscientific but I've gotten comfortable with that.

Fei: Nice. So basically, who surfaced to the top, whether the person or the theme or the subject is depending on how you feel at that moment, what feels right to you and it's just about making the choice.

Krista Tippett: Yeah, yeah. But sometimes I've said for five years "I want to interview this person," and then there's this moment when it's the right time.

Fei: I feel like you have a superpower, which is the ability to talk to anybody. And for people who haven't listened to your podcast for as long, I've heard you talking to poets, medical doctors, and I mean the list goes on and on. And your ability to speak to such subject matter experts, and I wonder how do you condition yourself to prepare for these questions? More importantly, how to react on the spot.

Krista Tippett: So, I loved science fiction when I was growing up and I don't know if you know Mr. Spock in the Star Trek series, he did this thing called a Vulcan mind-meld. Sorry, I had a cold this week. He did this thing called the Vulcan mind-meld where it would be he would put his hands on someone's head, and it would be my mind to your mind, my thoughts, your thoughts to my thoughts. I do a lot of preparation for my interviews. I think an unusual amount compared to other interviewers. I take that part really seriously and I say it's the Vulcan mind-meld approach because I try to read whatever I can. If somebody has written books obviously, but also dig around and see if, it's like you said, looking for interview. See if they've done other interviews.

I try to learn as much as I can about a person so that I'm not only really well prepared for discussing their ideas, but also that I kind of feel like I can go into an interview with a sense of how they think. And when I'm talking to a quantum physicist, I will not understand 90% of the ideas but I can have a sense of how someone thinks. And part of what that does at the beginning of the interview is to put someone at ease. I think we all know the difference between sitting with someone, and needing to explain ourselves or defend ourselves. Or when you sit with someone and you have this sense that communicates itself tangibly. Right? "Oh, okay. They get me. I can relax." And then you can go so much deeper.

So I try to prepare so that that's the experience someone has when we start to speak. And then I prepare to ask good questions to really be able to follow what they're saying, and I have lots of notes in front of me. Now, if the interview goes well, if the conversation takes off, I think a measure of success is that I've put my notes to one side and I'm not adhering to them very closely, but the fact that I put that effort into the preparation means that I'm just that much more present and that much more with the conversation.

Fei: How long does it take to prepare from an interview? If I have to guess, I see this bookshelf on the "about" page, so how long on average? I guess it's different depending the guest.

Krista Tippett: It's really different depending, and that is something that there is such...I think this is a wonderful thing about getting older is realizing if you do the same thing for awhile, you really do get better at it. That's such a wonderful feeling. So for example, preparing, I used to spend days. Sometimes I would spend an entire week. And early on the show was monthly, so I actually had that. I could do that. And now it's more, I'm really able to settle in and I might, knowing that I have an interview with someone coming up, I might start reading into their things early on than the week or two before, but it's pretty much kind of the day before and the day of the interview that I just completely immerse. And I don't know, I've just gotten so much more efficient. I know what I'm looking for, I know how to make my notes.

Fei: And I love when you mentioned that. I feel like I do the same. I try to do as much studying as possible but, I always just watch that magic moment, after five minutes or so people get so comfortable and you just naturally push your notes aside, and realize they've taken you to this magical wonderland of things you never knew you would discover right there on the spot.

Krista Tippett: Yeah, and there's some really wonderful creative tension between. Like you prepare in order to be able to put your notes to one side.

Fei: Right?

Krista Tippett: So you're still contributing more to the conversation, even as a listener, when you're not looking at your notes because you got ready in that way.

Fei: Uh-hmm. Absolutely, and one of the things that I didn't bring is NLP, which is as you know neuro-linguistic programming. So I feel like is that something that you've studied and you've done potentially in person? Because I just have that feeling that when you facilitate a conversation, I'm not in the room with you guys but I can see people kind of leaning towards you and having a conversation as if they've known you their entire life.

Krista Tippett: Well, so this may shock you, but about...I'd say about 70% of my interviews are not in person.

Fei: Oh, wow.

Krista Tippett: Yeah. Now, the technology is amazing because it does, you can, right? The technology, it sounds like we are sitting across the table from each other. And I do live interviews and I really enjoy that, but it's a completely different experience. Again, this is something that now I've done for many years. I've gotten so much better at it. But there are advantages to only having the human voice to work with because, and I have done in my years during this, I've had experiences where I've been with people in person.

When you're with someone in person, you're working with a lot. You're not only working with the words and the voice, you're working with eye contact and body language and the impression of them physically. There's this whole visual component that's so overwhelming. And when it's just like this, like you and I talking, but everything can be communicated through the human voice. So many layers of intimacy and information, and to only have that to work with is a great discipline because our listeners only have that to work with. So in some ways I've come to if not prefer it to feel like I enjoy this as much as I do the in person.

Fei: Wow, it's really amazing. And thank you so much for your time. And because I was told by Lily to make sure I stop at 2:30 sharp...

Krista Tippett: Yeah, I have all these things happening here today, but I'm so glad we did this. I'm really happy that you reached out. I don't tweet, but I go on Twitter and I love just corresponding with people who write to me. So it was wonderful that you wrote and I really enjoyed this. And I love hearing about, I'm just so happy now to know you're out there and to think of you out there.

Fei: Oh, thank you so much. And I think there's one line that I love how you write "My religion is kindness. A moral position is a passionate caring inside you." I'm actually not sure if this is something from a different book but is certainly is found in Speaking of Faith. And thank you so much for doing what you do and I really, really hope you continue to do this for as long as you possibly can, for the next 50, 100 years.

Krista Tippett: Well, thank you. And listen, I have a new book coming out in April and I know I'll be doing some events in New York. You're in New York, right? You're in New York?

Fei: I'm in Boston but I go to New York all the time.

Krista Tippett: Oh, you're in Boston. I may be in Boston. So, come see me if I'm ever doing something in your town. Please come see it and come and introduce yourself.