UND radio host marks 3 years on the air

When Jack Russell Weinstein of Grand Forks began hosting "Why?" on Prairie Public radio three years ago, there were people who told him philosophical discussions wouldn't work with a Midwestern radio audience.

Jack Weinstein
Jack Weinstein's call-in radio show about philosophy will debut Sunday. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

When Jack Russell Weinstein of Grand Forks began hosting "Why?" on Prairie Public radio three years ago, there were people who told him philosophical discussions wouldn't work with a Midwestern radio audience.

"People in North Dakota aren't interested in these high falutin' questions," seemed to be a commonly held opinion, said Weinstein, a professor of philosophy at UND.

Sunday at 5 p.m., "Why" will broadcast its 37th episode and mark its third anniversary with guest Virginia Held, a professor and author of "The Ethics of Care" and "How Terrorism is Wrong: Morality and Political Violence." The topic? "Should government care about you?"

"Why?" describes itself as "Philosophical Discussions about Everyday Life." Among its guests have been a Nobel Laureate, economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, and some of the most influential public minds today, including Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker, author of "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined," and Martha Nussbaum, University of Chicago professor of law and ethics and author of "Sex and Social Justice."

"At the same time, I have been just as impressed by the regional folks who participated," Weinstein said of his "Why?" guests.


Civil discussion

Clay Jenkinson, host of Prairie Public's "Thomas Jefferson Hour," has been on "Why?" three times and is always a favorite, Weinstein said. Paul Sum, UND professor of political science and public administration, and Robin Runge, assistant professor at UND School of Law, were both compelling and challenging speakers.

"Our topics ranged from discussions about North Dakota water and agriculture, to the legal system of China," Weinstein said. "We've talked about the most abstract ideas of justice and how cultures change, to the concrete questions of health care and the role of sports in society."

"Why?" was made for listeners who feel like intelligent debate has been replaced by irresponsible, loud-mouthed partisanship disguised as information, Weinstein said on his website.

"There is no yelling on our show. There is no ridicule. There is no hyperbole," he said in an interview. "And when you disagree with someone, you give them the benefit of the doubt and take them at their best."

That kind of approach also helps attract guests to the show. They know they're not going to be attacked, he said. Besides, most philosophers aren't often asked to share their ideas on the radio.


Bill Thomas, director of radio at Prairie Public Radio, said -- because the show is once a month -- there aren't any Arbitron numbers to show how many people are listening.


"It certainly has seemed to have touched a chord of an element of our audience," Thomas said. "We have people listening to us who really like the idea of this kind of discussion."

Thomas said he'd hear that "this show is too intellectual for North Dakota" before in regard to other public radio programming, along with "this is too hip" and "this is too edgy."

"I think sometimes people undersell the sophistication of people in North Dakota," Thomas said. "We maybe don't have the same number of PhDs as Boston or Silicon Valley but we have people who are interested in lots of different issues."

Weinstein said Prairie Public had estimated the number of live listeners in North Dakota at 12,000 but there were more via podcast and the Internet.

The show has nearly 18,000 podcast downloads and the same number of on-demand listeners from its archives. It's also syndicated in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Public Reality Radio, and has a growing Facebook following.

Going global

Of all the challenges, Weinstein said, the hardest was when the Institute for Philosophy in Public Life and "Why?" lost its funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. NDHS wanted discussions about North Dakota and among North Dakotans, he said, but he wanted a more global outlook.

Weinstein believes North Dakota can be the center of a world-wide discussion about the nature of the moral life and justice, the future of agriculture and what makes human life worth living and experiencing.


"But this can only happen if the state asserts, not only its economic identity, but it's intellectual identity as well," he wrote in comments to the Herald about "Why?"

"We are a show for the curious and for people who love seeing things in a different light," he wrote. "I love the idea that someone in Minot is commenting on a remark posted by someone in Edinburgh, Scotland, both of whom are being read by someone in Pakistan or Austria. I love the fact that our shows have accessed every continent (except, as far as I know, Antarctica)."

"In the future, the people who can talk across borders will be the most successful and the people who can think past their boundaries will lead the world and help solve our problems," he said. "It's an honor to play a small role in the discussion."

On the web: Listen to "Why?" at .

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