Recently, Ellen Kushner, host of National Public Radio’s “Sound and Spirit,” received a letter from a longtime fan: “I just wanted you to know that I am a man. You probably think that most listeners of your show are female, but I love your show.”
The show, which is broadcast every Sunday night out of Boston, seeks to explore religion through music. Though the breakdown of “Sound and Spirit” listeners is about half male and half female, that demographic doesn’t stop Kushner from putting a feminist, or at least a female, spin on her material. The general assumption in broadcasting, she comments, is that listeners are male, but Kushner assumes the opposite. For example, when Kushner asks listeners to imagine themselves in a particular situation, she includes bustling skirts in the imagery. When referring to a biblical author, she uses male and female pronouns interchangeably. She talks about religious taboos such as gay marriage.
“People always tell me that they like it,” she remarks, “but if they don’t—they can turn off the radio.” Kushner likes to work against common assumptions, and doing so has won her a large and loyal fan base. “Sound and Spirit,” on the air since April 1996, brings together diverse religions and cultures. On any given program, Kushner will discuss one theme, such as aging, fairy tales, Rome, motherhood, the book of Jonah, bicultural women, or pilgrimages. Most of the show is Kushner’s narration, and she presents the arguments of notable authorities along with music from the Tennessee mountains to African chants and everything in between. She also offers a personal touch. With her soothing voice, humor, personal stories and eclectic music, the show is addictive. Kushner, a Reconstructionist Jew, tries to avoid examining traditions in a patronizing manner—what she calls the “National Geographic approach to culture.” Instead, she “tries to get inside people’s traditions.” During one show on Cathohcism, she explored the theology with such knowledge and passion that many listeners wrote in, confused as to whether or not she was Catholic.
Still, despite her multicultural explorations and her belief that “there are many ways for humans to find help with the problems of life,” Kushner is not multicultural in her observance. “You gotta pick one,” she says, adding that her knowledge of other religions has only strengthened her ties to Judaism.
This summer, in response to high demand, Kushner released a compact disc, “Bringing Children into the World.” A model Kushner creation, the CD has music from such well known artists as Woody Guthrie and Sweet Honey in the Rock, as well as more obscure performers. According to Public Radio Source, “Bringing Children into the World” was hugely popular in its first week, and continues to be a hit. “Sound and Spirit” airs weekly; check out the show’s website at www.bgh.org/pri/spirit.