Almost nine years ago, a guy sitting at a board filled with knobs, buttons and switches pointed his finger at me.
WFYI’s “No Limits” appeared on the air. And my career as a radio talk show host began.
That hadn’t been part of my plan.
I’ve never been a particularly spontaneous guy. One thing I enjoy about writing is the art’s deliberation — the thinking through, the roughing out and then revising, the polishing. If I write something that doesn’t suit me, I can pitch it and start over. No harm, no foul.
Doing something live scared me. Once I said something, it was out there. No chance to pull it back and make it better.
But middle age taught me something. The best way to keep growing was to do things that frightened me.
The early shows were rough.
I showed up for the first one several hours before airtime, only to discover the newsroom didn’t have a place for me to sit, much less work. So, I paced. That made everyone else nervous. And it made me terrified.
At first, I didn’t know how to work the microphone. I’d move my head around too much, overwhelming the mic in one instant and then sounding as if I were talking from a county away in the next.
I also had to learn how to interview for broadcast. Silence is a great friend for a print reporter. Ask a question and then wait all day, if necessary, for the answer. Most people can’t stand the silence, so they rush to fill it.
But quiet doesn’t work for radio. People listening to the program think the signal’s been lost or there’s some other problem. So, I learned to keep talking, calmly, if I saw guests thinking through tough questions I’d posed while I watched to see when they were ready to answer.
I only used silence on the radio once that I recall. It was when a World War II veteran struggled to master his emotions while he described his experience as a prisoner of war. It would have been disrespectful to talk as he battled with his memories, so I waited while he collected himself. I figured if anyone changed the channel while he did so, so be it. He had earned the moment.
But I don’t think anyone did change the channel at that moment.
By then, I’d stopped thinking of the people listening in their cars or at home or online as the audience. They were collaborators, eager to create a space for rational, caring people to talk — and, more important, listen.
When the show started in 2010, America’s descent into a snarling, angry mass already had begun. The trend accelerated, as more and more Americans seemed determined to shout at, over and past each other.
But not on our show.
There, the conversations were respectful, thoughtful, probing. I described “No Limits” as a talk show for people with attention spans. I said it kind of as a joke, but I really wasn’t joking.
There was a hunger for a space where we could remember that, whatever our differences might be, we still were and are neighbors and fellow citizens. Time and again, when I ran into people who recognized either my name or my voice — a weird development that took some getting used to — they would say how much they valued having a forum where people could have tough conversations in a civil way.
I told them the truth. The show worked because they made it work. It wouldn’t have stayed on the air for a month if they hadn’t tuned in and willed that civil space into being.
“No Limits” ended its run a few days ago. A new show with a similar approach, “All IN,” will take its time slot.
This is as it should be.
One lesson I’ve learned in late middle age is that, to abuse a cliché, life is a relay race. We all have our legs to run before we pass the baton.
My leg has been run. It was fun.
But the race continues, even as the finger points at someone else.
And we still need to will into being that civil space, that shelter that will allow us to ride out these stormy days.
JOHN KRULL is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism.