by Jo Piazza
It’s been four months since the Peabody-winning public radio program formerly known as “Speaking of Faith” changed its title to the more universal and spacious, “On Being.” The number of listeners writing into the show to tell host Krista Tippett they mourn the loss of the word “faith” has tapered to one a week.
The semantic change wasn’t undertaken lightly. Names imbue things with meaning, something Tippett is keenly aware of. Play a game of free association with the words “faith” and “being” with a mixed group of believers and nonbelievers and the words conjure very different connotations on each side of the spiritual spectrum. Faith – god, church, mosque, worship. Being – exist, doing, Hamlet’s soliloquy. Tippett knew the name change wouldn’t be simple and when she advocated for it two years ago plenty of people thought she was crazy to hijack the name of a brand when that brand was chugging along perfectly well.
“I knew it was the right thing to do but in implementing it I realized what a big deal it was. It was messy and it was interesting,” Tippett recently told The Revealer during an interview about the change and its aftermath.
“’We have a brand!’ everyone told me. But I felt like if there was vitality in the brand then we needed to grow. Finally people started to see it,” Tippett remembered.
“Speaking of Faith” announced the switch at the end of last summer.
“I’m excited and a little nervous to share some big news,” Tippett wrote in a statement at the time. “This doesn’t signal a change in the nature or ethos of what we will continue to produce week after week. It is, rather, a more spacious container for what the program has become.”
If Tippett had one regret about how the name change went down it’s that in hindsight she would have involved listeners more in the process.
“We weren’t as transparent as we could have been. We didn’t pull listeners in because this was a business decision and a political decision,” Tippett said.
Once the change was announced, reactions from long time listeners were across the board. Some were sad and questioning and some were really happy.
Many listeners wrote to Tippett to tell her they ignored “Speaking of Faith” the first twenty times they heard it on the radio because they assumed it was a show that would preach and proselytize to them. Others told her they loved the show but were embarrassed to tell their friends about it because of the “faith” in the title.
“Since the change I do sense there is some new energy out there. It seems to me that different kinds of people are being drawn to the show; that a lot of people feel more welcome,” Tippett said.
Still, the fan base who never had any problem using the f-word liberally was worried that the show would pay less attention to spirituality as it transformed into “Being.” Tippett thinks the change has actually allowed them to explore more explicitly religious topics and more spirituality without the need to overcompensate for the explicitly  faith-oriented title.
About a month after the switch, the show broadcast a public discussion, led by Tippett, on the subject of human happiness that included the Dalai Lama, the chief rabbi of the Commonwealth, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr.
The weeks preceding had interviews with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and leading geophysicist, Xavier Le Pichon.
“The mix is the same and strangely we may feel freer to be religious and say, ‘this is what is means to be human,” Tippett said.
Today, the show is still growing into the new name and listeners play with “On Being” in different ways. They shorten it to “Being” and toy with what it means to them. A space on the show’s homepage remains dedicated to explaining the change to visitors who may have dropped off for awhile.
Guests of the show, many of whom aren’t only devoutly religious but are leaders of religious communities, seemed to “get” the need for the change instantly. As they finalized the decision to move to “Being,” Tippett sent a letter to friends of the show, including former guests. The notes that came back were fantastically supportive.
“The people representing our traditions know as well as anyone that these words have failed us as shorthand; that the word faith can be a problem. In public life it doesn’t contain the meaning that it contains in their traditions and they were struggling with it too. And then some of my guests who weren’t religious just said, “I always wondered why this was called ‘Speaking of Faith’ anyway,” Tippett said.
While switching the name didn’t change the show’s identity, growing into it takes energy and a willingness to expand into a new space of consciousness. The producers don’t want to create any more new beginnings or challenges for themselves as they continue the process, but one has presented itself in the intersection of a series of programs entitled “Civil Conversations” and the tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
“We were doing the series before Tucson. But with the name change to ‘Being’ I think we can claim a space to conduct these conversations in a very ecumenical way as a public service, Tippett said.
Starting a dialogue on moral imagination, common life and civility would have been harder to do in the aftermath of Tucson, under the umbrella of “Speaking of Faith,” Tippett believes.
“We as a nation have the task before us of developing some richer moral vocabulary for the 21st century that can be shared across the boundaries of religion. I think that with ‘Civil Conversations’ and with ‘being’ we can claim some new ground to host that discussion and signal that everyone is invited,” she said.
This isn’t the first time that national events have been a game changer for the life of Tippett’s program. On Sept. 11, 2001, Tippett was in Washington D.C. trying to raise money in the halls of public radio for a show exploring religion and faith. After the terrorist attacks, the conversation shifted and a need was seen for these conversations.
“Something like Tucson stopped everyone in their tracks and made people ask what has become of our common life. Suddenly there is this real receptivity to talking about the real layers of spiritual and ethical thinking, and doing it in a way that has resonance and applicability,” Tippett said.
The waves of change in discourse in the past two weeks has been similar to the shift following Sept. 11. Tippett now sees a space and a willingness to discuss what it means to be a civil society and how we can address morals outside of faith—in short, what it means to be.
Jo Piazza is a Masters candidate in Religious Studies at NYU. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Daily Beast and CNN. Her first book, Celebrity Inc.: Inside the Business of Being Famous is out in May.