Chronicler of Consciousness

New Dimensions Radio?s Michael Toms has interviewed3,000 of the world?s most creative thinkers

| March/April 2001


As creative journeys go, Michael Toms’ odyssey from corporate climber to the 'Socrates of radio' has been more than circuitous. The host of NewDimensions Radio and a leading interpreter of alternative thought for nearly 30 years,Toms has interviewed more than 3,000 of the world’s most creative thinkers. But when he moved to San Francisco in the early 1960s he was more interested in advertising than enlightenment. Over the next eight years, though, the magic of the ’60s Bay Area scene gradually transformed the Virginia native, and he took a self-imposed sabbatical that led to a 'spiritual unfolding.'

It didn’t take completely. He later spun off his own ad agency, bought a Mercedes, and moved into a Sausalito condo. Then one evening a Jehovah’s Witness named Justine Willis arrived on his doorstep. They spent the evening discussing comparative religion, fell in love, and a month later Toms gave up his business and embarked on a spiritual sabbatical that took them around the country in a camper. Returning later to the 'consciousness candy store' that was the Bay Area at the time, they immersed themselves in the Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, eventually married, and created a radio show to chronicle the new consciousness of the times.

'Radio is the perfect medium for what we wanted to do,' Toms says. 'It’s personal, intimate, full of ideas and dialogue.' Now, anyone who has a radio anywhere in the world can hear New Dimensions, the longest-running independently produced program on National Public Radio.

The Toms moved to rural Ukiah, California, in 1985. 'Alvin Toffler in The Third Wave predicted the electronic cottage,' says Toms. 'That’s what we have. We’re running a global broadcasting operation out of our cottage on the side of a mountain in Mendocino County.' In addition to New Dimensions, they produce a live program on Wisdom Network called Spirit of the Times. Michael Toms’ books include An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in Conversation with Michael Toms and True Work: The Sacred Dimension of Earning a Living, which he wrote with Justine. They are planning to start a daily online program this year. Michael Toms talked with assistant editor Karen Olson from his office in Ukiah.

What radio programs did you listen to when you were a kid? Archie, Sky King, and Duffy’s Tavern. They were magical. Radio creates pictures in your mind—the clearest ones you ever have. I grew up with live radio and live television in the ’50s, when they were fresh and authentic and real. Now the life is being produced out of them.

What do you watch on TV? I watch Frasier. The dialogue is funny; it makes me laugh. I also check C-SPAN.

What radio programs do you listen to? NPR in the mornings. At certain times they’ll have independents out in the field doing something really great. Last summer they had a guy who was going around to old baseball parks in the minor leagues. The sounds, the ambience were great—the hot dogs and the vendors and describing the parks and talking with the players. Sometimes I catch Hearts of Space and David Barsamian’s Alternative Radio. I appreciate Tommy Lopez with ZBS Media Productions—he’s the last really authentic audio artist.

Congress recently passed a law limiting the number of new low-power FM radio stations. What’s your take on this? It’s awful. It’s terrible. The biggest theft in American history has been the theft of the airwaves by corporate interests. The low-power FM project, giving the power of the airwaves back to the people, would have been the best thing since the 1934 Communications Act. More community radio is a great idea. The FCC was ready to have a thousand stations licensed and operating within a year. But Congress, with the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and, unfortunately, NPR, got this rider attached and signed on President Clinton’s omnibus budget bill. Now licensing will be limited to about 100 stations. It’s a shame. It’s a tragedy. And the whole thing about interference is a total sham. It simply is not true. It’s NAB rhetoric. Low-power FM would recreate democracy, which we have never really tried successfully.

Are there media trends that inspire you? Yes—the fact that the technologies for electronic media are no longer controllable by big money interests. The Internet is an example. The genie’s out of the bottle and there’s no way they’re going to get the stopper back in. We started Webcasting three and a half years ago and it was like having a worldwide radio station without a license. You couldn’t do that 10 years ago, not without spending millions of dollars. In September 1999 we went to Dharmsala, India, for a conference with His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the future of society. With a laptop computer, a dedicated phone line, and a microphone, we were on the air all over the world. It was the first time His Holiness spoke live on the Internet from his home in Dharmsala. The Tibetans were so inspired by it that a few months later we made connections for them and helped them develop their own Web radio station.

Another technology that excites me is Sirius, launched January 2. They’ve got four satellites up in the sky covering North America. With a receiver in your car that has a dish the size of a 50-cent piece, you get 100 channels of 'commercial light' music and information. Also, receivers can now pick up audio signals through a computer, and that technology gives you another whole dimension of listening.

Which Web sites do you regularly check into? Whenever there’s a major event, the Institute for Public Accuracy (www.accuracy.org) has a list of people who are talking about it from a non–mass media perspective. UN Wire (www.unfoundation.org/unwire) publishes daily information coming out of the United Nations. Communications-related Headlines (www.benton.org), published by the Benton Foundation, is oriented to democratic journalism.

Are you a moviegoer? I’m not. But Justine and I went to see Cast Away. It’s a great film—a tour de force, really. We like videos. We just finished our second watching of Upstairs, Downstairs, a 68-hour series, one of the best broadcasts on the BBC. It was done in the ’70s, set in the era around World War I. The British have a wonderful way of taking time to produce stuff. We Americans telescope—50 years are condensed into an hour and a half. The British take 15 hours and give the story a chance to unfold and the characters to develop—it’s much more enjoyable.

What magazines do you read? Utne Reader, Washington Spectator, The Progressive, The Inner Edge (soon to be resurrected in another form). I glance through Time and Newsweek. I look at Yoga Journal, and I read The Sporting News.

What books are you reading these days?The Intimate Merton, highlights from seven volumes of Thomas Merton’s journals. Hardly a day goes by without my reading something of Merton. I just finished The Murrow Boys by Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson, a wonderful book about the beginnings of CBS News and Edward R. Murrow in London during World War II, when radio was all being done live. Leap by Terry Tempest Williams. The Direct Path by Andrew Harvey. Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life by Richard Ben Cramer, who is a great writer; I’ve always been a baseball fan. And My Name Escapes Me by Alec Guinness.

Are you reading all of these at once?
I am. I usually have 30 or 40 books by my bedside.

Which books have left a particularly strong impression on you? The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell. Johnson and other literary luminaries of his time would hang out and dialogue in the pub. That’s what we do at New Dimensions, only we don’t have a pub. I read Will Durant’s The Pleasures of Philosophy when I was a sophomore in high school. It turned me on to the fact that you could literally pursue knowledge, pursue wisdom. That just blew my mind. Thomas Jefferson was an influence early in my life. He was a master, a comprehensivist.What one book might you recommend to everyone?The Tao Te Ching translated by Stephen Mitchell.

If you could make one law, what would it be? I’d make a universal substance freedom law: the freedom and guarantee of a roof over one’s head, food on the table, a job or work. We’re into process freedoms in the United States: freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, freedom to protest. We need to balance those out with substance freedoms.

You’ve talked with thousands of people with creative minds. Who stands out as particularly inspiring and engaging? Jean Houston. Joseph Campbell; he was a treasure trove of knowledge and he continues to inspire me. Buckminster Fuller. Alice Walker; she was a firebrand 30 years ago, and she’s still a firebrand. She has matured in a way that she’s really authentically there, centered, and that’s why she has such power.

Who would you most want to interview right now? There are some questions I’d like to ask the pope. Having been raised Catholic, I would ask: Why don’t we declare war a mortal sin? Anybody involved in war would automatically be excommunicated. I would also ask him about birth control: What about the fact that we’re overpopulating the planet? The Catholic Church still has its head in the sand about that.

Anyone else you’d like to interview? I’d like to ask Rush Limbaugh, What motivates you? What is underneath what you’re doing? I don’t know that there’s much I agree with in what he says, but I’d appreciate the opportunity to speak to him.

If we can have real dialogue, if people can really hear one another, then there’s a chance to save humanity. You don’t hear true dialogue much anymore. Deborah Tannen’s book The Argument Culture was right on. On television shows like Crossfire, everybody’s trying to get their own position across; no one’s listening to the other person. They’re just all talking at one another, bypassing one another. We need more dialogue.


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