Usually Michael Toms, host of the syndicated radio program New Dimensions, is on the other end of an interview. For 17 years he and partner Justine Toms (the non-profit organization’s Executive Director) have been bringing the voices of leading edge thinkers and cultural innovators to their listeners nationwide – and out to 40 countries via shortwave broadcast. There is no telling just how big a difference the very popular program has made by helping to spread new ideas into the mainstream, but it is clearly enormous. Here Michael talks about the impact of radio on the listener, and he tells the story of the program’s evolution.
For a free station listing, program guide, and catalog of New Dimensions cassette tapes, write to them at PO Box 410510, San Francisco, CA 94141.
Alan: How did New Dimensions get started?
Michael: I was in the advertising business, and after I met my partner Justine in 1974 I decided to get out of it. We took a kind of sabbatical, traveling around the country in a camper, getting immersed in Tibetan Buddhism, and attending seminars and conferences.
We went to one conference at UC Berkeley, and psychologist Charlie Tart said something that struck a chord. He said we were in the midst of the most important revolution in human history, and that was a revolution in consciousness. Yet this was not generally known, and it was not being reported in the media at all. That catalyzed the idea for creating New Dimensions, which was designed to present an overview of this process and say, "Here’s something interesting, take a look at it and make your own decision."
Alan: Did you go into radio right away?
Michael: Initially we didn’t. We started with a conference in San Francisco where we brought together a Hindu philosopher, a couple of Jesuit priests, a psychologist, a scientist from SRI [Stanford Research Institute] and a number of other people, all talking about consciouness from very different vantage points. And in the end they were all saying the same thing in different ways. That’s the bedrock of New Dimensions: someone who listens to our program over time understands that all these perspectives are connected at the deepest level.
Out of that conference came an offer to do a radio program based on the same concept. Once we started, we realized that radio was an ideal medium for delivering this kind of content, because it’s very personal, very intimate, and it has an enormous effect. It triggers the imagination, and it enlivens the mind. It’s magical!
Alan: Marshall McLuhan puts it in the same class as print in terms of being a "hot" medium – as opposed to "cool" television which gives you everything and doesn’t make your mind work.
Michael: Exactly. In fact, McLuhan compares radio to drums in the time of tribal wars, reaching into the psyche in a deep way and touching chords within. But to get back to our story, we did a live, 4-hour radio program for five years, from 1974 to 1979. Sometimes we only talked with one person, so we were able to get into some depth. The response from listeners was overwhelmingly positive – we actually became an institution. There were people who built their lives around listening to New Dimensions on Saturday night in the San Francisco Bay area.
Then our station changed its format and suddenly dropped us. We were totally shocked, and in danger of just going by the boards. We realized we couldn’t just depend on one station, so we set out to take the program nation-wide because we knew there were people out there who wanted to hear it.
Simultaneously the public radio satellite was put into place, and we were one of the first producers to use it. Our first programs were fed to the satellite on the vernal equinox in 1980. We found that there was indeed an audience out there. We started building an affiliate network, which is currently at about 185 stations.
Alan: You said earlier that radio is very personal and familiar. But at the same time, it’s easily overlooked. In putting this issue together, for example, we almost forgot to think about radio – and yet I listen to it all the time. Why is radio like that?
Michael: Well, it’s very ephemeral. Print has a much longer life span, which accounts for our cultural bias in that direction. And since the advent of television, radio has changed a lot. Many of the radio programs became television programs, so radio shifted its form at that point to a "sound," a particular identity, usually related to the kind of music the station plays.
It’s rare to find discreet programs on radio now that people tune in specifically to hear. New Dimensions is an exception to the rule, though that’s the way people used to listen to radio. But radio’s ubiquitous. The average household in America has six radios in it. Radio actually reaches more adults than either television or newspapers, though it reaches them with less volume – the average television viewer watches seven and a half hours a day, and the average radio listener tunes in for three. And of course you have radios in cars, and it’s much more portable than television.
But commercial radio is, essentially, a vast wasteland. Most commercial stations are not interested in information – they think of programming as just filler between commercials.
Alan: And yet New Dimensions has been very successful.
Michael: That’s because most of our stations are public stations, and we’ve basically gone where people wanted us. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting recently did a major survey using the SRI VALS [Values and Lifestyles] of public radio listenership in America, and they found that 54% of the listening audience of public radio is inner-directed. We’ve been programming to those people nationwide since 1980, and suddenly public broadcasting discovers that they’re out there. New Dimensions is currently the only national program specifically for that audience, and yet it is the majority of public radio listenership.
Up to the release and publication of that survey, the myth of public radio was that the traditional supporter listened to classical music. But they found out that their support was coming from the listeners who were concerned about information – and particularly information on the leading edge, the kind that inner-directed people are looking for. It’s obvious whyNew Dimensions has been successful on those stations who’ve chosen to carry it, because there is a significant audience out there that wants this kind of material.
Alan: Do you notice that material becoming more popularly accepted?
Michael: Oh, definitely. We were covering holistic health and preventive medicine back in ’74 and ’75, and now it’s all the rage. And look what’s happened with the environmental movement. Back in the ’70s, to talk about the environment was almost an avant garde thing. Now it’s on everybody’s front page. So in some sense we’ve been a part of that, by bringing that material out to more people.
Alan: Do you expect more growth in the kind of programming that you’re doing?
Michael: There has to be, because the culture has caught up with us. One of the ways we support ourselves is by selling tapes of our programs, and our tape sales have doubled over the last year and a half. Also, the volume of letters we get is enormous. When people write you a three-page letter about how New Dimensions affected their life, you realize that something’s happening
Alan: What future do you see for radio in general?
Michael: Well, in Japan they’re now manufacturing home satellite receivers that sell for $100. As soon as they bring that technology into the U.S. in a big way, people are going to do their own programming. They’re doing it already with audio cassettes and video tapes. People are discovering that they don’t have to watch commercial television or tune in to commercial radio. The day will come when you’ll be able to fill out a form listing your interests and get back a whole roster of programs, with directions on how to plug into them from your home by pushing a few buttons.
And there’s a lot of potential for more radio programs with this kind of content. There are many ways to do it – not just interviews – and I would encourage people to consider that. It’s so much more economical, more efficient, and easier to do a radio program and get your material out there to a large audience than it is to do television. It always surprises me that more people don’t think of radio, because there are 10,000 radio stations in the United States.
You know, Gay Luce, who’s been a friend for years, told us once that "You only know one half of one percent of the effect that your work is having in the world." And she’s right. It’s like we’re sitting on the edge of the pond and throwing little pebbles, and the ripples just go out for a long way, on and on. The programs we did ten years ago are now passing the nearest stars. I mean, who knows who’s listening?