Grenada, Beirut, Washington — with the utmost in high-tech media coverage, the news isn’t getting any better. Of course, these times are arguably rougher than most, but as I watch each “crisis” come and go, I wonder if the news ever can get better. The mass media feels compelled to sandwich as many hard-hitting, gut-wrenching tidbits of “news” as possible between its commercials, and as the old newspaper maxim goes: good news doesn’t sell papers. But maybe it doesn’t have to. While most of the mass media continues to coil around itself, new and potentially wider channels for information are unfolding. Like the printing innovations that years ago paved the way for small, independent newspapers and magazines, recent advances in television and radio technology are at last beginning to make those media more accessible.
For more than a decade, Michael and Justine Toms have been pioneers in exploring the possibilities of alternative radio. The New Dimensions radio-interview show — now beamed by public satellite to more than 60 stations nationwide — is aimed at providing in-depth, hopeful perspectives on contemporary problems, perspectives virtually ignored by conventional media. “I’m interested in giving people the other side of that coin,” Michael Toms says. “It’s not to deny that the problems exist, but to say that there are also sincere, dedicated people who recognize these problems and are working to solve them — and they’re newsworthy as well.”
Over the years New Dimensions has produced more than one thousand radio programs, including interviews with Carlos Castaneda, John Lilly, Jerry Brown, J. Krishnamurti, Patricia Sun, Buckminster Fuller, and almost every other public speaker you can think of in the alternative/human-potential/spiritual/appropriate technology fields. Still, Toms says, they choose their interview subjects more on the basis of their ideas than their celebrity status. He tries to avoid what he calls “the expert syndrome.” “One of the things I realized early on,” he says, “is that there are no experts. We are surrounded by answers and solutions everywhere. Yet, we are spoonfed from the cradle to the grave and raised on the idea that others can and will solve our problems. This is simply untrue. . . . We don’t tell people how to live their lives.”
New Dimensions’ editorial slant may be best understood in this preamble to every broadcast:
It’s only through a change in consciousness that the world will be transformed. As we bring mind, body, psyche, and spirit into harmony and unity, so also will the world be changed. This is our responsibility, as we create and explore new dimensions of being.
I spoke with Michael Toms in his comfortable San Francisco home, which also houses the New Dimensions recording studio, tape library and offices. (Justine, who handles most of the day-to-day work while Michael does the actual interviewing, was out of town.) While I felt a bit bemused and self-conscious interviewing a veteran interviewer, Toms (at 45, a big bear of a man with greying brown hair and a burly beard) seemed quite at ease with the role reversal. His voice maintained a calm, almost professional tone, but his eyes spoke of a man obviously excited by his work.
Toms’ path to finding this work was intriguing. He had studied radio communication in college but after being graduated he worked as a technical writer. Two years later he went to work for a large corporation. By the time he moved to San Francisco in 1968, Toms had proven himself to be an adept climber up the corporate ladder. His success seemed assured. He had a fine home, a Mercedes, and was soon to be married. But suddenly the scene shifted. His fiance broke off the engagement at the last minute. For Toms it was a deeply felt trauma that led him to seriously review his life up to that point. “I looked at everybody ahead of me in the company,” he recalls, “and I realized there wasn’t anybody I wanted to be like.” After eight years with the corporation he quit, and began searching.
One day some friends brought him to a rundown bookstore in North Hollywood. Its owner, Paul Masters, took one look at him and said, “I know exactly what you need,” and handed him an armful of books, including the works of Sri Ramakrishna, the Bhagavad Gita, and several volumes on Buddhism. Later he taught him to meditate. For Toms, this encounter was the beginning of a turn inward. “After that,” Toms says laughing, “it wasn’t the usual sort of sequence. I went through this spiritual transformational experience and wound up getting into advertising.” He became a direct-mail copywriter, trying to prove to himself that he could make money without the corporate umbrella, and was soon president of a large advertising firm.
He met Justine, then a school teacher and a Jehovah’s Witness, when she came to his door to “show him the light,” and they fell in love. In 1972, Toms again felt dissatisfied, sold his firm, and spent several months travelling around the country with Justine.
The next year they attended a parapsychology conference called “Frontiers of Consciousness” in Berkeley. Michael says, “At that conference parapsychologist Charles Tart said that we lived in the most exciting times ever, that human consciousness was changing, and it was something we knew precious little about. The next day at the breakfast table we were talking about the conference and I said to my friend Jim, ‘It’s amazing that there isn’t more media attention in this area.’ Here we were in the middle of this candy store, as it were, in the Bay area, and there was no coverage in the newspapers or anywhere. I said, ‘Why isn’t somebody doing something about this?’ And he answered, ‘Why don’t you do something about it?’ ”
Well, they did. Within 24 hours the Toms had set up New Dimensions Foundation.
“One of the things I saw,” Michael says “was that everyone was competing with everyone else, saying ‘My trip is better than your trip. My guru is better than your guru.’ I wasn’t interested in any of that. . . . But how do you present the whole?” As a first step they arranged a lecture series called “Horizons of Consciousness,” with various speakers, designed to show the connections among the different paths. This quickly led to a request from a local public broadcasting station for a half-hour radio program with a similar focus. And that grew to a weekly four-hour program. As time went by, more and more stations asked to carry New Dimensions and their work continued to expand. In 1980, they began broadcasting over WESTAR 1, a satellite operated by National Public Radio which allows individual stations to pick up the shows directly from the satellite.
(Aside from a nominal fee paid by the station, New Dimensions operates entirely on contributions and mail-order tape sales. For a catalog or for information about getting New Dimensions considered by your local station, write: New Dimensions, 267 States Street, San Francisco, CA 94114.)
(Thanks to William Jay Bender for suggesting this interview.)
— Howard Jay Rubin
SUN: What do you do at New Dimensions?
TOMS: We deliver information, knowledge, and sometimes wisdom via radio. We try to look at problems from different perspectives; rather than take an advocacy position we allow listeners to make their own choice. This is antithetical to most journalism, which presents the story and then tells the audience what they’ve just heard and why it’s important. What you get then is the bias of the reporter, or the producer. You’re always going to get that bias, but with a different approach you can remove a lot of it.
SUN: So in interviewing you neither endorse nor condemn.
TOMS: Right. That doesn’t mean we don’t probe in depth. I may ask leading questions and I may even be a devil’s advocate, but it’s not done to prove the person wrong, which is often the purpose of investigative journalism — to go for the jugular. That’s why interviews you see on television often seem stilted and lifeless. Someone like Barbara Walters frequently isn’t even hearing what the subject is saying. She’s got her mind on the next question, already set on what she’s going to find out. That creates it’s own reality, because if you’re out looking for something you’re going to find it.
SUN: So, in your experience, what has to happen for there to be life in an interview, for there to be really effective communication?
TOMS: Certainly a supportive environment is important. We go out of our way to create one in the studio. When guests arrive we offer them tea or coffee and let them relax. Then we take them downstairs to the studio. That’s easier than just coming out of the fast-paced world and entering what is in effect a little vacuum chamber. By the time we begin in the studio, they’re already there. It’s also important that everyone in the studio involved with production is focused on what is happening regardless of what they’re doing, so you don’t get the usual frantic situation so often associated with radio or television studios. We act as if the program has already happened and all we have to do is plug into it, connecting with that space where it is already taking place, at the deepest level.
I never prepare questions ahead of time for an interview. I learned early on that questions — and always thinking about the next question — tends to limit the dimensions of the interview. I do prepare — read the person’s books, get background, whatever. I’ve learned to dive in and trust the process, accepting that the questions are always there, and allowing them to emerge. We don’t edit our interviews. Everything that happens is what happens.
SUN: It seems that the way in which one asks a question has a very direct effect on the answer one gets. That’s the only way that our bias comes in. What are your reflections on that?
TOMS: It’s important not to come to an interview with any preconceived notions of what’s going to happen. In my own interviewing I try to go for the personal questions: What is your motivation? How did you get into it? How does it feel to you? So often we develop set responses to questions about our work. What the successful interviewer has to do is get past this. Not in a threatening but in a supportive way. Most often people aren’t asked about the personal side of their work. When they are approached with what is perhaps a more caring question about them as human beings, what comes out is their humanity. That’s what counts.
SUN: Do you end up using all the interviews that you record?
TOMS: 99.9 per cent. I can count on one hand the ones we haven’t used. Sometimes there are programs we simply decide not to put on the air. We did a program with the man who was the head of the Hare Krishnas on the West coast. It was just dead. To our way of thinking it wasn’t airable. We thought it would be a disservice to put it on the air, a disservice to them. Another time we had a man on who does business workshops, like how to make a million dollars in your garage. The program was so bad, and made him look so bad, that we decided not to air it. But it is very rare for that to happen. Over the years we’ve developed a screening process; we’ve learned a number of principles in selecting people. When we’re being pushed to do a program we back off. We’ve also found that we need to have a direct contact with the guest, rather than rely on a middle person.
SUN: In their own way everyone is worthy of being interviewed. Is there a particular kind of person or message that you look for?
TOMS: We’re looking for people who see that the world’s got a chance. The people we come up with usually present new choices, alternatives, possibilities, solutions — frequently old solutions reapplied.
We often interview people who don’t have much media exposure because of what they’re saying. Underlying New Dimensions is a spiritual dimension. If there’s a focus it’s that we’re all connected. The scientists, the spiritual teachers, the psychologists, the educators — they’re all saying the same thing in different ways: everything is interconnected. If we’re consuming a third of the world’s resources that affects the rest of the world in a very direct way. If the space program did nothing else it did show us the earth hanging out there in space, it gave us a sense of being part of the same planet. We’re all using the same environment; spiritually we’re all connected as well.
SUN: Let’s talk more about how the mass media affects our consciousness, and why it rarely presents the type of world view you’re speaking of.
TOMS: We’re a media culture. It affects our consciousness greatly. The average person gets up in the morning, turns on his radio to get the news, goes down to get the morning paper, maybe listens to the radio on the way to work, probably gets several magazines, maybe Time and Newsweek, comes home listening to his radio in his car, watches the 6 o’clock news on television. . . .
SUN: And rarely has any of his views been challenged by what he sees.
TOMS: Yes. We’re basically seeing the world through a filter. It is important to recognize that the media is a filter. It’s not a direct view of the world. And the filter is basically the people who produce the media. Usually the part that they choose to portray, especially on television, is what went wrong with the world that day: a bombing in Beirut, a murder in a downtown section, a bank robbery, a four-alarm fire. It’s fire, flood, famine, pillage, plague, plunder. Very seldom is it that anything’s right with the world. All of this negative information is put out in a negative context and there’s no chance to see any other view. It’s very depressing. Then you realize that the average in-depth television report is 90 seconds in duration. How can anything be in-depth in 90 seconds? It’s fast-paced, designed to hit people between the eyes and get their attention. The 6 o’clock news is basically bad for your health. The same is true for the front pages of most metropolitan newspapers. I’m interested in giving people the other side of the coin. There’s precious little of that in the media. It’s not to deny that the problems exist, but to say that there are also sincere, dedicated people out there who recognize these problems and are working to solve them. And they’re newsworthy as well.
SUN: What excites you about what’s happening now in communications? What potential do you see?
TOMS: The development of some of the new technologies is really going to change our media environment enormously. The same thing is happening in electronic media today that was happening in print media 25 years ago. Then, the print media was largely the domain of those organizations that had big bucks and were able to afford letter-press printing equipment and hot-lead typesetting. With the advent of photo-typesetting and off-set printing suddenly it became economically feasible to produce printed publications for small audiences. Back in the Fifties many of the mass-audience magazines like Life started to die. At the same time, you had the emergence of the vertical, small-circulation magazine that reached out to a few thousand people. It was a revolution; suddenly everyone could become a publisher. The trend has continued. Now instead of four gas stations on every corner, you have four instant printers. You can put out a booklet of poetry or whatever at a very nominal cost. That wasn’t possible 20 or 30 years ago. And the same thing is happening now in electronic media. The emerging technologies make possible a much greater access to the mass media, particularly in radio.
New Dimensions is a perfect example. In order for New Dimensions to distribute nationally, before the advent of the satellite, we would have had to duplicate tapes and get them around to the stations. It would have taken several people just to coordinate the sending of the tapes, not to mention the cost. With the satellite, New Dimensions can now send its programs to stations around the country. The satellite time costs roughly a hundred bucks an hour. It is literally cheaper for us to send our program to the satellite — 22,000 miles out in space — and back again to reach a local San Francisco station than making a duplicate of the tape and driving it over to them.
At some point, it will be possible to broadcast signals directly to homes. The program’s producer will be able to go directly to a 1istener.
SUN: Without a radio station? How would that work?
TOMS: You’ll just send your signal up to a satellite and it will be picked up by a black-box receiver in the home. Right now, for $3,000, you can have a dish in your backyard that can be pointed at any satellite in the sky and pull down several hundred signals, and several thousand program choices. But that technology is going to get more refined, and you’re going to be able to have what amounts to a miniature dish in your home. Or that signal can be fed to a cable that hooks into your television set. There are also audio-cable services developing. Right now, in America, there are 90,000 audio-cable channels available. That’s ten times the number of radio stations. And each one of those channels represents 24 hours of programming each day. If you’re interested in, say, new-age information, you’ll be able for maybe five bucks a month to have a cable hooked up to your radio and get that type of programming 24 hours a day — music and information, interviews, whatever.
SUN: You’ve mentioned before that it’s one of your dreams, and one of your current projects, to establish a station like that.
TOMS: We’re working on establishing what we call a potentials radio network. The vision is to provide 24 hours a day of programming that would be fed via satellite utilizing cable technology.
SUN: You also work with a group called Audio-Independents. What is that?
TOMS: It’s a non-profit service for independent radio producers. When we started New Dimensions, we had to learn how to do it all by our lonesome. There wasn’t any organization from which to find out how to access radio. How do you do a radio program and get it out to people? How do you market it? How do you support it? Audio-Independents publishes a journal called Air-waves and provides other information for independent producers. We do seminars and major conferences. We do advocacy work with commercial and public radio.
SUN: Who’s in control of what gets on the radio, and what does it take to break in?
TOMS: Who’s in control are the station managers and program directors who run the stations. Generally it’s more feasible to gain access to public radio because it tends to be more adventurous, more experimental, less concerned about the bottom line of how many people are listening — although there is that concern as well — and is willing to take more risks than commercial radio. I would suggest starting with public radio. In most communities there is a listener-supported public radio station, maybe a community station, maybe a college 10-watt station, maybe a National Public Radio member station. There are 275 public radio member stations. There are another 70 community radio stations, mostly in rural areas. Then there are another 800 or so non-commercial college radio stations around the country. So there’s usually one wherever you are. That would be the place to start. If you have an idea for a program, do a pilot demo tape, and then go talk to your local station. Most community stations depend heavily on volunteer help, and a lot of people in radio get their start that way.
If you’re interested in moving into commercial radio it’s a matter of learning the ropes. It tends to be oriented to short-form programming, two minutes, ninety seconds, sixty seconds. Commercial radio will do some public affairs programs. For example, New Dimensions’ home-base station is KBLX, which is a commercial music station in Berkeley. But we happen to be on Sunday mornings at 8 o’clock. Even then we probably have 25,000 listeners.
There’s a myth in radio that people won’t listen for a long time. But people do listen. When we had a four-hour show on Saturday nights for five years we would have listeners stay with us until the end, because it was interesting and people loved it. It became what people did on Saturday nights. We learned that if you provide something engaging, then people will stay with it. And the problem with most radio today is that it’s not engaging. On commercial radio, programming is often just a filler between commercials. The bottom line for most stations isn’t programming; it’s profit. Programming is their last concern. All they’re interested in doing is getting the top ten records on the air so that they can build up their listenership. And the people who listen to the top ten records are really a small percentage of the potential listening audience. What happens to the other listeners? The F.C.C. has a policy of letting the marketplace reign, equating the marketplace with the public good. They are not the same thing. The philosophy is that if people wanted something else they wouldn’t be listening. But if all that you have to choose from is a beautiful music station, a country and western station, a top-40 station, a news and information station, that’s all you’ve got.
SUN: What do you see as the advantages of radio as a vehicle for communication over television or print?
TOMS: Radio is really an ideal medium for delivering an alternative kind of content, much more than television. We have experimented a little bit with television. One thing we’ve learned is that radio is a visual medium, because it activates the imagination, and requires people to create pictures in their minds. The clearest pictures are always the ones that we create ourselves, much clearer than those we see on television. Television is a passive rather than an active medium. Even with the best television I find that I’ve soon forgotten most of what I’ve heard. Whereas with radio the listening is more active. And people don’t make the same judgments with radio as with television. If you see a picture of a swami with orange robes and a shaved head you may discount him because of his appearance.
SUN: Or you may overestimate him because of his appearance.
TOMS: Right. With radio, the essence of the person comes through.
SUN: A lot of it is between the words.
TOMS: There’s something special about sound. I’m fond of saying that in the beginning was the word, not the picture. Indeed, in physics, light comes out of sound. The universe began with sound. So radio is a very special medium. It reaches more adults in an average day than either newspapers or television. There are 175 million people who listen to the radio every week in America. Radio is all over the globe, and it’s always amazed me how few people use it, particularly those with new-age, transformational, global views. Look at the religious broadcasters who have used the media very well. They have developed their own television and radio networks, bought their own stations. They have their own satellite system. So why are the evangelicals as successful as they are? Perhaps Americans are so hungry for a hopeful vision that they’ll take anything. What we need are more hopeful visions.
SUN: Has it been hard to integrate your spiritual self with your business self?
TOMS: I went through this spiritual transformation experience and wound up getting into advertising. It was an interesting graduation, but as it turned out it was an important part of my learning process. My path has always seemed to be very much involved with the world, with the integration of spiritual values into the marketplace. It seems that everything I do is around that issue. For a time, I did seminars for non-profit organizations, teaching them to better communicate what they are doing and in that way better generate the support they need. I’m always doing things that make me face the practical problems of the world, and trying to do it with a spiritual orientation.
SUN: Do you have any personal favorites from your many interviews?
TOMS: I’ve learned continually from all the people who have been on New Dimensions. New Dimensions represents my own quest. What better way to learn than to sit down face-to-face with the people who are exploring life and talk about it? It’s much better than reading books. There are people who have had a more direct impact on me than others. Bucky Fuller was one. I considered Bucky a friend and one of my mentors. Patricia Sun is another. Joseph Campbell. Many, many others. Hari Das Chaudhuri. Krishnamurti’s another one. Our recent interview with him was the culmination of a years-long quest. And the experience surpassed the expectation of it. If I do say so myself, I think that interview was the best one-hour synthesis of his teachings I’ve ever heard.
SUN: He’s someone with whom you’d have to be very clear in your questions.
TOMS: For several days ahead of time I prepared myself, just sort of cooling out and reacquainting myself with some of his books. I asked a friend, “What would you ask Krishnamurti if you were with him?” His response was, “Well, I don’t know. I’d just have to wait to be with him.” That was a good reminder to me. Speaking with him it became very important. A couple of times he stopped and said, “Well, do you want me to go on with this? Is this important?” He was really there.