Radio days

Reviving the spirit of the University of Chicago Round Table of the Air.

Again and again this spring, I found myself heading to the corner of 57th Street and Woodlawn Avenue, the elegant home of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society. The research institute, a five-year-old joint endeavor of the Humanities and Social Sciences Divisions, sponsors faculty projects that don’t sit in any single field, but ask questions that demand many disciplinary perspectives. The Collegium’s mission also calls for engaging a “wider public in humanistic scholarship.” Speaking as a member of the public, it’s working.

In April I listened as Court Theatre creative director Charles Newell spoke with Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright and 2017–18 Collegium visiting fellow David Auburn, AB’91, about the challenges of adapting Saul Bellow’s (EX’39) The Adventures of Augie March for the stage. The next month brought a tribute to the late poet and former John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought professor Mark Strand, where his artwork was displayed and his poems were read by colleagues, family, and friends, including Renée Fleming in a prerecorded video.

Still another May day, I was drawn in by a conference capping the three-year Collegium research project the Past for Sale, which examined antiquities looting and its dangers to both cultural heritage and national security—more on that below.

The way the Collegium’s projects pull together experts with different knowledge bases but shared concerns brings to mind a piece of UChicago history: the University of Chicago Round Table of the Air. Debuting in 1931 on Chicago radio station WMAQ, the show aired conversations between University scholars about important topics of the day. In 1933 it was picked up by NBC, the station’s parent network, which broadcast it nationally.

The Round Table was a hit. For 22 years it put UChicago in US homes, earning a Peabody Award along the way. In a recent interview with the College, former University president and Henry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus Hanna Holborn Gray recalled that the Round Table served as her introduction to UChicago, being one of the few radio shows her strict parents would let her tune in to.

No idea this good should go unborrowed. So we recorded our own roundtable between five scholars from different institutions and fields—archaeology, law, sociology, and cultural policy—who worked on the Past for Sale and are searching for solutions to antiquities looting. For an excerpt of their conversation, see “Heritage in Peril” (Marketplace of Ideas), where you can also listen to the entire absorbing discussion.

Though the faculty roundtable has a long pedigree at UChicago, it’s new for us—and something we’d like to do more of. If you listen, let us know what you think at