On the Air With Michael Eric Dyson - Higher Education
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On the Air With Michael Eric Dyson

by Jamal Eric Watson

It’s 1 p.m. and Dr. Michael Eric Dyson is nestled behind a microphone in a small Virginia radio studio where he is gearing up to conduct a phone interview with the legendary Theodore Walter “Sonny” Rollins.

Dyson — the famous cultural critic, controversial author, ordained Baptist preacher and Georgetown University professor — has never met Rollins before and is apparently a bit nervous about interviewing his music idol.

But the famed saxophonist is acutely aware of Dyson and his scholarly work.

“I want to say that I am a big fan of you,” Rollins, 78, tells Dyson. “I’ve watched you several times, and I’m right with you in every endeavor you make. I’m behind you all the way, and I appreciate you being out here. It makes me feel strong to hear you talking.”

Dyson, who seemingly is never short of words, holds his chest for about a minute and is speechless when he considers that the jazz great — who collaborated with the likes of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane — even knows who he is.

“Oh my God,” he says to himself during a commercial break. “Sonny Rollins is a hero of mine. That kind of comment will make you take a note in life.”

After authoring more than 17 books and holding coveted teaching jobs at some of America’s best colleges and universities, Dyson seems to be most at ease behind a microphone on The Michael Eric Dyson Show where he gets a chance to query guests and offer a bit of his own commentary across the airwaves each day.

It’s a natural fit for a public intellectual who is always working.

He is regularly on television [comedian and television host Bill Mahr counts him as a good friend], and has been barnstorming the country to speak before packed audiences to promote his latest book Can You Hear Me Now? The Inspiration, Wisdom, and Insight of Michael Eric Dyson.

Dyson’s latest gig is not his first foray into radio. Several years ago, he hosted a live show on the Syndication One Radio Network owned by media mogul Cathy Hughes, but it was short-lived.

But now, he is back at it, producing a one-hour show — syndicated from Morgan State University — and  broadcasted on stations in 18 markets across the country. The venture is a collaborative partnership between the African American Public Radio Consortium and National Public Radio, who was responsible for producing “The Tavis Smiley” show, “Tell me More,” and “News and Notes,” all of which focused on issues that impact African-Americans.

Dyson, who left a cushy job at the University of Pennsylvania several years ago to become a University Professor at Georgetown — a position that allows him to teach across academic disciplines, though he is primarily based in the sociology department — says that his talk show explores a variety of topics including religion, politics, arts and culture. His work as a radio personality, he says, informs his teaching in the classroom.

“In many ways, they are of similar ilk,” says Dyson, who has featured Oprah, Spike Lee and Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs as guests since the show launched a few months ago.

“You’re engaging with people who are talking about very serious issues. You are trying to educate as much as possible and learn as much as possible,” he says. “Education and learning at its best is interactive, call and response. That’s part of my own Baptist tradition. It’s important to talk to smart people about important issues in a way that other smart people listening to it can be informed and inspired by it and can be stimulated.”

It also means that Dyson — who fiercely campaigned for President Barack Obama during last year’s campaign, even though his wife, Reverend Marcia Dyson supported Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary — has to be critical of some of Obama’s legislative decisions. On this day, he is bemoaning the fact that Obama has decided to cut $85 million from the budget that the Bush administration earmarked for the last few years to historically Black colleges and universities.

“I campaigned for him, but he’s governing now,” Dyson says in an interview before he is scheduled to begin interviewing several guests about gay marriage — an issue that he supports. “It’s a different move. Moses has become Pharaoh so now we have to talk to Pharaoh.”

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