Nayder’s ‘Obsession’: 20 years of sobering true confessions
The reason Jim Nayder is famous (OK, semi-famous) is because he hosts The Annoying Music Show, National Public Radio’s weekly celebration of the worst songs ever recorded. But the reason Jim Nayder is great is because he also hosts Magnificent Obsession: True Stories of Recovery.
Since its debut 20 years ago this week, Magnificent Obsession has been the real passion of Nayder’s career. Each 30-minute episode presents the story of one person's battle with alcohol or drug addiction, told in his or her own words.
It airs at 5:30am Sundays on Chicago Public Media WBEZ-FM (91.5), where it premiered on April 5, 1992, and streams online.
“Those that would accuse Nayder of defiling public radio’s integrity would also do well to look further into his work,” Billboard once admonished. “In stark contrast to The Annoying Music Show, Nayder Communications also produces the captivating, oftentimes gut-wrenching Magnificent Obsession.”
Typical of the letters and emails Nayder receives each week is this recent one from a listener: “Although I'm not an alcoholic, it's a theme in my family, having lost several cousins and other relatives to the disease. My mother was teetotal in response and that had its own implications in our family life. Your program has given me insight into the lives of people I cherish but could never understand. The format is brilliant in its simplicity and truth. . . . Many thanks for producing this program.”
Nayder, 57, a lifelong Chicagoan whose parents met at WLS Radio as performers on The National Barn Dance (where his mother was a yodeling dancer and his father a guitar player), is in his 35th year with WBEZ. He’s held a variety of jobs over the years at the station, from program director to Peabody Award-winning documentary producer. But none has touched more lives or meant more to him than his work on Magnificent Obsession:
Q. Wow, two decades. How did Magnificent Obsession start?
A. At the time, while trying to supplement my public radio income, I was helping a suburban hospital market their new “chemical dependency” wing. To find out why patients chose to seek treatment, I interviewed them. I thought writing notes might be distracting, and, being in radio, decided I would simply record the conversations on a little cassette. When I went back to the tapes for the research info, I was mesmerized by the stories these folks were sharing. One person was a former distinguished Ivy League professor, the next a struggling, single mom from one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. How did such varied people end up near death — on the same hospital wing dealing with a disease they themselves could cure?
It struck me that no matter what your background or place in life, this disease of addiction can infect anyone, anywhere. I thought these stories might be of interest to many, and radio seemed the perfect medium. It’s one-on-one personal — as if the voice you’re hearing could be a friend sitting across from you at a kitchen table sharing their story. Like so many, alcoholism has affected my family and some friends, so I was also personally very curious to find out more about this world of addiction — why some are able to recover and why overall, most don’t. I thought it would be interesting — and then realized perhaps helpful — radio for those struggling to recover.
Q. How did it become a WBEZ program?
A. After hearing the tapes, I went to WBEZ and proposed a series — at the time thought perhaps a 13-week documentary series — and they said let’s give it a listen. For the pilot I went to [the former] Martha Washington Hospital and asked them if they had any recovering alumni that might want to share their adventures for public radio. A staffer there named Lowell Miles immediately said yes, thought a radio program like this would have great impact, and within a week had three or four people willing to participate. Mr. Miles helped make this radio idea a reality, and to this day I still give his name in the production credits of every show.
Q. What was WBEZ’s reaction?
A. They loved the pilot. But since the program had such a specific and serious focus, they could only provide airtime very early on the weekends. I was thrilled. As it aired, the response from both general listeners and those in recovery was dramatic. Thirteen weeks turned in 20 years.
Q. By design, it’s not a “medical interview” show, right?
A. I realized immediately that the program was more powerful as a personal story. Someone interrupting with questions was both distracting and not needed. So I made it a point to always stay completely behind the scenes. Just roll tape and get out of the way. Music allows me to transition and edit to fit the 30 minutes we have each week. The music has also proved to have huge impact, and I enjoy selecting songs that are great and powerful — and not annoying.
Q. Is it tied in with Alcoholics Anonymous?
A. Absolutely not. Because AA is the major resource for recovery, many guests talk about AA and other 12-step type support groups. But the program is not affiliated with any public or private treatment venue. In fact, we’ve had folks from groups like “Rational Recovery,” a philosophy of recovery that is almost the complete opposite of AA.
Recovery comes to people in many different ways, and I wanted to put all the options out there, and let listeners judge for themselves. Ultimately, every individual on the show has a story that is unique, but then the same if recovery is achieved. I think that’s probably what makes it so interesting. Like AA, we do allow guests to be anonymous if they choose. Many insist they want to give their full name because they have nothing to hide. They are battling a disease that could have been cancer or something else. They feel the less “stigma” about addiction, the better. It will hit home and be more honest and helpful.
Q. After 20 years, what have you learned doing the show?
A. That’s simple. I have learned to be grateful. Grateful that courageous people are willing to share their most personal, intimate, often embarrassing story on radio, simply because they know it might help others also in the recovery struggle. These folks have never met me before, yet they bare their soul with complete and shocking honesty. I never take that for granted. And I’m grateful to WBEZ. Rare — especially these days — for any station to air such a program, week in and week out, without fail. I never take any of this for granted. And I’m grateful to [general manager] Torey Malatia. When Annoying Music started, he was amused and supportive, but told me and many media outlets that he knew Magnificent Obsession was my passion, and that the Annoying Music publicity would shine a spotlight on my more important program. Boy, was he right, as today proves. Thanks, Torey.
Q. Yeah, but 5:30am Sundays?
A. I love this time slot. Not a week goes by without calls or emails from listener saying it helped them or wanting more information. With today’s online streaming it’s literally heard at all times of the day around the world. And I love that here at the flagship station, it’s broadcast as the sun rises on a new day. There’s something really magical to me about that. Sums up the theme of the program.
Q. You’re listed as an “independent producer” of the program. It can’t be profitable, can it?
A. No one reading this will believe me, but Magnificent Obsession has never been about anything financial. For me, doing the show and airtime are priceless. I’ve never charged WBEZ or any station to air the show. I find supportive underwriters to help get the shows done, but it’s always been a “break-even or less” venture. I have been 110 percent enriched by this adventure, and the amazing people I’ve met every week these past 20 years. I love public radio and think this is it in its truest form. Who else is this lucky? Except perhaps this week’s Mega Millions Lottery winners.
Q. How are you going to commemorate the show’s anniversary this week?
A. Although we’re producing new programs, this Sunday we’re going to air the very first program we did. It’s special to me for many reasons. It’s a great program and story, and “Dan” who speaks, recently passed away. He died completely sober and lived the past 20 years happy and with a family that he was able to save and love by finding recovery. Although Dan physically is no longer with us, his voice, story and help to others live on. I thought what better way to celebrate? Every story is timeless. No matter the year, the same question always remains — how do I not pickup that next drink? Dan tells how he did it for so long and so well. Thank you, Dan.