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Harris hits airwaves with radio show

Professor Stewart Harris has created a radio program on the U.S. Constitution that airs each week on East Tennessee State University's National Public Radio station, WETS-FM.

stewart harrisHarris also hosts the program, "Your Weekly Constitutional," every Tuesday at 8 p.m. The program is meant to boost public knowledge of the Constitution, Harris said, and "discuss current events that involve the Constitution in an entertaining and informative fashion."

The first program, which aired March 1, tackled states' rights to secede from the U.S. Other topics have included the mosque debate in New York City, eminent domain, evolution versus intelligent design, and judicial activism.

Harris was inspired to pitch the program after seeing an article about programming changes at WETS. Station manager Wayne Winkler liked the idea so much, Harris said, that he's become the show's producer.        

While the Constitution is a complex topic, making it more digestible for the public isn't hard, Harris said. "It's what I do every day in class. Remember, law students are members of the public, too. I find that the most effective way to teach them is to use relevant, entertaining anecdotes ... The same principle applies on the radio. First and foremost, you must engage your audience."

One way he tries to do that is by discussing current events that have constitutional implications, such as the debate over the constitutionality of health care legislation. "Lots of people have strong opinions on the subject, but I wonder how many of those people have actually read the Constitution, let alone studied the more than 200 years of interpretation that have followed," he said. "Opinions are fine - the First Amendment protects them. But I prefer informed opinions."

Though he's used to a more tangible audience during classes at ASL, Harris said he imagines that he's "just talking to someone sitting across the table."

It takes a village to produce a radio show, though, and ASL students have been eager to help. Harris has teamed up on air with several of his third-year Constitutional Law students: Joannie Burroughs '11, Chris Menerick '11, LaTri-c-ea McClendon '11, Michelle Caggiano '11, Andrew Meyer '11, Jason Grace '11, Ashley Rudolph '11 and Eugene Belenitsky '11. He hopes to keep adding to that list. Carol Hutchinson, assistant to the associate dean, helps schedule guests for the show, Harris said, "and she is utterly fearless. She will cold call anyone."

The show also features the Constitutional Quiz, during which "quiz lady" Kelly Carmichael tests the knowledge of braver listeners. Carmichael is coordinator of We the People Virginia and education outreach manager at the Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier. Harris met Carmichael at the We the People state finals, where he grills students on the Constitution. 

Harris said he has started to receive positive feedback through email, the show's fan page on Facebook, and old-fashioned verbal compliments. "I should also mention that several potential underwriters have expressed interest, including one lawyer who wants to be the show's exclusive sponsor -that is, he wants to exclude other lawyers from underwriting the show," Harris said. "Nothing says, 'I love you' quite like money."

The drive down to Johnson City is long, Harris said, but "it's all about planning and routine." He has condensed his trips to two or three a month, and uses the time to discuss upcoming shows with student assistants or identify things to improve. Ultimately, though, the work is worth it, he said: "I'm having a blast."

And while he hopes the show fulfills its primary purpose, boosting public knowledge, "I certainly won't mind if the show raises ASL's profile." ASL "was founded to serve this region. This is simply one more way to serve."