John O'Brien

Producer, Speakers Forum

Year started with KUOW: 2006

John O’Brien produces Speakers Forum at KUOW. He learned to love radio as a child waking up one summer morning to the harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel.

As a teenager, he would drive the back roads of Indiana and Michigan late at night listening to vintage radio theater. The question of whether or not he had the legal right to drive then remains a mystery. Only The Shadow knows.

Inspired by a chance meeting with Noah Adams, he learned to make radio as an intern on KUOW’s The Conversation with Ross Reynolds.

John has been recording talks for Speakers Forum since 2007. Early on he learned Seattle is a Mecca for any touring speaker because Seattleites read so much, support a wide variety of venues and ask smart questions. He says that makes his job easy and always interesting.

John is a graduate of St. Johns College in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Ways to Connect

Gloria Steinem and Cheryl Strayed at Benaroya Hall on Nov. 8.
Courtesy of Bre LeBeuf

Gloria Steinem doesn’t like being called an icon. She sees herself as one in a tide of women who made and make change, so she doesn’t want to be put up on a pedestal.

But she is called an icon, and has come to represent the modern struggle for women’s rights and equality.

Washington and Lafayette at Mount Vernon, 1784, by Thomas Prichard Rossiter and Louis Rémy Mignot.
Public Domain

In 1777 Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette was a French aristocrat looking for military glory. Since the French weren’t at war, the 19-year-old crossed the Atlantic to join George Washington and other American revolutionaries in their fight with the British.

That’s where Sarah Vowell comes in.

Courtesy of Dean Forbes, Seattle University

Legendary science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin visited Seattle University recently to meet with students and read from her novel "The Lathe of Heaven." The work was chosen as the common text reading for SU freshman and transfer students this year.

Prison jail bars
Flickr Photo/Thomas Hawk (CC BY NC 2.0)/

The United States imprisons more people than any other country in the world. But that’s a relatively recent development. Over the last three decades rates of incarceration in the U.S. have increased five-fold.

Currently there are about 2.2 million U.S. citizens behind bars. Race and class are major factors in who goes to prison. If current trends continue, 1 in 3 young black men will spend time behind bars. The projected rate for young white men is 1 in 22.

Courtesy of Sandbox Radio/Truman Buffett and Joe Iano
Courtesy of Sandbox Radio/Truman Buffett and Joe Iano

This week on Speakers Forum we’re presenting a chill-worthy (and very funny) episode from Sandbox Radio. It’s a first for us, and just in time for Halloween.

The Stranger calls their work “fresh, joyful and awesome.” But given the season, they’ve added a touch of “creepy” to the mix.

Richard Dawkins illustrated with Dr. Spock.
Flickr Photo/Surian Soosay (CC BY 2.0)/

Richard Dawkins is a prolific author, scholar and evolutionary biologist. His most recent book,“Brief Candle In The Dark,” is a follow-up to his earlier memoir, “An Appetite For Wonder.”

In it he chronicles the second half of his life, from his Oxford days through his brilliant and controversial career.

On stage at Ignite Seattle 27
Flickr Photo/Randy Stewart (CC BY-SA 2.0)/

The Ignite series started here in Seattle in 2006 and has expanded to over 100 countries. Each Ignite event gives you the chance to talk about something that inspires you. The thing is, you only have 5 minutes to do it on a stage in front of hundreds of strangers at Town Hall Seattle.

Their motto is “enlighten us, but make it quick!”

Blaise Agüera y Arcas at The Cloud Room.
Courtesy of The Goodship Academy of Higher Education/Eileen Namanny

Seattle is a great city for lectures, and now there’s a new series to cater to “high minded” individuals who want to combine an interesting talk with a little marijuana.

Jody Hall, founder of Cupcake Royale and producer of marijuana edibles with The Goodship Company, believes our society is starving for human connection. She promotes the responsible use of marijuana as a conduit to community building.

Mona Eltahawy speaking at the Personal Democracy Forum in 2011.
Flickr Photo/personaldemocracy (CC BY SA 2.0)/

Author and journalist Mona Eltahawy learned harrowing lessons about the role of women in revolution during the Arab Spring uprisings. She was physically and sexually assaulted by Egyptian riot police.

Eltahawy says she became “a proud, angry woman” because injustice demanded that of her. She calls herself an anarchist of the Emma Goldman School. She believes that shock and provocation are necessary to bring about change.

File photo: diver swimming with dolphins
Flickr Photo/Steve Jurvetson (CC BY 2.0)

Bestselling author Susan Casey was a former competitive swimmer with extensive experience in ocean swimming. So it surprised her when she realized she had never swum with dolphins.

That changed when she unexpectedly encountered a pod of Spinner dolphins during a solo swim off Maui. Casey was so affected by the experience that she spent the next few years researching dolphins around the world. The result is her latest book, “Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins.”    

'Gassed' by American painter John Singer Sargent.
Public Domain

How can we make sense of the staggering history of loss -- loss of reason, life, and hope for the future -- represented by World War I?

In 2014 University of Washington professor Robin McCabe launched a three-part series of concerts with accompanying lectures to explore that question through music. The theme, inspired by the centenary of the start of World War I, was “Music From The War To End All Wars.” Speakers Forum aired Part I, featuring a talk by UW dean Robert Stacey, this past January.

Lady Justice, law, court
Flickr Photo/Mark Treble (CC BY NC 2.0)

"I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution." Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Thomas Paine in 1789.

That sentiment begs the question: Would Jefferson recognize the United States justice system today?

Ninety-seven percent of criminal cases in the U.S. result in plea bargains that do not determine guilt or innocence. Only 3 percent go to trial by jury. 

In this Nov. 20, 2008, file photo, the execution chamber at the Washington State Penitentiary is shown with the witness gallery behind glass at right, in Walla Walla, Wash.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Since 1976, 1,413 people have been executed in the United States. That number rose steadily through 1999, when 98 people were executed. Last year, 35 people were put to death.

Can there be justice in the imposition of capital punishment? Humanities Washington hosted a deeper discussion of issues surrounding the death penalty at The Royal Room in Columbia City on May 27, 2015.

Penguin Random House

It's the time of year when many of us look to relax with a good book in a pleasant spot, away from the usual chatter of life, a time when Town Hall takes a month off for goodness sake, for a well-earned break and to avoid overheating its guests. It's usually not a time we're thinking about death.

Todd Quinn carries one of his surviving goats Saturday after a wildfire swept through his ranch the night before.
The Seattle Times/Sy Bean

Sy Bean is a 23-year-old photojournalist working as an intern for The Seattle Times. Some of his recent photos of the fires in Washington have been featured on the front page. One in particular, of Chelan-area resident Todd Quinn, stood out to him. Sy shared this story of how it came about.