Speaker series helmed by local NPR veterans comes to Sonoma

John McChesney and Alex Chadwick, Sonoma County residents and familiar names for NPR listeners, collaborated on the Sonoma Speaker Series.|

John McChesney’s daughter was up from Los Angeles in August, visiting her father in Bennett Valley, when she started talking about a recent storytelling event she’d attended put on by The Moth, a popular spoken-word program featured in podcasts and on radio.

That conversation planted the seed that became the Sonoma Speaker Series, co-founded by McChesney, a veteran former National Public Radio correspondent and Sonoma resident Alex Chadwick, a longtime former NPR host who helped create the “Morning Edition” program.

The series kicked off in October before a sold-out crowd of up to 400 people at Sonoma’s Hanna Boys Center. The pre-election conversation, moderated by McChesney and Chadwick, featured two longtime NPR political correspondents, Ken Rudin and Neal Conan.

“The genesis of it was that Sonoma doesn’t really have anything like this,” said McChesney, who helped develop NPR’s first national and foreign reporting desks. “But there are a lot of people there who are smart, retired and interested in having something like this in their backyard.”

Planning began just six weeks before the Oct. 17 event, and it couldn’t have happened without the help of Kathy Witkowicki, founder of Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance, and McChesney’s wife, Wendy von Wiederhold, interim executive director of A Home Within, a national nonprofit organization that provides psychological counseling to foster children.

“Alex and I were just thinking we’d get on stage and interview people and it’ll be great,” McChesney said. “Unfortunately it takes a lot more work than that.”

McChesney and Chadwick are sourcing speakers mainly through the extensive web of contacts they made in their journalism careers.

“We intend to exploit those,” McChesney said.

Next in the lineup is Randy Thom, director of sound design at Skywalker Sound, a division of Lucasfilm.

Thom is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. today at the Hanna Boy’s Center. His talk will revolve around his decades working in sound design, including his time spent on the sound for “The Right Stuff” and “The Incredibles,” for which he won Academy Awards, and “The Revenant,” for which he won a BAFTA award, handed out by Britain’s film and television academy.

Ideally, the series will feature about six speakers a year who cater to a general audience, McChesney said, and be modeled after San Francisco’s City Arts & Lectures or the MPSF Speaker Series in Marin, Oakland and the Peninsula.

The third speaker hasn’t been announced yet, but McChesney said the conversation will likely take place in February.

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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