Sheridan Voysey’s face may not be familiar to many. But his voice? Now that’s a different story.
For the past five years Mr Voysey has been the host of Open House, a weekly Christian radio show dedicated to interviewing people about, in Mr Voysey’s words “life, faith and culture”. That all changed in March when Mr Voysey recorded his last show and handed the reigns over to former Sky TV news presenter Leigh Hatcher.
PICTURE: (c) David MacCullagh
“People know where we stand but we’ve worked very hard to say, ‘You are welcome to come and give your viewpoint as well. Let’s have a conversation about this’. So we have looked for people who have had significant things to say or who are exploring significant issues or have got a great story to tell.”
“I have to say that it’s a great honor for me to be followed by somebody of such high calibre,” Mr Voysey told Sight shortly before presenting his last show. “He’s a guy who’s got immense professional qualifications, a deep Christian faith, he can empathise with people who are going through some tough times and I think can bring some wonderful new direction to the show.”
It’s been a long road for Mr Voysey since he first had an inkling that he might one day be on radio. Speaking to Sight just before he stepped down from his role as presenter on Open House, Mr Voysey recalled how he’d never really had an interest in radio until, after he’d became a Christian, he started praying about what God wanted him to do with his life.
He’d been doing so for about two years, he recalls, when a couple visited his church and presented a video about a large overseas radio network which presented the Gospel across the globe.
“For some strange reason my heart started to beat very rapidly,” he says. “I thought maybe I might be able to be used behind the scenes in production or something but rapidly it turned out that I was to be on-air and, through a series of divine coincidences, found myself studying at Bible college and then volunteering at the Brisbane Christian radio station which, at the time, was called Family Radio.”
Mr Voysey’s dream of hosting a national evening talkback radio show goes back to about 1995 when he can recall sitting by the Brisbane River and thinking about an evening talkback show on radio which would explore matters of life and faith in a way that was accessible to the non-Christian mind, would feature international and local guests and would be networked across the country.
The dream took 10 years to eventuate. Having started working in radio in Brisbane in 1994, he later moved to Perth to take up a role with the Christian station 98.5 Sonshine FM. In the early 2000s, he stepped out of that role to move into writing and speaking full-time.
It turned out that others in the industry had the same dream he had and within a few weeks Mr Voysey was approached by the then manager of Melbourne’s 89.9 Light FM – Melbourne’s Christian radio station – who told him “I think we’re finally ready to do the kind of show that I know you’ve always wanted to do”.
“In the meantime, a conversation had started with the Sydney station – Hope 103.2 – and the result was that Open House was launched in April 2006 as a joint venture between the two stations. From there it was rapidly picked up by other stations around the place and the dream of a national talkback show became a reality very rapidly after that.”
The show now airs in eight cities with key interviews also replayed on the Vision radio network. Since its launch, Mr Voysey estimates he’s conducted around 1,500 interviews with people from various walks of life.
“One of the things we wanted the whole show to be – and Open House tries to reflect that in its name – is to be a place where anybody could come and have a conversation about faith matters. And so that’s why I’m so glad the research shows a good 50 per cent of our audience are not Christians – we wanted to provide that welcome point.
“People know where we stand but we’ve worked very hard to say, ‘You are welcome to come and give your viewpoint as well. Let’s have a conversation about this’. So we have looked for people who have had significant things to say or who are exploring significant issues or have just got a great story to tell.”
Guests have included prominent international Christian thinkers and authors like Philip Yancey, Eugene Peterson and Max Lucado, former Nixon aide and now prison reformer Charles Colson as well as more mainstream authors like Thomas Keneally and Bryce Courtney.
“All sorts of people who aren’t Christians, [come on air] to talk about their life, the values that they hold to and then, where appropriate… and when they are happy to go there, to talk about faith matters and how they came to their positions.”
Mr Voysey says Bryce Courtney was fascinating when asked about his faith.
“He was able to say that as The Power of One – his most well-known book – highlights (and though it’s not an autobiographical book, it’s certainly got a lot of him in it), that he had a very rough time through a very strict church-run orphanage in South Africa during the apartheid years. His quote to me was, ‘Sheridan, I know all about the God of wrath but have never met the God of love’.
“(I)t’s all about engaging listeners from whatever background they come from, having a conversation and hopefully giving everyone something to think about.”
“Now that was a fascinating comment and a deeply sad comment for somebody like myself who is a committed Christian… when I explored it with him, he wasn’t interested in pursuing the other side of the story…”
Mr Voysey says that while such moments can be risky for a Christian program, such moments are “profound”.
“They’re important moments to see where somebody’s faith or somebody’s ideas about God were brought rapidly to a halt as a result of some negative religious experience.
“It opens up fantastic talkback on the show, it opens up great experiences of people who say [things like] ‘Yes, I was where Bryce was and here’s how I went from that point on’. Other people would call in and say ‘I am with him, this is the experience I had’. So it’s all about engaging listeners from whatever background they come from, having a conversation and hopefully giving everyone something to think about.”
Over the course of the show, Mr Voysey says he’s regularly heard about how the interviews have shaped people’s lives, whether it be through them calling in, via email or even through the show’s Facebook page.
He recalls, for example, receiving an email only a few months ago relating to a show in which he interviewed UK theologian Alistair McGrath, who had recently written a book, The Dawkins Delusion?.
“I got this email from a guy only two or three months ago who said that as a result of listening to this interview decided to visit a church and within a few weeks became a Christian and later got baptised. Now, we heard that four years after the actual event…”
Another highlight of Mr Voysey’s time on the show was interviewing Brian Deacon, the man who played Jesus in the record-breaking movie, The Jesus Film.
“What was really interesting [in that conversation] was when we turned to his own beliefs. It was weird to discover that Brian Deacon, the man who played Jesus in the film that has brought something like 225 million people to the Christian faith, himself didn’t have a faith…” he says.
“And yet he would say that there was something happening during the time that he was recording the film that was profoundly different to the rest of his life, before and after. And he said that he did pray during that time and he did have answers. And he said that if ever there was a time when he was going to convert, it was then. And yet he didn’t convert.
“Those are the sort of conversations that really fire me up and switch me on. I become alive because [I love to] explore the reasons why people struggle to believe and then hopefully give some further ideas, some counter ideas, and say, ‘Well, have you thought about this?’ So we had a really good, honest conversation about faith matters and there was give and take on both sides. It really touched me.”
Not all guests were an easy ride. There were, of course, those who simply gave one word answers in interviews which as a result never aired. Others, such as controversial US pastor Joel Osteen, provoked criticism even before the show had aired.
“Those are the difficult ones because the whole goal of Open House is to engage the mainstream mind with the things of the Christian faith and so there is often a challenge as to at what point are we just pushing the boundaries of what the show is. We are not called to be doctrine police, but at the same time we are called to be theologically responsible,” says Mr Voysey.
“We hold to orthodox Christianity and we want to be asking those questions when some of those people maybe have veered off from what orthodox, historically understood Christianity is all about. Those are the personally challenging ones.”
“Those are the difficult [interviews] because the whole goal of Open House is to engage the mainstream mind with the things of the Christian faith and so there is often a challenge as to at what point are we just pushing the boundaries of what the show is. We are not called to be doctrine police, but at the same time we are called to be theologically responsible.”
And what about those he didn’t get to interview but would have liked to? Topping Mr Voysey’s list is Billy Graham, “the most successful Christian evangelist in modern history”. Others include former South African archbishop, Desmond Tutu, the Australian poet Les Murray, and Rick Warren. “And if we could have travelled back in time, CS Lewis.”
As for what’s next? Mr Voysey is heading for the UK where his wife Merryn is taking up a position at Oxford University working as a medical researcher while he works on a follow up to his first book Unseen Footprints: Encountering the Divine Along the Journey of Life (published five years ago, it won the Australian Christian Book of the Year Award for 2006).
Mr Voysey, who has since written three Open House-related books, says he also intends developing a documentary and some other video-based projects drawing on the book and may look to a new media venture in radio or television. Yet, as he recently wrote in the statement announcing he was leaving Open House, when God’s involved, one never quite knows what the future holds.
“(I)’ll have to wait and see what God comes up with,” he said. “He’s often a God of surprises, isn’t He?”
Q: This article explored some of the tricky aspects of hosting Open House. What do you think? Are there some kinds of guests that should never be interviewed on a ‘Christian’ show?