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Riki Rafner

Nation’s Premier Public Affairs Forum Notes Growing Demand for Civic Dialogue

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (March 6, 2017)—In the past three months over 40 Commonwealth Club programs have sold out, more than in any other comparable period in the organization’s 11-decade history. The organization’s leadership says this is likely attributable to the unprecedented levels of interest and concern about national and global issues since the November election.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, Obamacare architect Ezekiel Emanuel, astronaut Mae Jemison, finance guru Sallie Krawcheck, and Oscar-winning director Frances Ford Coppola have all addressed sold-out houses. The ongoing popularity of programs at the nation’s oldest and largest public affairs forum demonstrates a strong appetite among Bay Area residents for civic engagement and intelligent conversations.

The February 21 Club event featuring former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz packed the 600-seat Marines Memorial auditorium. Six days later, the audience for a panel analyzing President Trump’s first 100 days was filled to capacity. Other standing-room-only events included programs with terrorism expert Brian Fishman, The New York Times writer Thomas Friedman, Planned Parenthood head Dr. Cecile Richards, and Fox News anchor Bret Baier, to name a few.

Programs from people across the political spectrum and covering a wide range of topics are attracting big crowds. Observes Dr. Gloria Duffy, President and CEO of the Club, “We are delighted that people with all viewpoints are finding the Club a helpful place to learn and engage in dialogue. It is times like this when we are grateful for the organizations, like the Club, that are fundamental to our democratic society and to free speech. I hope folks will continue to utilize the Club as a platform, whether or not we are embroiled in immediate controversies. Solving the problems of our society and the world requires foresight, and foresight requires being knowledgeable about the issues and all the alternative approaches to addressing them. The Club provides one of the best resources around for that purpose.”

Attorney Richard Rubin, who chairs The Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, said, "Perhaps the best reflection of our leadership role as a national forum for the dissemination of views on the critical issues of the day is the accelerating pattern of sold out programs. At a moment of extreme discord in America and around the world, the calming voices of respected individuals are needed more than ever."

The Club’s Vice President of Programming George Dobbins echoed those thoughts, noting that he has perceived a growing trend in the appeal for programs that offer a platform for education, information and entertainment. A strong example was the January panel discussion “Change-makers: Movement Leaders on Civil Rights in an Uncivil Time,” which drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 250 people. This guest panel of activists and community leaders, including ACLU Executive Director Abdi Soltani and Color of Change Executive Director Rashad Robinson, explored the efforts being made for Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights, and climate justice to figure out whether demands for change are leading to lasting change.

The Club’s Climate One’s programs have been bringing together people involved in energy, the economy, and the environment for 10 years. With its subject matter in the news daily, Climate One is also experiencing escalating attendance. Its January “Doubt, Deny or Defend: Republicans on Climate Change” with guest speakers John Hofmeister, the former president of Shell Oil Company, and Bob Inglis, the executive director of and a former U.S. representative (R-SC), was packed to capacity. In February “Can Clean Tech Clean Up Our Future?” also sold out.

John Zipperer, host of the Club’s “Week to Week” political analysis program series, added that interest in his programs has been growing solidly in the past several months, including a sold-out post-election town hall in November. “More and more, people want to know and understand the confusion around them,” said Zipperer. “They want to hear from people who really know what’s going on, and we provide that insight from people on all sides of an issue.”

Inforum’s Director Marisa Levine remarked that she also sees the growing demand for events that provide some relief from the tumult in the world, citing the success of her recent blockbuster programs featuring actor Alan Cumming and talk show host Andy Cohen. 

At least 1 million people listen to The Commonwealth Club’s weekly radio broadcasts on more than 230 public and commercial stations across the country. The Club’s podcasts are downloaded about 2.5 million times each year. The Club’s videos also appear on the California Channel, C-SPAN and YouTube, where they have been viewed millions of times. For the past 11 decades, the Club has fostered free speech and civic dialogue on a wide range of topics, addressing key issues in society, culture, politics, the economy and more in more than 450 live programs each year. For more information, visit