WHEN 9 p.m. rolls around on Tuesday and Thursday, television sets click off. Books close. Newspapers are set aside. And some 2 million Australians curl up in their favorite chairs - to listen. ``Hello, this is Caroline Jones. And welcome,'' coos a soft voice. So begins another nationwide radio broadcast of ``The Search for Meaning in Life.''
For an hour, Ms. Jones ever-so-gently coaxes Australian guests from all walks of life - politicians, musicians, unionists, businesspeople - to reveal their search for spiritual values.
What started 10 months ago as a half-hour weekly experiment in religious broadcasting is now taking Australia by storm.
``Search'' is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's (ABC) highest-rated nighttime national radio program. And it's rebroadcast three mornings a week.
Admiring listeners send more than 50 letters a day to ABC's offices here. Nationwide, local tea groups are forming to discuss episodes. A television version of ``Search'' is on the drawing boards.
Meanwhile, queries and kudos are coming from beyond Australia's shores. ``Search'' won the 1987 United Nations Peace Prize for radio programming dealing with peace or conflict resolution.
ABC is negotiating now with radio networks for distribution in the United States, Canada, Britain, and the Netherlands.
Indeed, plans are being laid for Jones to visit the US this year to interview prominent American citizens.
Back in this hemisphere, the program's success seems to run counter to Australians' apparent lack of interest in organized religion. Only 25 percent of Australians attend church one or more times each month, according to a recent survey.
``But there is in Australia a very deep hunger to explore further the larger questions: Why are we here? Who are we? What happens when we die?'' says ABC Religious Broadcasting director David Millikan. This program, he says, takes ``the idea of faith'' out into the community of hungry non-churchgoers.
As Jones puts it: ``The central purpose of life, so many of our guests say, is the discovery of oneself. We explore that through our relationships with other people, through learning, reading, the contemplation of art, and through our work. So a program that lets a great variety of people talk about this search, this journey, is tapping into something that matters to people. It's relevant.''
Guests have included former Prime Minister John Gorton, aboriginal playwright Brian Syron, rugby coach Alan Jones, Judge Marcus Einfeld, and outback folk singer Ted Egan, as well as avowed atheists, Buddhists, and ``people from all over who make up the mosaic of Australian spirituality,'' says Jones.
The program has included 130 interviews in its short life. Not every episode is a prizewinner. Some of the half-hour interviews drift along as rambling, rather superficial life-story accounts. But many have the compelling quality of two friends caught up in a profound after-midnight conversation.
``Does that [learning to love] have a lot to do with sanity?'' asked Jones during an evening with Emma Pierce, who recounted her dramatic recovery from mental illness.
``Absolutely,'' declared Ms. Pierce. ``What causes insanity? Misplaced importance. If there's a single cause to insanity that's it. There's been 30-odd shootings on US highways because somebody cut them off ... It's the tiny little things that really upset you.''
She continues, ``If you look down through history at all the unloving incidents, they don't make any sense. They're destructive, devastating, they're degrading to man. And if you look through the loving incidents, they make sense. They're reasonable. Love is the most reasonable thing on earth.''
And, in an interview with Jim Beggs, president of a longshoremen's union, Jones asked, ``Making a decision to listen to the still, small voice, to try to discern the plan that God had for you, in practical terms, how did you do that, and how is that a part of your daily life?''
``We do try, my wife and I each morning, to take that time to listen and be quiet. To read something of spiritual value. ... We began to write down these thoughts, and a new reconciliation happened between my wife and me,'' he said.
Drawing insights from people is not new for Jones. For years, she anchored hard-hitting investigative programs on Australian radio and television. She became, and still is, one of the most famous and respected journalists in the country.
But six years ago, Jones took a sabbatical and did some soul-searching herself. Now, at Mr. Millikan's invitation, she's back in the limelight with a type of journalism that holds more meaning for her and, she says, for those being interviewed.
``Politicians comment how unusual and nice it is to be listened to and questioned as a whole person, rather than an image or as a fragment as the media so often does,'' Jones says. She has been surprised at how frankly people discuss their personal beliefs.
``Australians have been described as being rather inarticulate people. But I'm finding a depth and generosity in people's responses when asked such things as `What is the nature of love in your life? Are you frightened of death? To what extent are you aware of the feminine or masculine elements within yourself?''' And Jones sees recurring themes in people's responses, such as ``an essential goodness in people,'' ``a yearning for meaning,'' ``love as the central essential in life.''
Loneliness comes up frequently, too, she notes. ``Everyone experiences loneliness, even married people,'' offers the show's production assistant, Louise Ring.
``But people also speak of it as what causes them to reach out.'' Ms. Ring adds, ``Someone said that `loneliness is a reminder that none of us are at home yet. It's just a reminder we're not quite there.'''
The program's appeal, says Millikan, stems from the lack of religious dogma or clich'e.
``We've found it very difficult to find people who are significant leaders in Australia's religious community who can match the degree of honesty and innocence that non-church people have when they talk to Caroline.''
Interviews with church leaders have occasionally gone unused, he says, ``because you're encountering the person who represents a particular philosophical point of view as to what the meaning of life is, rather than speaking in terms of their own personal understanding.''
The show's uniqueness lies in ``a vocabulary, a style, which doesn't frighten people off,'' Millikan says. ``But it still touches that deep spark of searching and questing that is present in all of us.''