Friday, November 05, 1999

The special voice of Morning Edition

Bob Edwards can look back on 20 years of a high-quality newscast

The Cincinnati Enquirer

| Bob Edwards |
        After 20 years, you'd think Bob Edwards would feel some job security hosting National Public Radio's Morning Edition. “No, this is broadcasting! They could can me this afternoon,” Mr. Edwards says with a hearty laugh his listeners know so well.

        Of all days, Mr. Edwards should feel safe today. He and the NPR newscasts are celebrating 20 years.

        On Nov. 5, 1979, the day Iranians took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Mr. Edwards left NPR's All Things Considered for a temporary 30-day stint launching Morning Edition.

        “Thirty days turned into 20 years,” he says, laughing again.

        A good 20 years, in any sense of the word. More people get their morning news from Morning Edition (8.4 million) than NBC's Today show (5.8 million), ABC's Good Morning America (4.1 million) or any other broadcast.

        In our Egg McMuffin world, his Morning Edition is a grand slam breakfast of meat, protein, politics, analysis, international news, fine arts, sports and a slice of Americana.

        “Once I was here, I liked it,” he says. “I got paternal. I got territorial.”

        More importantly, he became used to going to bed at 6 p.m. and waking up at 1 a.m. He's at work by 2, taping interviews with people half-way around the world and writing scripts he'll read starting at 5.

        “Actually, I have marvelous job security — because nobody wants to get up that early,” says the 52-year-old Louisville native.

        For two decades, he has missed prime-time TV — but not his family. He sees his wife, Sharon, a former NPR producer, every afternoon as she home-schools their daughter, 14.

Off to a bad start
        In 1979, Mr. Edwards was drafted for morning duty after NPR scrapped the long-awaited morning show pilot 10 days before the publicized launch date. NPR fired the executive producer and hosts Pete Williams (now at NBC) and Mary Tillotson (now host of CNN & Co.).

        “It was awful. Very chatty. Like bad, small-market TV,” he says.

        What listeners wanted was information. And that's what Morning Edition delivers live 5-7 a.m. weekdays, with those two hours updated and repeated through 9 a.m. Pacific time (noon EST).

        “There's talk now of doing three hours, 5-8 a.m. We found people were with us earlier, and staying longer, and complaining about the repetition. People have a longer rush hour now, and they hear the whole show.”

        Morning Edition has evolved from the rigid 6-8 a.m. format of 1979. It originally was divided into 10-minute blocks for news, features, sports, the arts and business. Stations started to pre-empt some segments, so Morning Edition became “more spontaneous and unpredictable,” he says.

        In recent years, the show expanded to 5 a.m. to stave off competition from rival Public Radio International. “People think we did it to get more corporate fund-raising, but it was really a defensive move,” he says.

News and analysis
        In two decades, Morning Edition has drifted away from its heavy dose of the arts. The emphasis on breaking news and analysis requires that Mr. Edwards do 800 interviews a year covering politics, international affairs, education, economics, labor, sports and entertainment. (The list also included his sports chats with Red Barber that aired for 12 years and often strayed to such topics as Red's camellias and cats.)

        Besides the ol' Redhead, his favorites among the 16,000 conversations were with “the old rock 'n' rollers” who filled the radio airwaves of his childhood, and writers or artists.

        “They're much more forthcoming. They're not as defensive as politicians, who are being advised to "stay on message,'” he says. “It's fun to find out what inspired a Carl Perkins to write "Blue Suede Shoes'”

        Atop his interview wish list is Johnny Cash, who was hospitalized last month with double pneumonia.

        “When he goes — and I hope he never does — the first line has got to be, "Johnny Cash was the voice of America.' That's how I feel. He's the musical soul of America.”

Big signal radio
        Since age 3, Mr. Edwards has been fascinated by radio, “my companion, friend and playmate” in Louisville. He remembers listening with his grandmother to radio soap operas, Arthur Godfrey, The Lone Ranger and Ozzie & Harriet.

        “At night I'd hear WLW-AM or WSM-AM (Nashville) and dream of those exotic far-away cities,” he says.

        On summer weekend nights, he still dials in WLW-AM at his Arlington, Va., home to hear the Cincinnati Reds, or newscasts from Louisville's WHAS-AM “to keep in touch with home.”

        He started in radio at a small station in New Albany, Ind., after earning a bachelor's degree from the University of Louisville in 1969. During a two-year hitch in U.S. Army, he anchored TV and radio programs for the Armed Forces Korea Network. Then he enrolled in graduate school at Washington, D.C.'s American University in 1971 to study broadcast journalism.

        He jokes about being fired, because it has happened. Mutual Broadcasting fired him in 1973 “because I was a big union guy,” says Mr. Edwards, now national vice president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).

        Mr. Edwards joined NPR as All Things Considered newscaster in February 1974. By August, he was co-hosting with Susan Stamberg, which he did for five years.

        The consistent quality of Morning Edition was recognized from the start. In its first year, the program was presented a prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and a George Polk Award.

        On the fifth anniversary, Mr. Edwards won the 1984 Edward R. Murrow Award. The citation said: “Bob has created a standard for the industry.”

"Fridays with Red'
        During the first year of Morning Edition, Mr. Edwards began weekly chats with retired sportscaster Mr. Barber, then 72. Mr. Barber's conversations with “Colonel Bob” were a Friday feature for 12 years, until his death in 1992. The following year, Mr. Edwards published Fridays with Red about his radio friendship.

        He's writing a second book deploring the tawdry, tabloid nature of commercial TV and radio.

        “It's a memoir and a rant about what became of the electronic media that I loved so much,” he says.

        He looks around and can't imagine working anywhere else. Morning Edition has become an Information Age refuge for millions who don't like shock jocks, talk shows or too many commercials on commercial radio.

        “You don't even get much music anymore on radio,” he says. “In the past year, our audience has grown (7.9 percent). I think people are reacting to that.

        “I'd like to think it's because of me,” he says, laughing again. “But it's because the alternative is so awful.”

        What: Morning Edition

        When: 5-10 a.m. on WVXU-FM (91.7)and WMUB-FM (88.5); 5-9 a.m. on WNKU-FM (89.7)


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