A Conversation with Bob Edwards

A Voice in the Box Bob EdwardsToday, radio legend and Louisville, Kentucky, native Bob Edwards turns 69. For thirty years, he was the voice of National Public Radio’s daily newsmagazine programs, co-hosting All Things Considered before launching Morning Edition in 1979. To celebrate, we are sharing an interview with Edwards—one of the most iconic personalities in modern broadcasting.

You’ve seen substantial changes in radio since you began your career. What is it that still makes radio relevant with the rise first of television and now of the internet? Do you imagine that radio will survive into the future and what might it sound like?

Radio adapts and re-invents itself as needed in response to the introduction of new media or other phenomena. It’s still the most portable medium that doesn’t require hand or eye contact. The pictures are better on radio because they’re formed by the listener (with help from us)—with the result that the pictures enhance the content rather than distract from it. Radio will continue to survive because it never loses its magic of intimacy. The listener believes the voice on the radio is talking directly to him or her. On TV, there’s no illusion that Jay Leno is talking only to you.

How has radio journalism changed during your career?

Radio journalism has changed for the better and for the worse over the course of my career. Sadly, journalism has disappeared from most commercial radio stations. On the positive side, public radio carries plenty of news programs and is producing them at a level of quality that radio has never known before. New technology has dramatically improved radio news reporting. Computers have replaced wire machines and typewriters, satellites have made long transmission lines unnecessary and improved the quality of overseas calls. Cell phones give reporters maximum mobility and have given even more immediacy to the medium that already was the most immediate.

You’ve interviewed over 30,000 people. Who have been the most memorable and what about them stood out?

My favorite person to interview is Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest in East Los Angeles who works with Latino gang members who want to go straight. He is doing extremely important work and he knows how to share his stories with a radio audience in a compelling way.

During your childhood, you dreamed about being in radio. When did it first hit you that you had realized your dream?

I realized my dream in 1968 at my first radio station—WHEL in New Albany, Indiana. I was 21 years old.

What was the most important lesson that you learned from Red Barber during your weekly broadcasts with him?

Red Barber loosened me up, took me off-script (not that we ever had one) and made me better able to respond to spontaneity. He had high expectations regarding preparation and professionalism. He built on what I had learned from Susan Stamberg about working with an on-air partner. Red also encouraged me to stand up for myself in the workplace and within the industry.

You’ve interviewed all sorts of people—politicians, artists, authors. How is each group different to interview? Can groups be categorized by any shared characteristics?

Politicians can be exasperating—especially if they’re wedded to repeating their “message of the day.” Athletes are dreadful and fond of clichés. Professors are often verbose, answer questions in outline form and expect to be allowed to continue until they’ve exhausted the entire outline. Writers and artists are in the communication business and generally understand that I’m aiming for conversation—not talk.

You’ve written a biography about Edward R. Murrow and his contributions to radio broadcasting, and you’ve said that he was influential in the development of your career. What is it about Murrow that makes him one of your radio idols?

Edward R. Murrow set the highest standards for integrity at the birth of broadcast journalism. He expected his employer to share his lofty values. It did not—and that cost Murrow his career.

You write extensively about your unhappy departure from NPR. Since then, your former employer has received its share of bad press and a full on assault to defund the media organization. What are your feelings about NPR today?

With newspapers in decline and commercial broadcasting increasingly shrill, partisan, and often irresponsible, funding for public radio is more important than ever. NPR and its member stations are a national treasure providing in-depth, award-winning news programs unavailable elsewhere in American media.

How can you compare starting a show at NPR with starting a show with SiriusXM? Are there similarities or differences between the two?

Starting anything new is exciting because you’re allowed to experiment and be daring. I joined NPR in its third year. I joined satellite radio in its third year. I’ve had the thrill of watching both of them grow and prosper—and it’s fun to share in that success.

What radio programs do you listen to besides your own, and what about them appeals to you?

I listen to the other programs on SiriusXM and on NPR. All the shows essentially do the same thing—they’re vehicles for telling stories. Still, they are all very different, so the variety of ways to tell a story would seem to be without limit.

Now that you’ve finished your memoirs, what’s next for you?

I plan on doing my show for at least twenty more years and then write Still a Voice in the Box.

Bob Edwards is the author of Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism and Fridays with Red: A Radio Friendship. Edwards has been awarded the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award for radio journalism, a George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting, and the Edward R. Murrow Award for outstanding contributions to public radio.

To learn more about his memoir, A Voice in the Box: My Life in Radio, and watch a trailer, visit our website.


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