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So What Do You Do, Bob Edwards?

The erstwhile voice of public radio launches a new morning show and talks about his old gig, his new one, the birth of broadcast journalism, and the future of the medium.

- October 5, 2004

Bob Edwards and his famously silky, sonorous voice took to the airwaves again yesterday morning, but unless you've got a $9.99/month subscription to XM Satellite radio, chances are he didn't accompany you on your Monday morning drive time (though for a limited time, you can strap on your headphones at work and listen to the first week of broadcasts gratis, streamed via XM's website.)

But the fact that XM's subscriber base numbers only 2.5 million—as opposed to the 13 million listeners Edwards reached as host of National Public Radio's Morning Edition before he was unceremoniously stripped of anchor duties this past spring—doesn't seem to bother him. In fact, Edwards seems to have emerged from the whole NPR imbroglio relatively unscathed. He's a little bruised, sure—there's a frown in his voice when he recalls the circumstances of his dismissal—but as people who recently lost their job of 25 years go, Edwards is having an excellent year. In April, he released a biography of his lifelong hero, Edward R. Murrow, and August brought his selection as an inductee to the 2004 Radio Hall of Fame.

Now, XM is pinning its 20-million-subscribers-by-2010 dreams on the launch of The Bob Edwards Show (as well as a slate of other radio notables), and Edwards is back behind the microphone, doing what he knows best—having conversations with the newsmakers, artists, and journalists he loves. We recently turned the tables and asked Edwards the questions about his old gig, his new one, the birth of broadcast journalism by way of Edward R. Murrow, and the future of the medium by way of, well—Bob Edwards, of course.

Birthdate: May 16, 1947
Hometown: Louisville, Kentucky
First section of the Sunday Times: The Book Review

Tell me about the format of the new show. How is it different from Morning Edition?
We don't have the army of several hundred that produces news programs with NPR. We're a staff of, at the moment, six, soon to be seven, possibly topping out at eight. So we can only do what we can do. Primarily it will be interviews. There will be contributors and people with essays—maybe even independent producers who have done stories. But primarily it will be my interviews.

Who would you like to talk to?
Just people that I'm curious about. It'll be musicians, it'll be authors, it'll be thinkers. People who can sustain long-form conversation, interesting people that appeal to me. People who won't bore the listeners.

Do you have a dream subject you'd like to interview?
Well, there are people I've always wanted that I can't get. I'd dearly love to talk to them, but they don't give interviews. Anne Tyler, for one, the novelist; Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird; J.D. Salinger, who of course is notorious for being a recluse. I would love to interview all those people. I'd love to get the presidential candidates, and I've got no positive response from any of them yet. So I'll bring in David Broder of The Washington Post to talk about the presidential candidates. With the program [launching] just a month before the election, I think it's important to acknowledge there is an election under way and that's the most compelling thing at this time.

One sort of obvious but notable difference is that this show is actually called The Bob Edwards Show. Does that mean this show is going to have a more personal stamp?
Oh, absolutely. Sure. The phrase that Hugh Panero used—he is the president of XM—he said, "Let Bob be Bob." So for better or worse, that's what you'll get.

Talk to me about leaving NPR. How did you feel when it was announced that you would no longer be with Morning Edition?
Well, what's the right word? Disappointed seems a little lame. I was hurt. But that's the way it goes. I was not in charge, they are. They can have whoever they want doing their programs for them.

NPR said their goal was to reach a younger demographic. If you aren't reaching that group, who is the sort of person you picture listening to you on the radio?
I know the type of person listening. I know the NPR listener is a very intelligent person and has certain expectations of subject matter, approach, scope—and very often will know more about what I'm talking about than I do. It's a very challenging audience. And I'm hoping to have that same audience here because it's still public radio. So I'm making the same assumptions about the audience I'll have here as I had there. And I like working for that kind of audience. I wouldn't want to do a program that is intended to factor in the lowest common denominator. I want the most listeners I can get, but I'm not going to compromise the content of the program to get that. I'm going to continue to have the same standards I had at NPR.

After NPR announced your dismissal, there was a huge outpouring of support from your listeners. Does it frustrate you that you won't be able to reach as many people on XM?
No, I mean, I understand that it's something new. I was at NPR in NPR's third year, and they had fewer listeners then than XM has now. Now I'm joining XM in its third year, and I understand that you start small and build. I fully anticipate that we'll have as many listeners, that this audience is going to grow rapidly—more rapidly than it did at NPR. God knows, I was there for 30 years—I'm not sure I'll be here for 30 years, I'll be well into my 80s—but I know it's going to grow and that's part of the excitement. That was the excitement with NPR and, within that, Morning Edition, and it's the same here.

After listening to you for 25 years, people probably feel as if they know you, but I'm not sure they do. Tell me about what drew you to broadcasting in the first place.
Oh, it's all I ever wanted to do. I'm talking a little-bitty kid, too, not just high school. I mean way back, I was attracted to broadcasting. Radio was my friend, my pal, my playmate. I listened to all the stations, to all the formats up and down the dial—who was coming on shift at one o'clock in the afternoon, what kind of music they'd be playing. And then at night—it was all AM, there was very little FM—at night, listening to broadcasts in other cities. And that was exciting because I'd never been anywhere, never been to those cities. It was intriguing to hear somebody far away in a different city talking to you. I was just in love with radio. Still am.

Were there people after whom you wanted to model your career?
Well, [Edward R.] Murrow of course. Absolutely. It became more focused later, of course, when I was not a little kid anymore and realized just who he was and what he had done and how important he was to broadcast journalism. I guess it was the high school years when it hit me how important he was. He's been my hero all my life.

There are certain parallels between you and Murrow. You were both pioneers in a way, and in your biography, you even wrote, "Murrow lost favor with his bosses but never with his public"—which is probably how most people would describe you these days. Do you see the similarities?
Only in a few areas. We're both from working-class backgrounds, for example, champions of the underdog and all that. But the talent, the brains that man had—I could never, ever approach that. The courage—he was just fearless. I've got none of that. I've never been in a war zone. He went out and walked the streets of London with bombs falling all around him. He wouldn't go into bomb shelters because he was afraid that he'd get used to them. I'd be in the shelters. I don't know that I would have had the chutzpah to take on McCarthy at the time that Murrow did. I hope I never have to test myself that way, that we have some sort of demagogue like that again. Those are things I'll never know about myself, but I know them about Murrow. There's no match there.

And the courage to take on his bosses and to insist on principle over practical, corporate reality? No one fights that fight anymore because he did and lost. It was almost reckless. I admire the fight for principle, but it meant that he couldn't function at CBS anymore. I don't know that I would do that; I don't know that I could if it meant I wouldn't be hired by anyone.

In the book, you lament the state of broadcasting today, but barring the total annihilation of Clear Channel and Infinity as we know them, how can radio improve?
I think what's going to happen is, given the continued success of public radio and the potential success there is for satellite radio and Internet radio, I think there's going to be enormous pressure on standard commercial radio—what they call here terrestrial radio. They're going to feel the pressure to shape up and change their ways and get back to being innovative and creative and less greedy. They're doing these 20-minute commercial blocks now—it's just astonishing they have a listener left. My God, you forget the program you're listening to because it's wall-to-wall commercials. That's just greed. Commercial radio is being run as a big cash register. There is not any kind of energy, and there is no room for creative people. You follow the tight little playlist that the program director has given you based on some focus group in Columbus, Ohio. The voice tracking is done for 25 cities by a guy who is pretending to be at each of those 25 cities—that's bogus. They've lost their localism, the thing that should be a radio station's advantage—where they should have it all over us at XM. Instead they're doing programs for multiple cities and just pretending to be local. People know better. So I think they're going to feel pressure ultimately. Clear Channel has already cut back on some of their commercials. And I think that's in response to non-commercial radio, both public and satellite.

You've also said that Murrow wouldn't be able to find a home in radio today, but with things like XM or Air America—these so-called alternative outlets—springing up, do you feel like that's changing?
I think that if he were in charge, he'd be OK, but if he were not in charge there would be the pressure to be this, to do that, to appeal to this group—all those things he would completely reject—and he'd end up getting fired again. Well, he wasn't fired, but he was marginalized to the point where he quit. So I just don't see him functioning in this atmosphere.

Would you ever want to be in charge or do you always want to be behind the microphone? I'm not sure that broadcasters necessarily have those aspirations.
No, I would never want to be in charge. I guess I have the ideal situation here: I'm the boss of no one, and yet I've been told that I have the freedom to do what I want. We'll see. I hope that's true. But I'm feeling very comfortable here, and everyone has been so encouraging and so warm and friendly. God, how long can that last?

Jill Singer is the deputy editor of mediabistro.com.



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