Famous and anonymous, Bob Edwards' is the voice defining 'Morning Edition'

July 05, 1992|By Neal Rubin | Neal Rubin,Knight-Ridder News Service

Washington -- t's 10 minutes short of 6 a.m., and his eyes are puffy, his throat hurts and Bob Edwards is feeling unloved.

Maybe it's the hay fever; he's already on his second box of Kleenex. Maybe it's this morning's edition of "Morning Edition," whose less than stirring highlight will be an interview with two economists.

Maybe it's wanderlust. Mr. Edwards, a National Public Radio icon for 18 years, was getting ready for a trip to Detroit to escort a flock of his fans to Tiger Stadium and to drop in on a local broadcast of "Morning Edition." He was looking forward to the trip.

"It's a way of getting my strokes," he says, "since I don't get 'em here." And he blows his nose again.

Nobody gets a lot of strokes at NPR. Or a lot of money. Instead, they get respect and satisfaction.

Ordinarily, that's a fair trade, even when you throw in Mr. &L Edwards' horrible hours. But this has been a particularly galling morning in the NPR newsroom. Bill Clinton is getting chummy with Bryant Gumbel on "Today," which according to NPR reaches fewer people than "Morning Edition." Joan Lunden of "Good Morning America" is grousing because she has to pay her estranged husband $18,000 a month in temporary alimony.

"That's a year's salary for an NPR production assistant," Mr. Edwards says -- not to mention two months' salary for the normally chipper Bob Edwards.

Five mornings a week, Mr. Edwards settles into a dark blue office chair in a slightly frayed studio near Dupont Circle and tells America what's new. From 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., the host of "Morning Edition" introduces stories, conducts interviews and provides the continuity in an involved, eclectic broadcast that might devote as many precious minutes to a folk dance troupe in Los Alamos, N.M., as it does to rioting in Los Angeles. (The show airs on WJHU-FM 88.1 from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.)

For that, he receives $80,000 per annum, plus overtime, a shift differential and borderline cult status among 6 million listeners who don't know him from Noah Adams.

Even more than most in his profession, Mr. Edwards, 45, is both famous and anonymous. His deep, soothing voice serves as a wake-up call from Maine to Honolulu and figures prominently in at least one recent novel. Yet his boyish visage will never grace a billboard or the side of a bus.

L That's not the NPR way, which is one reason he's an NPR guy.

Heard and unseen

As likable as he sounds on the air, Mr. Edwards is serious about the news and serious about radio -- if not always serious on the radio. He once asked tenor Placido Domingo, "Do you sing in the shower?" He grew up idolizing Edward R. Murrow and reading the Louisville, Ky., Courier-Journal aloud, simultaneously playacting and scrubbing away his Southern accent.

He stands 6-foot-4 and carries an extra 25 pounds that date from January, when he gave up two daily packs of Benson & Hedges menthols. His eyes are pale blue, and when he leans into the computer in his office, his long blond hair tucks itself inside his collar and falls across his forehead. He needs glasses -- gold wire-frames -- to read, but not to drive.

Sardonic enough to bark, "Good luck, buddy!" when an ambulance zips past his window at 3 a.m., he still thrills to the sight of the Washington Monument every morning on his way to work. Just before he quit smoking, he bought a second suit for the first time in his life. Now that neither fits, "I inhale a lot and try to make these trips as short as possible."

He owns one bright floral necktie from the 1990s and a few other samples from the '70s, but skipped the '80s altogether. A typical day at work finds him in black Dockers, a black T-shirt and a white sport shirt with red and black stripes and rolled-up sleeves.

Devoted to his family, he has stayed up late the previous night to help his 17-year-old stepson with his senior project, a radio play. He agrees with Dan Quayle about Murphy Brown: "Quayle's a dunce, but on this one point, he's right. Fathers have always been dolts on TV. We're irrelevant, superfluous. So the latest twist is just to feed the fiction that children don't need fathers."

B6 His younger daughter tucks him in each night at 7.

At work by 2:20 a.m.

Bob Edwards' day begins at 1:30 a.m. The alarm clock is across the room from the bed, so he has to get up to turn it off.

He totters to the kitchen, eats a bowl of cereal and drinks a cup of coffee. Then he shaves and drives off into the darkness.

"The hardest part of this job is right now," he says. Hugging the wheel of a brown 1981 Volvo, he follows the curve of Interstate 66 from suburban Arlington, Va. It's 2 a.m., and the drunks are lurching toward their automobiles.

Three times, cars have come racing toward him on the wrong side of the freeway. His first '81 Volvo, still running on the dealer's tank of gas, was totaled by a drunken 19-year-old girl.

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