A voice as welcome as sunrise

April 07, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

Bob Edwards knows that when his reassuring voice opens "Morning Edition" every day at 6 a.m., he connects with millions of listeners, somehow intimately.

"Radio still produces the illusion that this person in the box, there, is talking to you, personally. I don't know why that is, even after 26 years in it . . . but radio's personal," says the longtime host of National Public Radio's daily news/magazine program.

"You don't have that illusion when you're watching television. You know . . . it's not for you personally, but for this mass audience," Mr. Edwards explains during a recent interview in his NPR office in Washington.

His is the first voice many people hear every day.

"Isn't that an awesome responsibility?" he reflects. "People want that familiarity in the morning, they want that routine, that reassurance: 'Old Bob's on the job again today; well, I'll get up and get my orange juice.' "

Mr. Edwards will speak tomorrow night in Baltimore as a fund-raiser for the Friends of WJHU-FM (88.1) and plans to discuss his book, "Fridays With Red." Published last fall by Simon and Schuster, the book fondly recalls Mr. Edwards' 12 years of weekly banter sessions with legendary sportscaster Red Barber.

The NPR announcer, the only host of "Morning Edition" since its launch in 1979, took a four-month leave of absence to write the book after Barber's death in October 1992.

He has no speech written, nor any notes.

"I'll just get up and talk about Red, which is the easiest thing in the world for me to do," he says, then nods toward a cardboard box bristling with envelopes.

"That contains letters [about Barber] that haven't been opened yet, from people who wrote while he was sick or after he died. I'm still going through 'em, and to this day I'm getting letters. It's very deep with people . . . He had some kind of magic that really reached people."

The Mississippi-born, Florida-reared Barber had been long retired from baseball announcing when he was asked to do a weekly commentary for NPR, shortly after "Morning Edition" premiered. He politely declined, relates Mr. Edwards in his book, because the NPR income would have affected his retirement status under Social Security.

A year or so later, however, Barber was contacted for comment on the death of Elston Howard, the first black player for the New York Yankees. He said he had turned 72 and the Social Security stricture no longer applied. So in early 1981 he began the first of more than 600 four-minute NPR appearances, most of them with Edwards.

"Red liked it that you were the whole show when you did radio," recalls the NPR host. "In radio you were the visual element; it was all yours, they [listeners] didn't get anything that didn't come through you, and Red liked that."

In their radio conversations, Barber often did not want to talk about sports.

"He didn't like to talk about any kind of adversity," Mr. Edwards notes. "I couldn't even get him to talk about some of the ugly things in sports, like drugs and cheating and scandals, and steroids. He preferred to focus on the uplifting, the positive, kind of an outgrowth of his training as a young person and his role as a lay reader in the Episcopal Church."

They talked about camellias and cats and Barber's wife, Lylah. Mr. Edwards traveled to Tallahassee to meet the Barbers and, as he relates in "Fridays With Red," discovered his long-distance microphone partner "was so frail it seemed a gust of wind might take him away."

"People had this idea of him being a really strong figure, and he wasn't," he says. "He was only strong mentally, but that's all you knew from radio."

Unlike a number of his NPR colleagues -- Cokie Roberts, John Hockenberry, Jim Angle, Scott Simon and more -- Mr. Edwards, 46, says TV holds no professional attraction.

"It did at one time, in Walter's [Cronkite] time. But Walter's time is long gone. Now it's Diane Sawyer interviewing Marla Maples and Charles Manson, and Katie Couric interviewing Jeffrey Dahmer, and that's not anything I want to be a part of," he says succinctly.

The announcer, who was born in Louisville, Ky., and began radio news work with the Mutual Broadcasting network, likes radio for a number of reasons.

"There's the anonymity when you're away from it. I like that. It gives you a public life, and yet you can go back into your private life very easily. Television people, I've seen them come into restaurants and all eyes are on them. There's nothing like having all eyes on you when you're eating," he explains.

Radio also allows its voices to age naturally, he notes, contending "television doesn't like old people."

Best of all, he asserts, "it's a good place for ideas."

"We have the time to do things in depth, and you don't get that anywhere else in radio; and I'm sad to say, you don't get a whole lot of that in television. You either have good newspapers or you have us," he says, then pauses before adding, "and not many people get a good newspaper anymore."

A final advantage of radio: his time slot, which requires him to arise at 1:30 a.m. and commute from his Arlington, Va., home to NPR's new headquarters near Washington's Chinatown.

"It's great job security, because nobody wants to get up at that hour," he says, laughing. "People will fill in for a day or two, and when they get to that third day they go, '. . . This is not the way to live.'"

In fact, he says, "you never adjust. We are not meant to do this. Man was not made to get up before the sun."

BOB EDWARDS

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow

Where: Sheraton Baltimore North, 903 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson

Cost: $5 members of WJHU-FM; $10 non-members

Information: (410) 516-9548

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