The end of the morning star

Bob Edwards signs off as a longtime host on public radio

April 30, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - It is about 20 past 3 on a chilly morning earlier this week, and Bob Edwards has already been in his office for more than an hour. He is sitting, alone, before an aging electric typewriter, his shoulders slightly hunched as he pounds out scripts on yellow pages, much as he has for nearly 25 years now.

As Edwards has said thousands of times, this is Morning Edition on National Public Radio.

The show's longtime host relies upon a daily collaborative miracle that marries journalism and engineering, his live narration of news stories blending with taped interviews, stories from reporters and musical segues. But intensely personal choices determine much of the show's flavor and direction.

Edwards seeks out interviews of musicians and writers and other artists to lighten the heavy burden of war and crisis that greets his listeners each morning. He scans the wires for the quirky anecdotes that he relays half past each hour to remind his audience that they're listening to NPR. And as always, Edwards, owner of a dry wit and a demeanor that isn't quite as prickly as it seems, is very much alone in the middle of this whirlwind of collaboration - wincing over the selection of each word as he hears the show evolve in his head.

As familiar as this pre-dawn ritual has become, there are clues that change is ahead. For one, Edwards, a devotee of jeans and denim shirts, is wearing a pinstriped suit and tie for a television interview with a PBS crew later in the day. For another, there are the cards and printed e-mails stacked neatly in a high pile on his desk, offering words of consolation.

Earlier this spring, NPR executives decided to replace Edwards as Morning Edition's host. They want two hosts instead of one. They want to make the program more responsive to breaking news events, to "freshen" the feel of Morning Edition, the same way they have switched anchors and tweaked formats on other signature shows in recent years.

That means that this morning, Edwards, 56, is making his final appearance on NPR as the program's host. He has not hidden his dismay at his removal, but will re-emerge as a senior correspondent for NPR. The switch in jobs marks the first time in decades he can stay up on weeknights past 6 or 7.

Public response to the announced shift was overwhelmingly supportive of Edwards and largely angry toward NPR. Columnists and editorial cartoonists have weighed in. Listeners have set up Web sites; NPR has set up a page on its own Web site - npr.org - dedicated to his 30 years in radio. His planned book tour later this spring, which will include a stop in Baltimore, has taken on the feel of a valedictory.

"We could have handled this better," says Bruce Drake, NPR's vice president for news. "Through thick and thin, he's always been there, always steady."

Other tributes have been more intimate. Will Foster, a 9-year-old from Memphis, Tenn., wrote recently to Edwards saying that he had selected the radio host to be the subject of a report for class. When the boy asked how he had chosen this career, the supposed curmudgeon replied this way:

"My brother is five years older than me and he didn't want to play with somebody that little. So the radio became my playmate. I could turn the dial and find a new friend on every station. I knew which kind of music each of my friends played and which of them gave me the news. ...

"I was fascinated by all the voices in the box (my radio) and wanted to be one of those voices when I grew up. When I write my autobiography - that's what I'm going to call it - `A Voice in the Box.' You're welcome to use it as a title for your project."

Interested in artists

By 4 a.m., Edwards is settled into his chair in the glass-faced room that is his studio. His left leg bounces nervously as he records introductions that will play later during the program, which is broadcast live from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. and repeated for those who rise later. He watches for director Van Williamson's hand cues and wears headphones to hear occasional suggestions and the remarks of correspondents he is interviewing from abroad.

Edwards has conducted thousands of interviews with two kinds of people: the newsmakers - officials, politicians and fellow reporters - and artistic figures, the ones he finds genuinely interesting.

Edwards says he has traveled only three times to conduct interviews: to Toronto, to speak with jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, to New York City, for Paul McCartney, and to Nashville, for the late country singer Johnny Cash. It took him years to arrange for the Cash interview, he said.

"I'm interested in the creative process," Edwards says. "Why that note and not another? Why that phrase on the page? What are you doing with that metaphor?"

His competitors at this hour are the antic morning drive-time radio shows or the gregarious morning TV shows brimming with cheer. Edwards adopts instead a minimalist approach. He says he wants to make sure listeners know it's OK to wake up in a scary world.

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