NPR’s Edwards will soon sleep in

NPR’s Edwards will soon sleep in

POSTED: April 25, 2004

WASHINGTON — Bob Edwards, the unflappable morning host of National Public Radio, drops his head into his hands.

“I want to die,” he announces in that coffee-and-cigarettes baritone that makes other men sound like they’re wearing short pants.

June Lockhart – Lassie’s mom – is dropping by Morning Edition within the hour. She’s a day early.

Edwards’ producer, Barry Gordemer, has poked his head in the office to explain the scheduling snafu. The veteran actress, in town to celebrate a collection of lunchpails at the Smithsonian, will arrive the same time as the new Medicare chief. And on deck is a Fast Company magazine reporter, to talk about the latest rage in airport convenience: fast-food kiosks.

“I’m not ready for her,” Edwards says.

“What do you want to do?” his producer asks, and Edwards searches through his stack of clippings until he says in a tone familiar to 13 million listeners:

“The daughter of actors Gene and Kathleen Lockhart, June Lockhart made her own acting debut at age 8 . . .”

One week from now, these sorts of worries will no longer weigh on Bob Edwards. He’ll graduate from the lobster shift, the 6 p.m. bedtimes and 1 a.m. alarms. No longer will he slip around his Arlington, Va., house, eat, grab a second cup of coffee, and drink it while driving to NPR, where his steady delivery has made it easier for people to greet the day for almost 25 years.

His reassignment at age 56 to senior correspondent, announced last month with such phrases as “natural evolution” and “changing needs of our listeners,” prompted the fiercest torrent of letters in NPR’s 34-year history.

Listeners complained about the timing, a half-year before Edwards’ silver anniversary. They complained about the thinking, likening it to the “New Coke” debacle.

They took it personally.

“At 6 a.m. I like Bob Edwards in my kitchen – I am comfortable with him,” says Bonnie Graham, 70, an administrator at Temple University’s dental school and one of 22,127 people to sign a petition on Savebobedwards.com. “He can see me in my ratty old bathrobe and my bed hair.”

“I feel like a family member has been wrenched from me,” says another signer, Hannah Gardner, a West Chester lawyer. “We need Bob Edwards to be the calming voice – the considered voice rather than that hysterical voice.”

*

“There was no good time to do this,” says Jay Kernis, NPR’s senior vice president of programming, in a corner office where he and Ken Stern, the network’s executive vice president, perform a postmortem on their public-relations disaster.

When they talk of NPR’s future, they talk of increasing news coverage, providing more context at a time when broadcasters are cutting back on world affairs. NPR, with a $200 million gift from the late Joan B. Kroc, has the ability to fill the void.

While Morning Edition (heard locally on WHYY-FM, 90.9) runs live for two hours each weekday, it repeats with updates until noon. Kernis envisions alternating voices – Rene Montagne and Steve Inskeep have been named interim hosts – and Kernis wants one on each coast, to reflect the sound of the country, not just the Beltway. He favors questioners who have been reporters, he says, so “when they are interviewing a Middle East expert, they themselves have worked in the region.”

Edwards, whom Kernis takes pains not to criticize, keeps close to the studio, leaving for fund-raising trips but feeling that listeners expect and deserve the host to be there when they wake up.

For the last six months, NPR execs had talked of a change. “Too many people knew,” Kernis says, adding that it would not have been fair to Edwards for word to have leaked.

Plus, Edwards was about to go on a several-week leave to promote his latest book, Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism.

“I’m going to give you a different answer,” Stern says. “If we were to do it again, we’d have done it differently.” By not waiting until the anniversary, he said, NPR executives looked as if “we didn’t care about Bob.”

Edwards, host of radio’s most popular morning show, a Peabody, Polk and duPont-Columbia award winner, says he is still trying to grasp what happened, although he is getting used to it. He thinks the top brass tired of hearing him talk.

“I think people have to make changes to put their stamp on programs. You’ve got your old founding pioneers, and [the bosses] figure people have heard them long enough, and it’s time to hear new people.”

Amid an overwhelming wave of support – 35,000 listeners have written in – some dissenting voices have risen. Barbara Noble, a former New York Times columnist who has taught journalism at Columbia University, describes Edwards as a soothing voice but a dismal interviewer.

“You listen to him, and he doesn’t respond to anything,” she says. “I want him to follow up and ask a real question and he doesn’t do it. It’s like he’s phoning it in.”

Jack Mitchell, who in 1974 picked Edwards to cohost All Things Considered, NPR’s afternoon show, liked having Edwards, “a very laid-back, solid guy,” play off the edgier Susan Stamberg. Mitchell, now a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin, was stumped in 1979 when Edwards was drafted to host the new morning show solo.

“But it worked out, and he became something of an institution,” Mitchell says. “You don’t mess with an institution lightly.”

His desk is clear, his bookshelves nearly empty. Edwards hasn’t had the heart to weed out the filing cabinet of letters listeners sent to Red Barber, when the longtime sportscaster fell sick in 1992 and went into the hospital for the last time.

The dozen years of Friday morning phone calls to Barber remain Edwards’ favorite Morning Edition moments, two Southern boys shooting the breeze on the front porch.

Edwards, a Louisvillian in a denim workshirt and jeans, has been at work since 2 a.m., when he fired up the computer and scanned the news wires, culling headlines for the top-of-the-hour bits that set up the day: who is testifying, who is traveling. He writes them on a yellow legal pad in one-word headlines. Then he types them up with two fingers. He still uses a Royal electric.

Then comes dessert: finding the quirky, bottom-of-the hour bits – stories like the one about the bank robber who wrote his demand note on his own deposit slip. “I probably put entirely too much time into that,” Edwards says.

He’s done with this by 4. Fueled by Starbucks French Roast and Benson & Hedges menthols, he records interviews with reporters or overseas newsmakers (by this time, it’s noon in Baghdad) and the canned parts of his program.

By 5 a.m., the show starts, and Edwards folds his 6-foot-4 frame into a studio chair, where, with headphones and reading glasses on, he intones: “This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I’m Bob Edwards.”

When he is not talking, Edwards works crossword puzzles – the Washington Post, the New York Times, and USA Today. That way he can still listen, which he does as his interview with the writer Ernest Gaines runs. Edwards leans back in his chair, hands folded behind his neck.

Off-mike, Gaines had asked him how he was doing with his change. So did IRS Commissioner Mark Everson.

Edwards concedes he cannot hear enough of that.

“I needed that, to tell you the truth. That’s why I am feeling better now. You think you are immune to hurts, and then you get it – you really get it – and it feels bad, really bad.”

On March 23, announcer Carl Kasell stepped into Edwards’ office for their customary early-morning chat. Edwards lowered his voice and asked his old friend not to say anything until the 7:30 a.m. staff meeting, when it would be official: Edwards was out as of April 30.

He brought his wife, Sharon, to the meeting, and said how there are a few stages in NPR life: host, then senior correspondent, then “person of concern” – the sort one has to call building security about.

There were some tears and testimonials, some drinking, and then a mass migration to accompany Edwards for a ceremonial cigarette break outdoors.

As senior correspondent, he will get to choose stories that interest him, and then go out and report them. He will get to share more time with his wife of nearly 25 years, a former NPR staffer. “Big break for her, huh?” he says.

As host of Morning Edition, he was invited to great debuts and parties. “The irony now is that I probably won’t be invited to these things but I am able to [go].”

And slowly his body clock will revert to its natural setting. “I like to stay up late. Left to my own devices, I’d go to bed at 1 a.m. One in the morning is the time to go to bed, not to wake up.”

And he says this last thing completely deadpan.

“I am not a morning person.”

Contact staff writer Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5958 or dan.rubin@phillynews.com.

Bob Edwards will speak at WHYY at 6 p.m. May 20. A $100 pledge to the station gets you two tickets to the session plus a copy of Edwards’ new book. Information: 215-351-1200 or http://www.whyy.org.

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