For decades, Bob Edwards has been known for his appreciation of the golden age of radio and broadcast newsmen such as Edward R. Murrow and sportscaster Red Barber.
Edwards himself started out trying be a commercial radio newsman in his home area of Louisville and Southern Indiana before he went on to be one of the guiding forces in the creation of National Public Radio.
That has made Edwards a bit of an unassuming beacon of communications frontiers. When NPR unceremoniously dismissed Edwards in 2004 and he went to what is now SiriusXM Satellite Radio, many of his fans signed up for the subscription service to hear him. And when The University Press of Kentucky released his memoir, A Voice in the Box: My Life in Radio, earlier this month as a free download on Amazon's Kindle before the printed book was available in stores, it became a top-selling title on the e-reader service.
"The e-book thing — somebody had to explain it to me," Edwards, 64, says from his office in Washington, D.C. "I knew there was such a thing, but the gimmick of offering it for free just sounded kind of 'hmmm.'
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"But you know, it got picked up all over the place, a couple paragraphs here and there in papers all across the country. My publisher is non-profit, so there's no budget for publicity. So this is a little gimmick they came up with, and I think it was a cool idea."
People who want to get a traditional copy of the book and get Edwards to sign it will have their chance Friday night at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington, where Edwards will discuss the book and sign copies. The memoir traces Edwards' life from growing up in Louisville through his first forays into radio to landing at a very young NPR, which he thought would be a steppingstone to the promised land, CBS News. It was the home of Murrow and Walter Cronkite and many other giants of broadcast news."
"That was the gold standard," Edwards says. "And they were people who knew about standards. I was totally heading that way and biding my time at this new thing, this public radio."
Then, just as it seemed as if his dream might come true, Edwards realized he was living a dream.
"It was the day Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, and I was in the CBS newsroom in New York taking a writing test, and I felt ashamed of myself, because as good a job as CBS was going to do that day, NPR was going to do a better job," Edwards said. "I knew we would go over it in depth, that we would go over the history of Vietnam, that we would have time to do that on All Things Considered, and I said, 'You should be in your own damn newsroom. You shouldn't be here.'
"That's when the worm turned for me and I said, 'Gee, with this airtime, we can really do a job here.'"
At NPR, Edwards helped launch and define both of the network's iconic drive-time news shows, Morning Edition and, in the afternoon, All Things Considered.
As commercial radio abandoned serious news coverage, and networks and newspapers closed foreign bureaus, NPR opened them, making it one of the few American broadcast news outlets with serious global coverage.
Then, in 2004, Edwards was surprisingly dismissed from his post anchoring Morning Edition, a job he had held since 1979. That prompted him to move to satellite radio.
The memoir, Edwards says, was in part to tell his side of that story.
"I thought it was time to tell my story, before someone else told it," Edwards said. "On the way out the door, they were writing my story, and I didn't like that."
In Edwards' account, he was dismissed from Morning Edition for no concrete reason and had to endure months of false accounts, including criticisms of the network's coverage of the terror attacks for Sept. 11, 2001, for which it won a coveted Peabody Award.
Edwards says that the offer from XM, before it merged with Sirius, was one of numerous job offers he received after his NPR dismissal, but it was the job he wanted. It has ironically returned him to many NPR stations, including WEKU-88.9 FM, which airs his syndicated show, Bob Edwards Weekend, on Saturdays and Sundays. The show is not produced by NPR, but it is a good fit for NPR listeners, Edwards said, because it is produced with them in mind.
"They're extremely bright," Edwards said, when asked to characterize the NPR audience. "They like a challenge. They want to hear about new ideas, fresh ideas and new thinking. They are at the other end of the spectrum from people who listen to the radio to reinforce their views, their prejudices, their biases and their comforts — and I'm not interested in talking to that audience anyway.
"Public-radio people are the best listeners, and so appreciative of challenging programming."
Edwards should know. He spent 30 years cultivating that audience.