Bob Edwards, radio host who built NPR’s ‘Morning Edition,’ dies at 76
Hours before dawn on Nov. 5, 1979, an NPR team gathered in a studio at the headquarters in Washington. A new show was about to air.
The program already had gone through serious growing pains. Some NPR member stations had complained that earlier test runs had sounded too chatty, too commercial. Emergency overhauls were made, including picking new hosts. One of them was a rising star at NPR with the flagship “All Things Considered” show, who was known for his unflappable demeanor and a basso profundo voice made huskier by a pack-aday smoking habit.
He had a 30-day trial at the new show. The red “on-air” light blinked on. “Morning Edition” had begun.
“Good morning,” he began. “Today is Guy Fawkes Day. Guy’s plot to blow up Parliament was discovered on this day in 1605. Today is the beginning of National Split Pea Soup Week, and it’s the debut of this program. I’m Bob Edwards.”
Mr. Edwards, who died Feb. 10 at 76, stayed at “Morning Edition” for nearly a quarter-century and became as much a part of the begin-the-day rhythms for NPR listeners as coffee, commutes and getting the children off to school. Then in 2004, a decision by NPR to pull Mr. Edwards from the show touched off an avalanche of complaints from his fans that even included statements on the U.S. Senate floor.
Both his long NPR run and the uproar over his departure reflected Mr. Edwards’s deep influence on public radio as it moved from the margins of the national conversation to become a mainstay. His “Morning Edition” interviews served as an audio scrapbook for a generation and helped establish NPR as a forum for guests to make news or raise their profiles.
Mr. Edwards interviewed diplomats and autocrats, scientists and artists, the quirky and the powerful. He conducted regular check-ins with personalities such as a former veterinarian turned cowboy poet, Baxter Black, and the wondrously erudite former Major League Baseball announcer Red Barber, who might talk about sports or maybe describe how the lovely dogwoods were blooming outside his home in Tallahassee.
Mr. Edwards’ weekly live chats with Barber over nearly a dozen years became a fixture of “Morning Edition.” The freewheeling Barber began calling Mr. Edwards “Colonel Bob” after the NPR host was awarded an honorary designation as a Kentucky Colonel.
“Red Barber loosened me up, took me off-script,” Mr. Edwards recalled. His book about their collaboration, “Fridays With Red: A Radio Friendship”
(1993), was as much about Barber as it was about Mr. Edwards’ fascination with radio — which began when he was a child in Louisville perched in front of a hulking 1939 Zenith Long Distance Radio in its polished mahogany case.
At “Morning Edition,” he found his place as one of NPR’s most versatile and popular hosts. He pushed his producers to limit interviews with politicians (too predictable, he said) and seek out more artists, activists and lesser-known newsmakers. The goal, he noted, was to find guests who were not just spewing rage or talking points.
“This may be a little island of civility and purpose,” he told the Tampa Bay Times in 1999. Once, Julia Child and Paul Prudhomme joined other famed chefs to share Thanksgiving recipes with Mr. Edwards. In 1999, Mr. Edwards chatted with Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays about playing in the fog and swirling winds of San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. (Not so easy, Mays said.)
“He was hugely responsible for shaping NPR’s image, its gravitas, its credibility with his solid, nononsense style,” said Michael Harrison, the editor and publisher of Talkers, a magazine that covers talk and news radio.
That also may have contributed to his undoing at NPR, Harrison said. By 2004, the pretaped interview format of “Morning Edition” was increasingly regarded as out of sync with demands for more breaking-news coverage. This was not Mr. Edwards’s forte, said Harrison, and Mr. Edwards often seemed uncomfortable when forced into live situations (except for his easy banter with Barber).
NPR said it offered Mr. Edwards a new role as a senior correspondent for “Morning Edition” after naming Steve Inskeep and Renée Montagne as the new co-hosts. Mr. Edwards opted to leave and soon launched a show on Sirius XM satellite radio.
“This program is the last I shall host,” Mr. Edwards told the show’s nearly 13 million listeners just before the final segment of “Morning Edition” on April 30, 2004. “You’re the audience a broadcaster dreams of having.”
For weeks before his final broadcast, the backlash to NPR’s decision boiled over. NPR received tens of thousands of calls and emails protesting the move, some claiming ageism (Mr. Edwards was 56) and noting the extra sting that NPR did not let Mr. Edwards reach his 25th anniversary on “Morning Edition.” A website gathered signatures with appeals for NPR to change its mind.
NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin described the way NPR handled the change as “opaque — perhaps necessarily so.” On Capitol Hill, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, went on the floor to note the public outcry and applaud Mr. Edwards.
How Mr. Edwards described his breakup with NPR depended largely on the day he was asked. At times, he spoke of the bitterness about being shown the door when he felt he was still at the top of his craft. Other times, he joked that he was grateful because he no longer had a 6 p.m. bedtime.
NPR as an institution, he told an interviewer in 2016, was not to blame.
“With newspapers in decline and commercial broadcasting increasingly shrill, partisan, and often irresponsible, funding for public radio is more important than ever,” he said. “NPR and its member stations are a national treasure.”
Robert Alan Edwards was born in Louisville on May 16, 1947. His father was an accountant and his mother a homemaker. In his 2011 memoir, “A Voice in the Box,” he recounted the Zenith radio from which he could pick up stations as far away as New Orleans.
Mr. Edwards graduated from the University of Louisville in 1969 and, as a senior, landed his first radio job across the Ohio River at a station in New Albany, Indiana.
He served in the Army during the Vietnam War, producing and anchoring TV and radio news programs for the American Forces Korea Network.
His marriages to Joan Murphyand Sharon Kellyended in divorce. He married NPR news anchor Windsor Johnston in 2011. In addition to his wife, of the home in Washington, survivors include two daughters from his second marriage, Eleanor Edwards and Susannah Edwards; and a brother. Mr. Edwards’s death, at rehabilitation center in Arlington, Va., of metastatic bladder cancer and a heart ailment, was confirmed by his wife.