A Voice in the Box: My Life in Radio

In an unusually candid and insightful memoir, popular radio host Bob Edwards explores his own career.

A Voice in the Box: My Life in Radio By Bob Edwards The University Press of Kentucky 236 pp.

By Alexander Heffner

Bob Edwards, the radio impresario who became an iconic voice on National Public Radio for millions of listeners, had longed to be on the airwaves since his middle-class boyhood in Louisville, Kentucky. And so he was. On their morning commutes and alongside their early cups of coffee, Americans from across the country became enamored of Edwards, tuning in daily for his poised delivery and his thoughtful yet probing interviews.

In an unusually candid and insightful memoir – uncommon for a journalist, many of whom prefer to keep their personal stories to themselves – Edwards opens up in A Voice in the Box. As he recollects his broadcast experiences, Edward divides the memoir into short chapters, each meaningful and concise.

The book, Edwards' third after a story of radio friendship and a later biography of Edward R. Murrow, is both an incisive look inside the radio haven and a revealing self-portrait. Edwards’ storytelling, from his youthful obsession with radio to his early training with successful broadcaster CBS newsman Ed Bliss, is no less animated than his on-air persona.

In “A Voice in the Box,” Edwards describes his journey from his early gigs – at American Forces Korea Network broadcasting from Seoul and WTOP-AM, the DC-based CBS affiliate – to his heydays on Morning Edition and more than two decades of soaring popularity and listenership.

“Back in the 1970s, NPR was the antiestablishment alternative," he recalls. "By the end of the 1980s, we could not claim to be the underdog; we were more like the New York Times of the airwaves.”

When he landed at NPR, Edwards says he grew up co-hosting All Things Considered thanks to the tutelage of colleague Susan Stamberg, who remains a special correspondence for the network.

After he is tapped to anchor Morning Edition, we journey through some half-dozen election cycles on the program. Edwards recalls his favorite holiday traditions, like the reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, as well his most tormenting experience: live unscripted coverage of 9/11.

We learn about his favorite guests, including beloved commentator Red Barber, and tidbits from the off-air chatter. Edwards says his most memorable interviews were with musicians and writers, such as author Norman Mailer and jazz musician Dave Brubeck. His single most satisfying interview, he adds, was with an inner-city priest who worked with young Latinos in Los Angeles.

Edwards is frank about his premature departure when NPR brass unceremoniously pulled the plug on the eve of his 25th year as host of Morning Edition. Large listener protests – thousands of letters according to NPR’s ombudsman – caught NPR executives off guard as they scrambled for a coherent explanation for Edwards' firing. They simply said they wanted to “freshen up” the broadcast.

Rather than trashing his longtime employer, Edwards stayed positive as he promoted his new book, "Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism," on a nationwide tour. Here, while he stays away from wholesale criticism of NPR, he does take a few punches at colleagues whom he believes misrepresented the nature of his removal.

Then-NPR-president Kevin Klose, for instance, claimed that Edwards was offered the opportunity to co-host but turned it down. Edwards says this is “absolutely not true.” The company’s botched dismissal and the ensuing chaos brings to mind a flurry of similar incidents, such as the network head’s firing of its most prominent African American broadcaster Juan Williams.

Edwards’ fall from grace with NPR marked the culmination of frustration, over many years, with the station’s increasingly corporate management style. Edwards was a union man and a free-spirited journalist who preferred a penetrating out-of-the-box feature to the day-to-day news cycle.

However, when he got the call from then nascent XM Satellite radio, Edwards embraced the emerging media market, relaunching his career with fresh gusto. The Bob Edwards Show and its weekend editions are syndicated by Public Radio International and now appear, in an ironic twist, on various NPR member stations.

In addition to Edwards’s usual line-up of chats with smart analysts, like weekly conversations with Washington Post’s late David Broder, Edwards inaugurated his first XM program interviewing Walter Cronkite on broadcasting’s history. Since then, Edwards’ satellite crew has undertaken ambitious reporting projects like coverage of illegal immigration along the border.

“I don’t have an act – but I have a style. One important element of my style is minimalism. I say what I have to say in as few words as possible. I believe the news is more important than I am. My best interview questions are brief retorts such as ‘Really?’ ‘No kidding’ ‘Well?’ and ‘No!’ ”

Admirably modest despite his plaudits, Edwards writes that he continues to grow as an interviewer, insisting his “best programs are yet to come.” Thrilled with his current production, he says it’s the “happiest period of my professional life.”

“What you do is dream new dreams," he writes, "and I’m working to make my dreams come true.” For memoir readers and most definitely for media junkies, Edwards’ story makes a most worthy page-turner.

Alexander Heffner, a freelance journalist, was host and managing editor of The Political Arena on WHRB and WPAA in Cambridge and Andover, Mass., respectively.

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