A Voice in the Box
My Life in Radio
Publication Year: 2011
Published by: The University Press of Kentucky
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
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November 6, 2004. Another cold, crisp night in the Windy City, but it’s warm inside the Grand Ballroom of the Renaissance Chicago Hotel, where hundreds of radio royalty have gathered. Men in tuxedos and women in beautiful gowns or sexy cocktail dresses are clustered at thirty-four tables, each adorned with flowers and a burning candle. At one end of the ballroom is a bandstand, where Mickey and the Memories...
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It was a perfect day for lust, a mild, sunny day in October 1968. The program director of the radio station had figured out a way to rendezvous with a female listener without his wife noticing he was not on the air. He preempted local programs, including his own, and carried ABC’s national coverage of Apollo 7. The station had not shown such dedication to public service in the past, but his wife,...
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On the afternoon of May 16, 1947, my mother heard the Friday novena bell from our parish church as I was about to be born across the street at St. Joseph’s Infirmary on Eastern Parkway in Louisville. The hospital was a fabulous period structure, its corridors lined with ancient radiators and cane-backed wooden wheelchairs. Sisters of Charity in their starched, white nursing habits scurried about the place, which...
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Little boys want to be firefighters or athletes or rock stars. I wanted to be on the radio. The radio in our house was a handsome mahogany Zenith purchased by my parents when they married in 1939. Now decorating my living room, the Zenith Long Distance Radio remains a marvel to me. It’s more than three-and-a-half feet high, more than two feet wide, and a foot and a half deep. It doubles as a piece of furniture,...
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In my first three years of college, neither my academic nor my job performance was exemplary. I had to struggle for every C in class while inevitably getting fired from almost every job I had. After serving as a bank messenger and a trading-stamp-premium stock clerk (remember S&H Green Stamps?), I became a bookkeeper for an oil company, then an accounting clerk for a distillery (loved those discounts!), and finally...
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I did my basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and moved on to Fort Gordon, Georgia, where I married Joan Murphy. When I was sent to Asia—but not to where my fellow soldiers were dying. When I arrived in Seoul in November 1970, there were more than seventy thousand American troops in South Korea, including two infantry divisions (one was sent home shortly thereafter). Wherever the...
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Graduate school was not in my plans until I learned that enrolling in school for the fall term of 1971 could get me out of the army three months ahead of schedule. Education benefits under the GI Bill were not nearly as generous as those enjoyed by my father’s generation, but at least they would pay for books and supplies. Temple University offered me a graduate assistantship, but Temple...
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I received my master’s degree in communication in August of 1972, after taking several courses at AU’s School of International Service. A course on Southeast Asia provided historical perspective on the Vietnam War. The instructor was Kenneth Landon, a onetime missionary and diplomat whose specialty was Thailand. Landon had the distinction of being the author of the first Pentagon Paper, a memo he had...
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I knew nothing about National Public Radio when I began working there, but I knew the reality of my situation. My severance money from Mutual was just about gone and I needed a job. I opened the phone book and called everything that had the word radio in its name. Just before I got to radiology and radio repair, I called NPR and talked to a producer named Rich Firestone. Rich said that the news director,...
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Professional marriages are even more difficult than the romantic variety, and the divorce rate is much higher. Mine survived a tepid honeymoon to blossom into a rewarding on-air partnership and enduring friendship. Susan Stamberg was a writer and tape editor for All Things Considered when the program debuted in 1971. Women didn’t anchor broadcasts in those days. They worked behind the scenes and made...
All Things Considered
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By the mid-1970s, NPR had developed an excellent reputation with a small but loyal and very appreciative audience. We had respect within the industry too, as other networks began luring away our reporters. That was not hard to do, given the salary disparity between commercial and public broadcasting. Something had to be done. We tried forming an NPR Employees Association as a means of taking...
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The late seventies were good to me. I lived in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, a lively area of bookstores, galleries, nightclubs, restaurants, and interesting shops, within walking distance of the Mall, Georgetown, and NPR. It was the perfect place and time to be young and single. Some of my relationships were not long-lived, however. They often would end when women determined I had no interest in...
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The commuting hours became radio’s prime time once TV captured the nighttime audience. That’s why All Things Considered is broadcast during the late afternoon and evening rush hour. It took NPR nearly a decade to launch a major program in morning drive time, when the radio audience is even bigger. Morning Edition was the dream of NPR president Frank Mankiewicz,...
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Morning Edition celebrated its first anniversary in the same week that voters chose Ronald Reagan to be the fortieth president of the United States. For NPR management, Reagan’s election was ominous because Pat Buchanan and other ideologues were part of the Reagan team. When he had served on the Nixon White House staff, Buchanan had been the point man in a successful campaign to kill public television’s...
Morning Edition [Contains Image Plates]
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When NPR nearly crashed in 1983, Morning Edition, then in its fourth year, was already too strong to be one of the disaster’s victims. Before Morning Edition, most NPR stations did not even show up in the Arbitron ratings for morning drive time. By the program’s first anniversary in November 1980, member stations had seen their morning audiences double, triple, or quadruple. A few had done even better. In hindsight,...
Reconsidering All Things
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Remember in 2000 when Governor George W. Bush became the Republican nominee and Dick Cheney was given the job of vetting possible running mates for Bush? Alone one day in his office, Cheney conducted a room-wide search and found the perfect guy for the job—himself. Not to compare my good friend Robert Siegel to Dick Cheney, but he did something similar. It happened in 1987 when Robert was the NPR...
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By the 1990s, NPR had recovered financially and was firmly within the circle of the most authoritative providers of news in America. The decade would see the TV networks shift their energies from daily news coverage to prime-time magazine features and celebrity interviews. Taking their place was the Cable News Network, able and willing to cover breaking news anywhere in the world at any time of day. C-SPAN...
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In my Morning Edition years, I went to a different NPR member station each month for some sort of fund-raising activity. It was good politics to help the stations, but I had other reasons for going. Telling people about Morning Edition was good marketing. It also allowed me to meet the audience that brought me into their homes, cars, and offices—and it was useful to find out what was on their minds.
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Back in the 1970s, NPR was the antiestablishment alternative. By the end of the 1980s, we could no longer claim to be the underdog; we were more like the New York Times of the airwaves. Our audience mushroomed by millions in the eighties, and I believe there were three reasons for that. Most NPR stations are FM, so the network was going nowhere until...
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As a twenty-five-year-old at WTOP in 1972, I had the pleasure of working with Dave McConnell, who was then anchoring the afternoon drive-time broadcasts. Joking with the new kid in the newsroom, Dave said, “Bob, if you’re going to make it in this business, you have to have an act.” He used two of our WTOP colleagues as examples: sportscaster Warner Wolf, whose distinctive style made him the most popular...
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Who’s the worst person to interview? Is it a cliché-spouting professional athlete or a politician paying no attention to the question he or she has been asked? I think it’s the politician. Obviously, interviews regarding public affairs are crucial to any news program, but for the very reason that they deal with the news, they flunk the “memorable” test. The news is, by definition, transitory.
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Musicians and writers are my favorite interviews because they seldom conceal anything. Their songs and novels often spring from the best and worst moments of their lives, and if they can talk about happiness and pain in music or in a book, most don’t mind talking about it in an interview. Disappointed by a Norman Mailer novel, I summoned the courage to ask him if he hadn’t just fired off a potboiler. I used the word courage...
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NPR made it possible for a working-class kid from Kentucky to go places and meet people I could never have imagined. One of my first NPR interviews outside the studio was at the home of diplomat Averell Harriman. Waiting for him to get off the phone with some potentate or other, I had a look around his place in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood. All around me were items collected from a long lifetime...
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For forty years, Harry Belafonte had been trying to get his recording project on the market. It was the history of African American music in the New World and titled The Long Road to Freedom. He’d been at it so long that the technology of music recording had changed, and now the eighty songs would be on five compact discs, packaged with a hardback book and a bonus DVD. I was in my office reviewing all this material...
Two Babes in Baghdad
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I remain in awe of my NPR colleagues who reported the wars. They have been under fire, have been held prisoner by ugly regimes, and have endured the worst hardships. Anne Garrels is one of them. As war with Iraq became inevitable, major American news organizations pulled their reporters out of Iraq. Annie stayed, and she was one of the very few who did. She and I had a daily on-air conversation as the...
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In late October 2002, I received a letter from Hana Lane, senior editor at the John Wiley & Sons publishing house. She invited me to become one of the authors for a new series of volumes Wiley called Turning Points. “In the spirit of the ‘Penguin Lives’ series of short biographies,” Hana wrote, “these books are capsule histories on significant moments.” Other authors in the series included Alan Dershowitz, Eleanor Clift,...
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Should I have seen it coming—that truck that hit me on March 9, 2004? I was a company man who loved NPR, but I was never a contender for employee of the month (not that NPR has such a thing). People in the news business disagree about the value of stories and how they should be covered—and these disagreements can sometimes be spirited, even passionate. I think it’s a healthy thing that makes a news organization...
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After being trashed by NPR management, I had no intention of serving them as a senior correspondent. Judging from the negotiations between NPR’s Ken Stern and AFTRA’s Ken Greene, NPR didn’t want me to be a senior correspondent either. The two Kens were supposed to determine my salary and working conditions for my new job, but they also negotiated severance terms that made it extremely attractive for...
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Then came Boston, on a hot day in June, halfway through our trip. Arriving at Logan Airport, we couldn’t find our driver because we didn’t know that Logan has a designated place away from the terminal where drivers of limos and town cars wait for their clients. By the time we figured this out, our driver, a large man who weighed at least 280 pounds, had been waiting a long time, sweating in the hot sun.
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Sharon joined us for the North Carolina part of the tour. Her mother, a North Carolina native, still lived in Mocksville. Sharon brought Sam with her. Sam, named for Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was the Border collie that Sharon added to the family when I got fired and told her she could have a dog. I did my last Morning Edition show on April 30, and Sam took up residence on May Day. After I revealed Sam’s identity on...
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God help the American labor movement, for I am one of its leaders. In fact, for a brief time, I was a union president. I am a proud member of AFTRA, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. AFTRA represents actors, singers, dancers, game show hosts, stunt performers, comedians, voice-over artists, models, news anchors, reporters, editors, producers, disc jockeys, announcers, play-by-play...
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While on the three-month book tour, I told very few people about my plans because they had to remain a secret. By June, I had to start recruiting a staff, even if it meant risking that the news would leak. At XM, workers were busy converting an employee break room into the office space to be occupied by our program’s staff. I had to find an executive producer to work with XM on preparation while I continued...
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XM Satellite Radio arrived at a time when conventional radio was lacking in imagination and interesting programming. I could sell XM in my sleep because it was that good. It offered 170 channels of programming— 80 music channels, most of them commercial-free. It had every nuance of rock, from the hits (Top Tracks) to the “other” cuts you always loved (Deep Tracks). There was a singer-songwriter channel (The...
The Bob Edwards Show
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Friday, November 5, 2004. It was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Morning Edition, but NPR listeners heard a most subdued silver anniversary broadcast. Cohosts of six months barely mentioned the importance of that day for a program another guy had hosted for twenty-four-and-a-half years. I mentioned it on my show, however, and congratulated Carl Kasell and Ellen McDonnell, who’d been with program since its first...
Father Greg Boyle
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Andy Danyo was a radio producer all along—but maybe she knew that. She produced the first two interviews ever heard on our show, simple Q&A’s. The real test of a radio producer is in the arts interviews, particularly in music interviews, and in field recording—particularly documentaries. Those interviews turn the producer into an artist. Once I’ve done my interview, I have performed my particular art. Then I give...
Bob Edwards Weekend
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As we entered 2006, executive producer Mark Schramm had moved to another XM post, so Tish Valva moved up to replace him. Tish’s former job was filled by Jim Rosenberg. Heather Borthwick took another XM job, so I brought in Shelley Tillman, my former Morning Edition colleague. Producer Melissa Gray decided to return to NPR, and Steve Lickteig came over from NPR to replace her. Even with all these changes,...
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Chad Campbell was the next producer to get ambitious. Chad organized a January 2006 trip to the southern Arizona desert to report on illegal immigration. This was before immigration came up in Congress and set off a real media blitz on the issue, so we were ahead of the pack on this one. Chad, Geoffrey Redick, and I went to the border town of Nogales and rode in a U.S. Border Patrol squad car, interviewing our driver,...
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The freedom to travel more often and collect interviews inevitably led me back to Appalachia, the land so rich with storytellers. In terms of economic reality, nothing had changed since the 1970s, when I did Appalachian stories for All Things Considered. Big energy companies still exploited the region’s coal deposits with little benefit to the people who lived there. What had changed was the process for extracting the coal.
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Some years ago, Andy introduced me to her friend Jamila Larson, a social worker in Washington, D.C. Jamila has seen the worst that a big city can do to people without resources or family to get them through hard times. Most of her stories are heartbreaking, but one was so amazing and uplifting that I knew I had to get it on the radio. Jamila said there was a homeless teenager who lived on the streets of Washington and...
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One of my listeners wrote me an email in January of 2008. Dear Bob: My name is Al Naar. I served as operating room corpsman with the 3rd Medical Battalion during the Vietnam War. On May 2 & 3, 2008, in Charleston, SC, the officers and men of 3rd Med will assemble once more . . . and hold their 40 year reunion. . . . There will be over 100 doctors and corpsmen who served together and will see each other for...
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My producers got even more ambitious in 2009. Ariana Pekary continued her run with a documentary show called “Hating Marcelo.” This was about hate crimes against Latino immigrants. Marcelo Lucero was thirty-seven years old when he was killed by seven teenagers in Patchogue in Suffolk County, New York. “Beaner hopping” is apparently a popular sport for bored Long Island high school boys who’ve had a...
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In July 2008, XM was absorbed by its rival to create Sirius XM Radio. The Federal Communications Commission had taken a year and a half to approve the merger, but despite that period of uncertainty, the staff of The Bob Edwards Show remained stable. In fact, the show matured during that time and was finally over its initial shakedown period. This had a lot to do with the leadership of executive producer Steve Lickteig.
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Page Count: 236
Illustrations: 36 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2011