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This Was Morning Edition: The former voice of NPR regrets that a 'political animal' like Kenneth Tomlinson now heads the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 'The fire wall is now the fire,' says Edwards, who speaks in Monterey on Aug. 27.

Senior Correspondent

A conversation with Bob Edwards about public radio, private enterprise and the future of broadcast journalism

By Peter Koht

'I am outraged, and I am free to say that, because I don't work at NPR anymore," says former Morning Edition host Bob Edwards. One of the last of a generation of journalists known for their unflappability and calm, Edwards spent 30 years' worth of weekday mornings delivering the news to commuters on NPR. So, hearing the ire creep into his voice as we talk by phone is about as shocking as Garrison Keeler dropping the F-bomb.

Edwards isn't just angry about his unceremonious dismissal from Morning Edition. He's also disturbed by the increasingly politicized environment surrounding public broadcasting and by the general trajectory of American journalism in the last 15 years.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

In April 2004, Edwards was plucked from his anchor chair at the request of NPR's senior vice president for programming, Jay Kernis. So ended a career at NPR which began in February 1974 when the network had inadequate facilities and was desperately underfunded and the theme music was absolutely terrible.

Now the host of a daily interview program on XM Satellite Radio, Edwards recently authored a book on Edward R. Murrow and the birth of broadcast journalism. Murrow's pioneer reporting from London during the Blitz and on Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare ushered in a new chapter in the history of American reporting and made him a role model for an entire generation of journalists.

Murrow was also a champion of hard news reporting combined with brilliant storytelling, and Edwards imagines Murrow would be shocked at the state of American journalism during the information age.

"Murrow would be delighted that there are 24-hour news channels, but disappointed that during prime time all that they would be doing are these shout shows and Larry King instead of doing the news," observes Edwards, whose disdain for commercial news only heightens his passion for public broadcasting and the vital role that quality reporting plays in protecting democracy.

"With consolidation you have fewer and fewer voices," Edwards explains. "I always thought that the strength of radio was its diversity. It has always had so many voices. When I was a kid, the maximum amount of radio stations that you were allowed to have in your ownership group was five. Now you have one company that owns 1,250 stations. That's just wrong."

This is not to imply that Edwards is a rabid fan of pirate radio. For years, he anchored one of the most popular nationally syndicated programs ever produced. While holding down the anchor chair of Morning Edition, Edwards commanded the respect of both his huge audience and his peers. ABC's World News Tonight anchor and senior editor Peter Jennings once publicly stated that Bob Edwards was the man that he turned to for news in the morning. Confronted at a fundraiser by other reporters about his high praise of a rival news gathering organization, Jennings quipped, "Where do you think I am going to get my morning news? Good Morning, America?"

Edwards' departure from NPR is another example of the changing of the guard in American media. Within the last two years, Peter Jennings died from lung cancer, NBC's Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw retired without incident, and frankly, the jury's still out on what happened to Dan Rather, who was anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News for 24 years before retiring in March.

Taking the long view on this process, Edwards has the good taste to remark that Rather's style was quite different from the stern but grandfatherly delivery of Walter Cronkite, but he fears that the coming generation of journalists will not live up to the professional standards established by their forbears. The rise of Fox News Channel and the plethora of "sensational crime stories and celebrity gossip" that clutters up television broadcasts disturbs Edwards, but his real love, and real passion, has always been reserved for radio of the public persuasion.

Believing that commercial radio broadcasts do little good but illustrate that "public radio's stature and health is more important than ever," Edwards is enraged over the autocratic/bureaucratic behavior that threatens the health, the integrity and the independence of the public broadcasting sector.

With the assumption of Kenneth Tomlinson in 2003 to the head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's board of directors, which is the government agency that controls and oversees the disbursement of federal dollars to public broadcasters, and the naming of Patricia De Stacy Harrison as CPB's president and CEO this June, Edwards has grave concerns about the ideologues behind the wheel. Commenting that the "fire wall is now the fire," Edwards is saddened that a "political animal" like Tomlinson is now behind the reigns of an agency that was supposed to act as an antidote to political machinations.

"The guy in charge is overtly political," continues Edwards, his delivery perfect despite his emotion. "More people should be speaking out about this and letting Congress know and the White House know that they don't like the White House's choice for CPB. We should keep public radio public and not partisan."

While Edwards claims that the coverage on Morning Edition was never influenced by outside forces, he says that employment at NPR might now be subject to different forces, even if self-imposed. "You can't do honest programming if you are worrying about what someone at CPB is thinking about your work," he says. "This has to be stopped."

Despite his disenchantment with the CPB, Edwards is still carrying the banner for the idea and the execution of public radio. Decrying the homogenization of the public radio marketplace, with its syndicated offerings and overreliance upon satellite technology, Edwards states that "the strength of public radio is local programming."

As opposed to commercial radio, where one on-air personality broadcasts to dozens of markets simultaneously, in public radio, says Edwards, "You know who your local public station people are and you know they live in your community."

One such community station, KAZU-FM (90.3), has invited Edwards to share all of these views at the Golden State Theatre in Monterey on Aug. 27.

Noting that the majority of NPR member stations live "month to month or fundraiser to fundraiser," Edwards actually spent his last afternoon as an NPR employee addressing a conference of member station development directors, promising to spend the remainder of his days defending member stations and their purpose: to provide a voice for quality programming free from both private and public interference.

Edwards has not slowed down at all since migrating to the satellite band. His program, now free of the lock-step timing of a nationally syndicated news program, features in-depth interviews with both the famous and the altruistic. Edwards is relishing his newfound freedom to air the kind of quality journalism that he has perfected over his long and fruitful career in media.

"What I am doing is getting people who can sustain a conversation," he says. "I am looking to put people on the radio who can be interesting for a long time. Someone like Calvin Trilling."

While The Nation magazine's "Deadline Poet" is a "magnificent conversationalist," Edwards saves his highest praise for an interview subject that few people have ever heard of. Like his hero Edward R. Murrow, Edwards finds the unsung heroes the most engaging.

"I was talking to a Jesuit priest named Father Greg Boyle the other day," Edwards begins, narrating his remembrance with the same voice that has animated millions of morning commutes. "He works with Latino gangs in Los Angeles. He gets them jobs and counseling and gets doctors to do tattoo removal for free. This is a wonderful man doing fabulous work. It was the best interview that I have ever done, and was the best program that I have ever done, and it was just last week."

Bob Edwards speaks Saturday, Aug. 27, at 8pm at the Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey; tickets: $150 (includes dinner at 5pm), or $10$20/members, $30$40/nonmembers; 831.375.7275 or www.kazu.org.

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From the August 24-31, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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