Atlanta, Georgia – Bob Edwards, host of NPR's Morning Edition, spoke recently with WABE's Pat Marcus about his new book - and his changing role at NPR.
WABE: We're so looking forward to your coming to Atlanta for the luncheon and the talk we have scheduled for May 19th.
BOB EDWARDS: I am, too. I'm looking forward to it. I love to meet listeners; it's one of my favorite things to do because the best thing about working in public radio is the audience. It is an extraordinary group of people. I mean, who's going to listen to a long news program, except somebody who is interested in the world, cares about what's going on, cares about their fellow human beings, and how to make the world a better place and that's the kind of person I want to work for. So I'm really looking forward to that. And I've always liked Georgia. I served there in the Army for a year.
WABE: Your latest book, Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism, is due out in May, as well. What prompted you to write the book?
BOB EDWARDS: Well, I was asked. John Wiley and Sons Publishers have this series of books called Turning Points, which are about people at given points in history biographies and the like; and they asked me to be part of the series, and I said, “Sure.” And I got to pick who I wrote about, and I picked Murrow, my hero, and his point in history being the beginnings of broadcast journalism, both in radio and in television, because Murrow was very instrumental at both junctures.
WABE: The book begins with a riveting rooftop perspective of September 21st, 1941 in London.
BOB EDWARDS: This was a period of intense bombing, and Murrow had wanted to get up on the roof to do a live broadcast, and it took him a while to get permission to do that. He was on the roof of the BBC, and he was afraid that it was going to be a target. Well, it was anyway, later the building took a number of hits, but it wasn't Murrow's doing. Anyway, they finally figured out that this was a good thing: that he was telling America what was going on in Britain. Remember, the U.S. was not in the war yet. And Churchill figured that this was good, that he wanted Americans to know what British were going through.
And that broadcast is astonishing: Mostly, what he's doing is describing what he's seeing from the rooftop and letting you hear the sounds of war: You're hearing the bombs falling; you're hearing the anti-aircraft guns and the whistles of the policemen in the street and the air wardens. And this was still new, in 1940, the idea that you could hear a war, live, in your living room, thousands of miles away, was a real demonstration of the power of broadcasting as a news medium - but also the power of the journalist himself, Ed Murrow, an extraordinary human being.
WABE: In this age of embedded reporters, things sure have changed.
BOB EDWARDS: Well, they had their own sort of embedding, then. They were subject to censorship. But it was a little different: I mean, I don't think there were any neutrals among reporters in World War II, look at what they were fighting. You know, they battled with the censors all the time, and any one of them who survives, Walter Cronkite is one of them, will tell you about battles with censors. But they got their stories out, and they found other ways to tell stories, and I think they did a great job.
WABE: Did any surprises come to light, as you wrote the book?
BOB EDWARDS: You know, there's one part that I think has been neglected, and it doesn't have anything to do with broadcast journalism. Before he went to CBS, in the thirties, Murrow was part of a committee which found placement in America, in American universities for the great minds of Europe, who were escaping Nazism. First from Germany, of course, but later from other places the Nazis occupied. And Murrow was responsible for bringing over several hundred of the finest minds from Europe, many of whom stayed in America after the war, at universities, and developing fabulous proteges, some of whom are still among us today. And Murrow's involvement in this didn't come out in full, in great detail, I think, until papers were declassified long after Murrow had died, in 1965. So, we know all about his broadcasting career. This was something else that I think was an important contribution to scholarship, science, academia, and many other fields. I hope people appreciate Murrow on another dimension. I just think it's a great story.
WABE: We're looking forward to your insights about Murrow's career in the book, and when you give your talk for our listeners here in Atlanta. But as host of Morning Edition, you've become an integral part of our listeners' lives each and every morning, and we're very much interested in you, as well. You've hosted the program Morning Edition since the program's inception in 1979, and I read that you've conducted some 20,000 interviews. Any of those stand out for you?
BOB EDWARDS: Alistair Cooke died overnight, and I knew I had talked to him. And I was digging through my files, and it was several times. But I was recalling details of that interview, and for that moment, that was my favorite interview. It changes all the time, you know? And I was recalling how he told me he saw Hitler on a street-corner, when Hitler was still a rising force in Germany, and speaking on street-corners. And he said the Nazis always had nurses with them, because women fainted.
We were talking about how could a country like Germany, a great culture like that, be mesmerized by this thug? And he was trying to impress upon me what a dynamic speaker he was. For all the evil in Hitler, he was electrifying. What a fascinating story! How many people you know, saw Hitler, speak on a street-corner in Germany in the 1930s, so for that moment, that was my favorite interview.
Then we went on the air and ran my Eric Clapton interview, and that was my favorite interview So, it's changing all the time and of course, I want the next one to be my favorite interview.
WABE: Effective April 30th, your role at NPR will be changing and you'll become a Senior Correspondent for NPR News. Have you thought of any stories or issues you want to cover in the future?
BOB EDWARDS: I think they want me to do profiles of people in the news, which sounds like something interesting to do. You know, we're still working this out, whether it's done on deadline, or if it's longer-term, something I can work on for a week or so. I've always thought in terms of biography I mean, I just did one, didn't I? And in a sense, you know, each interview is a mini-biography. I mean, you've got this person in front of you, and you want to find out what makes this person tick, what energies and resources they bring into whatever has put them in the news that day. So I think, probably profiles is a good place for me.
WABE: What do you think it's going to be like to stay up past 6:00 p.m. and sleep past 2:00 a.m.?
BOB EDWARDS: Well clearly, I've forgotten. I mean, it's been so long. I will able to go out at night, for a change.
WABE: So, a social life.
BOB EDWARDS: And not having to record programs, but actually seeing them; there's that. My circadian rhythms might jog back to where they're supposed to be, and I'm hoping I'll get to shape this thing, because it's new and different, so that should be to my liking, I would think.
WABE: Why do you think it's so important, especially now, for listeners to continue to support WABE?
BOB EDWARDS: I think NPR is more important than it ever has been. There is this great void in radio. There is a lot of talk, but not much news. Commercial radio used to be a great source of news; that's where I started. Every little station in Louisville, Kentucky, where I grew up, had reporters. Even the Top-40 stations, the rock and roll stations, had 5 or 6 reporters on the street. And that's all gone, now. You have in every major market, maybe one station, if you're lucky, a second one that has some dedication to the news. But for the most part, news has disappeared from the radio, except in public radio. And I think listeners have appreciated that.
Other news organizations are in trouble: Televisions has had its audience diluted; Cable, I don't think has lived up to the promise. Newspapers I don't think are what they once were, because of the rise of all the chains, and the only positive thing out there, is public radio.
We've been adding reporters, we still have a commitment to foreign news - NPR has maybe 15 reporters overseas, producers going out all the time to help them. This is a thriving, vital news organization, and something that I think is worthy of listener support. And I hope people understand that, that if the support isn't there, this too is going to dry up. And if you want to hear great public radio programs, like Morning Edition and All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and the others, the only place you can hear that in Atlanta, Georgia is on WABE.