Remembering ‘Colonel Bob’ Edwards

Published 6:03 pm Thursday, March 7, 2024

By Pete Koutoulas

WinCity Voices

 

This piece was originally published on www.wincityvoices.org.

 

We lost a Kentucky broadcast legend last month. On Saturday, Feb. 10, Bob Edwards died at his home in Virginia at 76. Edwards, a Louisville native, was the long-running host of NPR’s (then known as National Public Radio) “Morning Edition” radio program.

Widely acclaimed by listeners and critics alike, Edwards accumulated numerous honors and awards during his 55-year-long radio broadcast career. Besides winning the prestigious Peabody Award, he was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame and the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.

Bob Edwards was the very first host of “Morning Edition” when it debuted in November 1979 and the host to whom I listened religiously for over ten years during my long morning work commutes. It would have been much longer than ten years if the executives at NPR had not made the sudden decision in April 2004 to fire him as host.

At the time of his departure, his morning program was the second-highest-rated show on the radio. Despite his popularity and accomplishments, the NPR suits decided the show needed to be “freshened up,” so he was dumped for two younger hosts, Renee Montagne and Steve Inskeep.

The backlash was instantaneous. NPR heard from over 50,000 disappointed listeners (including this one) after the news broke of Edwards’s involuntary departure. NPR was criticized for the move by none other than Cokie Roberts, an NPR veteran herself, and by CBS’s Charles Osgood, among others.

Despite NRP’s offer to use him as a “special correspondent,” Bob Edwards moved on from public broadcasting. Taking his golden baritone voice over to XM Satellite Radio with his own program, “The Bob Edwards Show,” he garnered more praise and awards. Two years later, he again turned up on public radio stations with the syndicated program “Weekends with Bob Edwards,” though it was produced by Public Radio International, not NPR.

As I said, Bob Edwards was my morning commute companion via the radio for ten years. His calm, reassuring voice made even the unfathomable comprehensible — never more so than on the morning after the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the US. 

Like probably half of living Kentuckians, Bob had been granted the honorary title of “Kentucky Colonel” by our fair commonwealth. This led the legendary and colorful sports broadcasting legend Red Barber, who appeared weekly on “Morning Edition” until his death in 1991, to bestow the nickname “Colonel Bob” upon Edwards.

I wish I had discovered the program a few years earlier. I understand Edwards’s chats with Barber were legendary. Red liked to talk about random topics like the weather at his Tallahassee home and his favorite flowers. Edwards would later recount how he first attempted to steer the conversation back to sports — the supposed topic for which Barber was appearing. But eventually, Edwards decided to sit back and enjoy the conversation, wherever it led. Those segments became wildly popular with the audience of “Morning Edition.”

One of my favorite books is Bob Edwards’s memoir, “A Voice in the Box,” published in 2011 by the University of Kentucky Press. I’ve read it a couple of times and will probably dust it off and read it again after I finish the book I’m currently on.

(It’s Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land,” a book I first read as a teenager and haven’t picked up since. There is something positively mystical about reading a great book you read five decades ago but whose plot you can’t remember. Every page turn is an adventure, a mixture of absolute wonder and nagging déjà vu.)

In his book, Edwards does not try to hide his displeasure at being unceremoniously dropped by NRP just months ahead of what would have been the 25th anniversary of the show and of his being host. He details the day of his firing (sorry, his “reassignment”), noting with unabashed bitterness how NPR exec Jay Kernis broke the news. Edwards described Kernis as one of his “oldest and dearest friends.”

Yet in the meeting where Edwards was told his tenure at “Morning Edition” was soon to end, Kernis read the news to Edwards from a written script. He never even thanked Edwards for his 30 years of service to NPR and for helping to create the most successful 25-year run of any public radio program ever.

There is a bevy of “inside baseball” accounts in the book, but one of my favorite chapters, “Hillbullies,” describes a radio documentary Bob did while on “The Bob Edwards Show.” The program was nominally about mountaintop removal coal mining in eastern Kentucky, but the word “heritage” was included to indicate that “it’s more than mountains being destroyed.” Edwards tapped Kentucky poet and author Wendell Berry as lead writer and involved Tom Gish, publisher of the legendary “Mountain Eagle” (“it screams!”) newspaper in Whitesburg.

Despite worldwide acclaim, Bob never forgot his old Kentucky home, including the part of the commonwealth farthest removed from his Louisville hometown. He concludes the chapter with this gem:

“We get our electric power by abusing the powerless. How is it that a region so rich in a valuable natural resource has some of the worst schools and poorest health care in the nation? Perhaps the absentee owners of the energy companies should be required to establish a neighborly social contract with the people whose land they’ve trashed.

“But it’s only Appalachia. Congress blocks oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where no human lives, but it supports the rape of Central Appalachia, home to 7.5 million people.”

For about two months after Bob’s departure from “Morning Edition,” I lodged a personal boycott against the program. But I couldn’t deal with the rubbish that passes for morning shows on commercial radio — and this was before the advent of podcasting — so I reluctantly began tuning in again to NPR on the morning drive. And soon, I learned to appreciate and even like the new hosts, Montagne and Inskeep. But in my mind, no one will ever surpass Bob Edwards.

Rest in peace, Colonel Bob.

 

Pete Koutoulas is a retired IT professional who resides in Winchester, Kentucky.