NOTES______________________from the UNDERGROUND No. 213 (& Poetry Dispatch) | April 9, 2012
Bob Edwards: A VOICE IN THE BOX
Editor’s Note: “Radio Love” … I don’t know what else to call it, this feeling. It attracted my attention as a young child…the kitchen radio on top the refrigerator where my father listened to the news…Gabriel Heatter: “There’s good news tonight!” and Walter Winchell: “Good Evening Mr. and Mrs. America from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea. Let’s go to press.” Talk about drama! That little wooden radio…which my mother tuned to an ethnic music station on Friday evening and sang along in Czech…where I listened to the Shadow, the Lone Ranger, Superman, etc. Where Arthur Godfrey was always on the air singing: “It Seems Like Old Times…” Where I first heard the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
And that large living room console where the three of us listened and laughed in the dark to Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly, Amos and Andy, Fred Allen, and Bob Hope.
Those were the days, my friend…
Yes they were. And so they continue into the present, thanks to the gods of the airwaves who refuse to be silenced in our high-tech times. Television never did kill radio. Never will.
I must caution myself at this point from writing a full-blown piece on my radio love affairs. There’s so much to remember. So much to praise. All those voices which resonate within me to this day.
I still see myself as a young boy in my bedroom…fiddling with a crystal set trying to bring in a station! That’s how far back my initial love affair goes. Followed later in my Chicago life by a more gown-up, more cultural, in some ways more exciting new love affair with WFMT, the voice and passion of Studs Terkel, “The Midnight Special” every Saturday night…classical music, the knowledge and comforting voice my friend, Marty Robinson, brought to the airwaves. How thankful I remain today in Wisconsin, forty plus years later, for the role radio still plays in my life, 24 hours a day—tuned to Wisconsin Public Radio and NPR. How appreciative I am of one voice alone, the many hours of program pleasure and thought the recently retired Jean Feraca brought to us lucky to share her interview skills, her thought and laughter. (Scroll down.)
But let me introduce you to Bob Edwards–who needs no introduction if you listened to NPR faithfully and followed his voice past and present.
His book: A VOICE IN THE BOX, My Life in RADIO is a history, a memoir, a romance with radio—a testament to the beauty of communication that expands our minds and imagination by the simple art of lending an ear, listening in a way
one’s life depended upon it. Which in some ways, it always has.
A few excerpts. The voice of Bob Edwards. Stay tuned… —Norbert Blei
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 will entertain for everyone’s dancing pleasure. That will come later, after dinner, many speeches, and a ceremony that is also a live radio program carried by the Premier group of stations.
The announcer is Jim Bohannon, one of my oldest friends in radio. He has alerted the diners to the Applause sign behind him and has let it be known that great audible enthusiasm is encouraged. At exactly 8:00 PM, we hear some upbeat theme music, and all respond to the sign’s insistent demand for applause. A floor director cues Bohannon, who says, “Live, from Chicago, it’s radio’s biggest night—the 2004 Radio Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Tonight, the Radio Hall of Fame inducts XM Satellite Radio superstar Bob Edwards.”
Superstar? We do love our hyperbole in radio. As of that night, my show on XM was just four weeks old. I doubt if the fellow who, months earlier, fired me from my previous show at NPR regarded me as anybody’s superstar. But no matter—I was in the Hall.
Radio is closing in on its centennial, and its Hall of Fame includes the scientists who invented it, the hucksters who made money from it, the journalists who informed, the smart people who enlightened, and especially the enormously talented entertainers who came into our homes and cars and offices and made us laugh, cry, wince, fear, dread, guffaw, and enter worlds we could not imagine on our own. So here I am with Marconi, Edward R. Murrow, Arthur Godfrey, Alan Freed, Fibber McGee and Molly, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Orson Welles, Paul Harvey, Wolfman Jack, Bing Crosby, Gordon McLendon, Studs Terkel, Ma Perkins. Cousin Brucie, Red Barber, the Lone Ranger—just a stew of people, programs, and genres spanning generations and having nothing in common but the microphone and an audience.
My induction ceremony was a watershed event—the last in a series of traumas and triumphs that had kept me in a state of emotional whiplash for most of the year. So this night in Chicago was the end of something but also the beginning of something. It symbolized my passage to a new radio home and an environment in which I could do what I regard as the very best work of my career.
Induction really recognizes a much longer journey—the span of a career. So let’s go back to the little burg where my radio journey began in 1968, when I had no notion of a hall of fame—only a burning desire to be a voice in the box.
…As the ABC anchor cued the station break, I flipped the switch and spoke the first words of my broadcast career: “This is WHEL, 1570, in New Albany, Indiana.”
There were no fireworks in celebration and my debut escaped the notice of the local newspapers, but there’s nothing bigger in a young man’s life than realizing his dream. Never mind that I was working at the tackiest, most miserable little outpost in American broadcasting; I had crossed the threshold and joined the profession of Edward R. Murrow, Arthur Godfrey, and Red Barber.
Why wouldn’t I be thrilled at joining the club? For nearly fifty years, broadcasters had informed and entertained Americans in ways that newspapers, magazines, theater, and motion pictures could not. They had made it possible for citizens to feel present at events occurring far away. Murrow’s rooftop broadcasts during the London Blitz brought World War II into the living rooms of Manhattan apartments and Iowa farmhouses. Earlier, people short on hope during the Great Depression heard reassuring words from their president on the radio, and radio performers offered the only professional entertainment most Americans could afford. Baseball fans no longer had to gather at the local newspaper office to be relayed telegraph reports of the World Series. Graham McNamee in the twenties and Red Barber in the thirties magically transported fans in the bayous and the Rockies to the ballparks of New York, Chicago, and Detroit. Arthur Godfrey, on radio and then on television, brought a folksy personality to the airwaves and made his audience comfortable with the entertainers he introduced.
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, the perfect pedestal for flowers in a vase next to a framed portrait of Grandma. As a toddler, I ran my fingernails across the fabric covering the huge speaker at the base. Reaching high and to the left, I could touch the knobs and buttons (voice, normal, treble, alto, bass). To the right were the push buttons labeled with the call letters of stations that don’t exist today. Frequencies were listed in clock-face fashion, shortwave stations forming the upper arc, the AM band on the lower arc. At “noon” on the clock face and out of my reach was the mysterious green light that peered at all in the room.
With a tall outside antenna, our radio could pick up foreign broadcasts, ships at sea, police calls, and ham operators, but we didn’t bother with that. We listened to the network programs that had yet to make the switch to television. Soap operas were still on the radio; Our Gal Sunday and The Romance of Helen Trent were my grandmother’s favorites. I remember hearing President Truman talk about the war in Korea, Just before suppertime, a local priest would lead the rosary and Mom would insist that I pray along.
So many voices coming out of that box fascinated me. It didn’t matter what the voices were saying; I longed for mine to join them. In time, I learned the formats of all the local stations and knew the schedules of all the announcers. At night, I heard other voices on stations in Chicago, Nashville, New Orleans, and Cincinnati, and I’d dream of seeing those places someday. Everything said on the radio had my attention in those days, not just the news. I would have been perfectly content to be the fellow who said, “You’re listening to the music of…” or “Tune in tomorrow for another thrilling adventure of….” I just wanted to be one of the voices in the box.
[from: A VOICE IN THE BOX, My Life in Radio, the University Press of Kentucky, 2011]