BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you spin the radio dial, you know when you've hit National Public Radio. Its particular voice has been loved, derided and parodied for years. This week, NPR announced that one of its signature voices will make way for a new one, yet to be determined. After 25 years hosting Morning Edition, Bob Edwards will leave his post on April 30th, but NPR says he'll stay on as a senior correspondent. Bob Edwards joins us now. Welcome to the show.
BOB EDWARDS: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, Bob, first of all tell me what happened.
BOB EDWARDS: Umm...I think maybe I stayed too long. That's probably what happened. I don't feel I did. [LAUGHTER] But maybe I'm not the best judge. One of the reactions to what's happened here has been very distressing to me, and that's been people saying "Well, I'm never having anything to do with NPR any more, and by golly, I'm not contributing to my local station, and I'm going to tell others to do..." -- that's wrong. That's wrong, and you know, it hurts me, because I've spent 30 years trying to build this thing, and to have that undone just because I'm -- I've got a different job here is, I think, the wrong way to go.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So tell me what NPR was like when you arrived there 30 years ago, and you were paired, I guess briefly, with Susan Stamberg at the then-infant All Things Considered.
BOB EDWARDS: Well, I never lived in a dormitory or was part of a fraternity, but I'm told there are some parallels. [LAUGHTER] We were very young. I was one of the senior people, and I was 26 years old. And that was exciting, because we had young ideas, and since the network had no money to do more expensive things, we had to make it up every day. Everyone's imagination just is in over-drive -- "Well, let's do this." "Well, I don't know, should we try that?" "Can we get away with this?" and, with the result that when we failed, [LAUGHS] it was a whopper. But when something, you know, new and exciting and bold was out there, it made an impression.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And so now I think everybody says the network sounds consistently better. The reporting is consistently of higher quality. There are certainly fewer valleys. But also fewer peaks.
BOB EDWARDS: That's true, and that has to be conceded, that yes, we don't take the risks we did then because, one, we don't have to. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now, your leaving Morning Edition is probably the most important staff change the network has ever had, and what do you think this portends about changes at NPR, the evolution, perhaps, of NPR?
BOB EDWARDS: Well, I don't know. [LAUGHS] This is where I'm flummoxed. I'm torn here. I want to be part of the future, but if I wasn't part of the future as the host of Morning Edition, what is that future, and how can I be part of it? So I'm asking all those questions, and I hope to serve.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Did, did they tell you over the years that perhaps there was too much predictability at Morning Edition? That the sound that has been such a signature sound for NPR had become almost too soothing, too relaxed?
BOB EDWARDS: Not in so many words, but now that you say that, you know, if they had told me that, that makes perfect sense, that people are bored with it or something, but the number of listeners wouldn't reflect that. Maybe they feel that even though we've doubled the audience in the last 10 years, it could have been tripled, quadrupled? And maybe it will yet. I hope so, if that's the case, and if I can make that happen by going away, hey --I'll take the hit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there something you think you might have done differently?
BOB EDWARDS:No, because I think we are who we are. You find your voice - you know, Red Barber and I used to talk about this all the time, when he was a kid, starting out in broadcasting, he wanted to be Graham McNamee, who was the great legend of earliest radio. And he was trying to imitate him on the air until his station manager took him by the lapels and said no, we already have a Graham MacNamee [LAUGHS] --let's hear Red Barber. And you have to be yourself on the radio because you're...people spot a phony immediately. You have to find your own voice, but when you're a kid, you don't know who you are. I did the same thing with Murrow, cause I didn't know. I didn't know who I was, so I was trying to be Murrow. [LAUGHTER] That's what I grew up hearing. And ultimately I, I found out who I was. Well, who I am is still who I am. I can't change, because it wouldn't be me. You see what I mean?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Absolutely. And I think we could probably describe in a few well-chosen adjectives who Murrow was and what he sounded like. Do you think you have the distance to do that for yourself? How would you describe your presence on the air?
BOB EDWARDS: One word would certainly be minimalist. I don't chatter on, except when people like you are interviewing me, because when I'm doing an interview, I -- the, the star of the interview is the person I'm interviewing, not me. So my questions are short, direct, to the point. My best questions are: "Oh?" "No!" "Really?" Because this is a, a signal to the guest that where you're going is great -- keep going there. I try to be an engaging interviewer, a soft-spoken interviewer. I can't do that district attorney, third-degree thing very well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Sandra Tsing Lo who got bumped off of KCRW for an unbleeped expletive, and then was asked back, although she declined to come, said in a Marketplace commentary that Public Radio had become increasingly bland, vanilla, beige. What do you think about that assessment?
BOB EDWARDS: I don't hear beige. [LAUGHTER] I don't hear bland. No, I hear exciting things on, on Public Radio. I like Morning Edition. Why wouldn't I, right? I like All Things Considered and the way it sounds. I like your program. Soundprint, Tavis, Car Talk, Prairie Home Companion -- I love what's going on here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Management has said that this is not about demographics, it's not about, for instance, attracting a younger audience, but about listener needs. Do you know what that means?
BOB EDWARDS: Listener needs. Hmm...so that I don't have what listeners need? Well that would be a blow, wouldn't it. That would be a blow. I don't know. I go out every month to a member station and help them with fundraising and get to know listeners, and I've always loved the idea of meeting listeners and talking to the audience and finding out what's on their minds, so I, I don't feel I've been sheltered from the listeners, and - or that they've been shy about expressing their needs, because they give me an earful, and I bring it back here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Getting up at midnight or earlier every weekday for 25 years -- that can be a strain. Are you saying that you were never tired of what you were doing, Bob?
BOB EDWARDS: Maybe I sounded it, and maybe that's a good reason to move. You know? Maybe I'm not functioning on every cylinder that I can, if I'm getting a full night's sleep. Maybe I'll be better. Lots better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bob, thanks very much.
BOB EDWARDS: You're very welcome. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On April 30th, Bob Edwards will conclude his long run at the helm of NPR's Morning Edition.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, why American products succeed overseas while America, the product, fails.