Bob Edwards is a radio legend renowned for his talks with the most fascinating “entertainers, newsmakers, writers and regular folks with a story to tell.” A wide range of actors and musicians have been interviewed, everyone from actors like George Clooney, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Edward Norton to musicians like Marty Stuart, Guy Clark and Judy Collins. Bob Edwards hosted National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” for almost 25 years and before that cohosted “All Things Considered” on NPR. For 10 years his in-depth interviews on his program “The Bob Edwards Show” were broadcast on XM Public Radio from 2004 to September 2014 while a two hour compilation program “The Bob Edwards Weekend” is heard on public radio stations across the United States. It isn’t only famous people he is after though, it’s anyone with a story to tell. Judging by the multitude of folks who have talked with him through the years, he believes everyone has a tale to tell. Bob Edwards is also the author of 3 books including his autobiography, A Voice in the Box: My Life in Radio. He has won a Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting and the Edward R. Murrow Award for Outstanding Contributions to Public Radio and is an inductee of the National Radio Hall of Fame. Bob Edwards sits in the other chair and tells us exactly how many people he has interviewed, who has been the most entertaining to speak with and why all he ever wanted was to be a “voice in the box.”
I think most stories are best from the beginning, what was life like growing up?
Well I had one ambition only and that was to do what I am doing today, and nothing got in my way of that. I was single minded about it. I wanted to be on the radio, I wanted a national audience and I finally achieved that at the age of 25, but I knew what I wanted to do from the time I was 3 or 4 years old, listening to Edward R. Murrow on the radio, my hero and wanting to do what he did.
Why do you suppose that you wanted to be as it’s been said by you a few times “a voice in the box”? What is it about it?
We had this big old radio on the living room and it’s in my living room today. It’s the only thing I have from my parent’s era, a big old Zenith radio. You know in those days radios were furniture. You put grandma’s picture on top of it. You put the vase of flowers on top of it. It was this big thing and the speaker was huge and the voices that came out of that thing, they owned the room. I guess I wanted to own the room. But it was important. Radio was important and what was said on there was something to be reckoned with and I wanted to be the guy who told you what just happened today and how important that was in your life. Then it happened. I felt real good about that for 46 years now.
You’re known for so many of the great interviews that you have done. Could you estimate how many people you have interviewed throughout this career?
I would say around 50,000.
50,000 and counting?
What is it you like about doing interviews with people?
It is the most intimate thing you can do without having sex I think. You can have a real deep conversation with someone and allow them to talk, allow them to bear their souls and tell their stories in depth and not be interrupted and not worry about the clock too much. Particularly on this show that I’m doing now they have a full hour so they know that they can expand on their stories and feel confident that they’re going to be heard and the whole background is going to be revealed and the context and it’s a relaxed, wonderful conversation. It’s not really an interview. It’s conversation. And when it’s a conversation, people are more forthcoming and open and honest and I think the listener benefits somehow.
It seems like a lot of the radio world, it’s like interviews are getting shorter and shorter and it’s going from a sound bite to like even shorter than that. Why do you think that that’s happening?
My wife does newscasts for NPR, Windsor Johnston and you pick out eight seconds of sound to drop into your newscasts or even less. You’re really getting the answer to a question and you’re not even hearing the question. That’s how I started out. I did newscasts and it serves the purpose of the five-minute newscasts which has to cover long stories in a short period of time, but it’s not conversation. It’s not all that satisfying to do. What I do now is immensely satisfying just getting to know a person really, really well and hearing their story and helping them tell their story sometimes with questions that are not really questions. If they’re really, really revealing and forthcoming I will say, “Really?” or “No?” And that’s just a signal for them to go on. What they’re telling me at that moment was never the questions; they’re just kind of prompters and people like that. People like that a lot. I think people enjoy coming in and talking to me and then they come back again and again because they know I’ll give them the time and the respect and let them tell their stories.
In addition to the fact that you’re more of a conversational interviewer, what would you say that the Bob Edwards technique is?
Listening. I want to hear the story myself and I’m like the listener. I want to know and I’m not badgering, I’m not the district attorney—inquisitory. I let them relax. I can get more out of my subjects by making them relaxed and not on edge, not defensive. I think if your interview a subject is defensive, they’re not going to tell you as much, and they’re not going to be as forthcoming as they would be if they were totally relaxed, so I relax them. I’ve had people who thought the interview was actually small talk to, before the interview. They didn’t realize that was the interview, and they said “When are we going to start?” “No, we’ve just done it. Thank you very much, you were great.” And that’s when I know I’ve done my job. I love those.
In your book A Voice in the Box, you talk about the experience of doing the book tour. So what is the average listener of the Bob Edwards conversations that you’ve done throughout the years, the people who have been your fans, what do you find that those people are like?
Well, they’re wonderful and what was nice about working at NPR was that I would go out and meet them. I would do some kind of fundraising event at a member stations once a month. So I would go to a different member stations each month and they would have an event. You know, I hear, well Bob’s coming to town, we’re having a breakfast, we’re having “Barbecue with Bob,” we’re doing whatever and I would talk to them and hear what they liked and what they didn’t like and hear their feedback on the show and what they felt about NPR. It was a community. People who listen to Public Radio feel like they’re part of a community because for one thing they’re giving their money, they’re contributing. They have a stake in what they hear. They’re supporting them with their dollars so they’re invested literally. And I didn’t get that in Satellite Radio because we have no member stations. I can’t go out and do an event because there are no stations. The Satellite goes directly to your car or to your home radio unit and there’s no station. There’s no place to organize a get-together and I miss that. Public radio gave me that and I enjoyed that a great deal. I love meeting people and having them tell me about the program. Their driveway moments. They would pull into the driveway and not get out of their car because they want to hear the end of the story or the end of the interview or the end of the conversation and I love that. I love that. I miss it terribly.
Tell us about one of the more entertaining people that you’ve talked with. I know there are so many so I could hardly ask the most entertaining.
Oh. That’s a wide range. I love talking to Peter Bogdanovich, the director who does impressions of Hollywood people and he’s really good at that. That was fun. I love hearing people’s stories.I interviewed a couple of guys on the 50th anniversary of D-Day and their job was to get out of the landing craft, run across the beach under heavy machine gun fire, climb a cliff and knock out the German guns on top of that cliff and they survived obviously to tell me that story 50 years later and most of their buddies did not. That was not fun. Not entertaining, but it was riveting. It was gripping conversation. They were heroes. They were the people who will obviously be free from Hitler today.
And then there’s my favorite conversation of all time: Father Greg Boyle, who is a Jesuit priest in East Los Angeles who works with gang members in Latino gangs. Helps them get out of gangs and get jobs and this guy is supposed to be saving souls, but he doesn’t care about that. He cares about saving lives and he has 10 doctors volunteering their time to remove tattoos from these gang members and help them get back into mainstream life and get jobs. Father Greg helps them get jobs and he has several businesses that he has started and it’s called Homeboy Industries. If people want to go online and look this up and contribute, I would urge them to do so. He has a landscaping business, silk screen business. There’s a Homegirls Café for the young women and this provides jobs for young people. He’s used to speaking in homilies, he is priest so he has his Sunday sermon so that’s how he tells stories on the air, and so he his perfect for radio. I’ve done two hours with him and asked maybe five questions in each hour. He carries the ball because that’s how he talks, his stories have a beginning, a middle, and a end. So, it’s such easy radio and it’s real life. These are people struggling, having to survive potential assassins around them. It’s not something you and I have to deal with every day and that’s amazing radio to hear their stories. He is also very honest and talks about the ones who he has been unable to reach and the funerals he has presided over. It’s just amazing radio.
You travel a lot, what area in America have you found the most interesting people?
Appalachia. I’m a native of Kentucky. I’m from Louisville, the big town in Kentucky, but not too many miles east of there is Appalachia, where people are just natural storytellers. They’re wonderful and they’re totally dependent on the coal industry, which is cruel and dominant and does bad things for them and bad things for all of us. They’re blowing up the mountains now to get to the coal. They don’t go down into caves and dig it out anymore. They blow up the mountain, which is horrible for the environment, horrible for the chemicals that are used which they pour into the streams of Eastern Kentucky, which flow into the Ohio and down into the Mississippi which upsets that whole Eastern US water table, but these people are great storytellers. They’re just natural and again, it’s great radio. I’ve done many, many documentaries on Eastern Kentucky and the literature of Eastern Kentucky, the music, bluegrass music of Eastern Kentucky. They’re just a culture. Right in the middle of the country that is rich and wonderful.
I thought you were either going to say Appalachia or having heard so many of your interviews from New Orleans, I thought it was going to be one of those two.
Oh, New Orleans is a gift. You just go down there and there’s so much music and so many people Creoles and Cajuns… and it’s unlike any other place in America, it’s like another country. A foreign country within the US border and oh, my God, if you can’t get a story out of New Orleans you’re not even trying.
You just mentioned the music and you’ve done so many great interviews with musicians. So many. What musician have you been the most in awe of?
I work in a juke box. I’m sitting here at Sirius XM, where we have 80 music channels and there are musicians here every day. The very first week I was here in 2004, I walked down the hall and saw Peter, Paul and Mary and I said “oh, my God. You guys just come in here,” and I ad-libbed an interview with them because I loved them so much and research with them and kind of like that every day. There are so many musicians that come through here talking to David Crosby of Crosby, Stills and Nash; Jackson Browne, and I get to talk to these people and go over their careers and look at their life struggling and writing songs and why they wrote this way and not that way and why they chose these notes and not that, why they chose these words and not those words.
I love the creative process. I love to talk, I love to talk to writers about that too. How they create, what inspires them, what drives them. Why must they do this? And they must, they must and you know I wish I had some of that juice myself. My job is to get it out of them and find out why they do what they do and how they do it and that just amazes me. That people can do that and, I mean, I don’t think you can talk to an athlete and have them tell you how they can hit a curve ball consistently and drive it deep and get full momentum. I don’t think they can do that. They just do it. But writers and musicians can tell you how the process goes and so it’s much more interesting.
What do you think of the song writing of Randy Newman?
I love Randy Newman. Randy has the same sick sense of humor than I do, honestly. I’m kind of a cynic about life. He could have been a great journalist and so, I don’t know how that interview happens because I just laugh at everything he says, everything. So Randy’s mumbling away and I’m laughing and I don’t know if we have a good interview at all. Because a guy who can write a song like “You Can Leave Your Hat on…”, go listen to that one. And you get an idea of his narrators, the people who are singing his songs, he assumes these identity that would be repugnant in real life, but he’s not afraid to be that narrator, like laughing at short people and making them the subject of a song. I mean Randy he’s not a bigot, but he is assuming the role that people think in real life. He’s not a deviant, sex person, but if you listen to “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” you know that’s the narrator. He writes those songs. He’s left all that for movie scores “The Natural” and “Toy Story” and finally won an Oscar after being nominated, I don’t know, 17 or 18 times. He finally got one. He’s just been a great composer and he’s the nephew of three other composers who did most of the music for the movies of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s.
There are certain people as an interviewer that are elusive. There are some people – for example, Bill Murray: no publicist. Bob Dylan: always been press shy. Who has always eluded you that you wanted to get a hold of?
It took me 30 years to get Johnny Cash. Every time I scheduled him something happened, he would either go to the hospital or he would start a tour or something, and I finally got to him just maybe five or six months before his death and it was a marvelous experience. Oh, my God, he was great. He was just great. And in the final months of his life, down in Nashville in his home in the woods.
I never got to Kurt Vonnegut and that upset me. I never got to talk to him. There’ve been a lot of those, it just never happened and I’m really sorry about that and they’re gone now. When I came to XM, I purposely set about interviewing people in their 80s and 90s, so that I could get them before they died and last week we were running those interviews. We were rerunning those interviews…people like Pete Seeger and Studs Terkel and it turned up that the first person I interviewed who died was only 55. It was Wendy Wasserstein, the playwright, and she was the first XM interview I had who died. It wasn’t one of those 80 or 90 year olds. But yeah, I think it’s important to talk to these people and get their record on audio. That’s why I’ve donated all these interviews to the Library of Congress, because I think they’re important records that people will need for research and there is a source right there at the Library of Congress.
You mentioned to the late Studs Terkel a moment ago, just a tremendous interviewer. What interviewers of today do you respect the most?
Well, let’s see. Studs was great because Studs would go off on a tangent and he would think oh, my God, this is a really old guy who has lost his marbles. But Stud would pick that tangent out 10 minutes or so and remember exactly why he went off on that tangent and come back to the question you asked. And I of course, by that time, had forgotten the question I asked, but Studs hadn’t forgotten. Studs was right there and he came right back to it and just kind of put the period at the end of the sentence and what a joy what a wonderful thing that was. So, he was the best. He was the absolute best and that’s why he oral histories like “Working” and “The Good War” are so valuable and important document that we have forever. Good interviewers today, I don’t know, you don’t get to see an interview for very long or hear an interview for very long.
Charlie Rose does good interviews. I’ve been on his show. He is on PBS. He does CBS in the morning and then he has the PBS show on primetime.
What about Terry Gross. What do you think of her?
Oh, of course, of course, Terry Gross. Yes, absolutely. I was on Terry Gross’ show when it was still local in Philadelphia. That’s how old I am! Yeah, “Fresh Air.” Oh, my God, yes. Absolutely. Love Terry.
What is next for Bob Edwards?
I wish I knew. I want there to be a next. I honestly want there to be a next. I would love something in public radio. I would like to go back home to NPR where I spent 30 wonderful years in a formative time in my career and helped establish that brand.
What is the best thing about being Bob Edwards?
The fact that I managed to get three children through college without student loans. That may be the greatest accomplishment of my life, that I managed to pay for three kids to go to college and not have them in debt and I don’t know if that’s possible anymore. Thirty thousand dollars now buys you maybe a semester and I couldn’t do that today. I could do it when my kids where in school and I don’t know how anyone gets through college now without scholarships. It’s ridiculous. It’s outrageous. It’s a national disgrace, the cost education and why must that be only for the elite? Why can’t working people and working class people and poor people have some access to college? It’s going to hurt this country. It really is, if that becomes something only the elite can afford.
What would you say to anyone … totally open ended?
Tell me your story. I love David Isay, a long time public radio producer who does something called StoryCorps and he has little listening booths all across the country where people can go in and tell their story. I think it’s a great idea, it’s just a genius idea. Because everyone has a story, everyone has a story. You don’t have to be fabulously rich and successful to have a story. That’s ridiculous – everyone has a story. There is something of value there for all of us to hear it, to listen to it. So, that’s what I would do, I would say “tell me your story.”
My last question: Who is Bob Edwards?
Just a guy who wanted to be on the radio and realized his dream and is very happy about that and wants to continue that dream for as long as he can.
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