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Thursday, June 16, 2005


An NPR Icon Comes to Fairbanks: An Evening With Bob Edwards

I got to meet one of my heroes in person yesterday.

For many, many years, all the way up into the 1990s and beyond, my ritual every morning while either on the way to work or in to town or whatever I was doing was listening to Morning Edtion on NPR.

And the biggest reason I listened to that show on KUAC every morning came to Fairbanks for a sit-down interview in the Davis Concert Hall with Robert Hannon, a KUAC mainstay and reporter.

I am speaking of none other than the incomparable and illustrious Bob Edwards, of course.

I'd heard about this last week and was eagerly awaiting Wednesday, June 15th with great anticipation. The evening did not disappoint. The discussion was scheduled to begin at 7:30. I got there at about 7:15 or so and the concert hall (which seats 800 people, if memory serves correctly) was already starting to fill up.

I grabbed a program playbill and took a seat in the center of the concert hall.

People were coming in from both entrances and were walking down the aisles to take their seats. There was a hub-bub of conversation going on as the audience was waiting patiently. The set was a spare, simple one: two very comfortable-looking chairs with a little table between them, a pitcher of ice water and two glasses and a simple floral arrangement behind, framed by the flags of Alaska and the United States.

A few minutes after 7:30, Robert Hannon came out the the center of the stage. He introduced himself (to a round of applause, I might add) and then told us that when he was considering public radio as a career, he had always liked to listen to Bob Edwards because his interviews were always informative and entertaining, almost like conversations. He then played a brief sampler of Bob Edwards' 25-year career at NPR, a sort of "Bob Edwards Greatest Hits," as it were.

When the clip of Bob talking to Red Barber came on, the audience applauded loudly and long.

Then, without further ado, Robert introduced us to Bob Edwards, also to loud and long applause. He was dressed casually, in a black t-shirt and blue jeans and looked for all the world like somebody you'd see at the neighborhood bar or coffee shop and someone you would want to hang out with. Bob took a bow and sat down next to Robert and they started talking.

Robert asked him first about his departure from NPR, which wasn't on the greatest of terms. While still singing the praises of NPR, he had some (justifiable, in my view) animus toward his former employers, who basically forced him out of his job and position there.

Then they started talking about Red Barber and Bob commented on how he'd heard the audience applaud at the clip Robert had played of him interviewing Red. He talked about how he and Red had done their little four-minute chitchats every Friday for almost 12 years or so, until Red died in 1992. They then played a clip of Bob interviewing Red at the time of the first Gulf War, in 1991.

You could have heard a pin drop in that concert hall.

They then got into a discussion about Bob's book on Edward R. Murrow (copies of which were on sale in the Great Hall) and his new career on XM Satellite Radio.

Bob talked at some length about what he saw as the strengths of that new network and what he wanted to accomplish with it. He talked about why he wrote the book about Murrow and what Murrow's example meant to him. Essentially, he thought that Murrow showed by his career in journalism what a true, courageous journalist was supposed to be and lived that example by reporting to America from London during the Blitz and standing up to Joe McCarthy, among other things.

They covered a lot of ground, and finally, Robert opened the floor to questions from the audience. The first question was about Bob's trip up here in 1982, when the Alaska Public Radio Network first went up. A number of NPR personalities came up here for that. Bob went to Talkeetna and talked a social worker. He relayed the anecdote to us about how she'd used as an example of "cabin fever" a woman who "just last week" had killed her husband with a frozen beaver.

That got more than a few laughs.

Then there was a question about the meida coverage leading up to the Iraq war. Bob talked about how the commercialization of the media and the increasing pressure from sponsors as well as the business-driven model have turned the media into a shadow of its former self. He talked about how the disucssion of WMD's came down to swift boat veterans and he talked about how the serious, substantive issues about the war were brushed aside for "entertainment" stories like Michael Jackson or whoever else is the media focus of the moment.

Essentially, how the media has become trivializing and trivialized as a result.

He still said we should support NPR, which lead to the next question about what is the future of NPR and should we start supporting XM radio. His answer was essentially "yes," and "if you think it's a good idea." He thinks that XM will never supplant NPR nor should it anytime soon and they should be considered complimentary.

He reminded us that there was no way Ted Stevens would let the House of Representatives gut funding for public broadcasting. He talked a bit about Kevin Tomlinson and how he would be politicizing NPR coverage. He made the comment, to much laughter, about how Tomlinson wanted Brit Hume to come in and lecture NPR reporters on being "fair and balanced" and how he'd love to be a fly on the wall when Hume tried to tell Nina Totenberg how to "practice journalism" in a professional manner.

The last question was about why NPR now had a Los Angeles office. His answer was esentially that NPR had to branch out, because people ont the West Coast felt that it was too Washington-centric.

He told us to keep supporting our local station and write letters to Congress to demand support for public broadcasting because "you Alaskans do write letters and you know how to do it well and you write a lot of them."

Finally, it was time to adjourn to the Great Hall and eat some ice cream and get our books signed. I told Bob when I got to the signing table that he didn't look anything like I thought he would look.

I now have an autographed copy of his book (along with a CD of his XM radio broadcasts) and I'm a happy camper.

Good for you, Letterman! Nice that you got the chance for some quality time with him.
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