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At long last, getting to talk the talk his way

Saying he was micromanaged at NPR's 'Morning Edition,' Bob Edwards says he is enjoying the freedom he has on satellite radio.

October 12, 2005|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

In his old job, management told him what to do and then demoted him after 30 years of service. But he did have 13 million loyal listeners and a pension plan.

In his new job, he is with a station that has maybe 5 million listeners and he has no pension. But he has his own show, with his name on it, and management treats him like a star.

It's been one year since Bob Edwards was abruptly shelved at National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" and subsequently decided to leave public radio, moving to XM Satellite Radio to host "The Bob Edwards Show." All things considered, he likes where he landed. "These are people who get me," he said. "And I appreciate that."

For Edwards, 58, the biggest difference between NPR and XM is "very personal." The XM management has "trusted me to do this program the way I want to do it. I have complete freedom. I'm treated like a grown-up, and it's nice. I have the total support of the CEO, Hugh Panero," who compliments him daily, he said, on the show and his choices. "I was micromanaged at NPR."

A year hasn't been long enough to clear the air between Edwards and his old bosses at NPR, who reassigned him in April 2004, moving him from host to "senior correspondent" with only partial and awkward explanations. Six months later, Edwards accepted XM's offer to host his own show.

In so doing, he had to leave longtime friends and associates at the station where he had built his career. "Thirty years was over half my life. I thought I would die there. I was looking forward to finishing out the rest of my career there."

Edwards spoke by phone Saturday en route to San Luis Obispo, where he would help raise funds for the local public radio station and file a story on Hearst Castle. Despite his resentments, he said he takes every opportunity to encourage support for public radio stations, which, like satellite radio, provide an alternative to commercial fare. When he was replaced as host of "Morning Edition," he said, some angry listeners inappropriately withdrew their support from local stations that had had "nothing to do with it."

"I know listeners are still upset," Edwards said. "I was at an event yesterday. They just line up to tell me they miss me."

What went wrong for Edwards at NPR? Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, which follows talk radio, pointed out a difference in approach between public and commercial radio that may have worked against Edwards: Driven by a team mentality, public radio views programming and format as the star, while commercial -- and apparently satellite -- radio sees the host as determining a show's success or failure. "The biggest possibility is that they didn't have a clue as to how popular he was and what he meant to the success of the show," Harrison said.

Edwards said that at first he accepted his new position of senior correspondent -- until an estimated 50,000 listeners protested to NPR, and "they lost their composure and started lying about me. [They said] that I had objected to having a co-host.... Then they said, 'We wanted someone with great reporting skills.' I took that as a smear. At that point I couldn't work there anymore."

In April, NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin, writing online to achieve "closure" with listeners who remained "flummoxed" over Edwards' leaving, said that Edwards had been "exhausted." Not true, Edwards said.

Andi Sporkin, named vice president for communications at NPR in April, said, "I think there's remorse about how it was handled in terms of the PR. It could be the reason I'm here. There were changes on the show they wanted to make. Obviously, they made them."

"Morning Edition" is now hosted by Steve Inskeep on the East Coast and Renee Montagne on the West. Each at times reports from outside the studio while the other holds down the fort, making the broadcast, Sporkin said, "more immediate, more timely and more flexible." And, she said, it has more listeners.

Sporkin said that despite the protests over Edwards' departure, "Morning Edition" added 800,000 early-morning listeners to the 13 million who tuned in when Edwards was there. "That's great," Edwards said. "In the meantime, I'm at XM, and we've gone from 2 million [subscribers] to 5.3 million. We've both gained listeners."

Freed from NPR's tight format, he has shaped the show to suit himself. Using his warm, gravelly voice and signature down-home style, he lengthened and deepened the conversations with poets, politicians, musicians, movie stars and interesting unknowns who had such appeal to baby boomer liberal arts majors over the years on NPR. Over the last year on satellite, he has interviewed Walter Cronkite, Bill Moyers, Phil Jackson, Arlo Guthrie, Nick Hornby and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. For his anniversary week, he booked George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jim Lehrer and Lehrer's former co-host on PBS, Robert MacNeil.

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