On the side of the building at 624 Baxter Avenue is a man behind a microphone, headset on, seemingly plugged in to the passing urban landscape. The mural – of Louisville’s Bob Edwards – appears poised to engage a guest in conversation. Today, it’s only me, rolling down the hill toward the river, waving to Bob as he bakes on the south-facing wall.
Steering over to Main Street, I’m still thinking about my broadcast hero, because now he’s just popped on to my radio. Saturday afternoons at 2 p.m., WFPL airs “Bob Edwards Weekend,” and, more often than not, I find myself driving, with Bob riding shotgun.
The monolithic Murals of Louisville icons that rise above the asphalt honor living legends such as Muhammad Ali, Diane Sawyer, Pat Day, Ed Hamilton and Patrick Hughes, while others – Pee Wee Reese, Louis Brandeis and Col. Harlan Sanders – remain part of our regional history.
Edwards broached the mural project during a 2007 interview with KET’s “Louisville Life”: “It’s very gratifying, given the company I’m in,” he said. “Ali, Hamilton, Day, Brandeis – it’s wonderful. Baxter Avenue placement is cool – yeah, near the bars and cemeteries. That’s good.”
National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” was the only thing added to my coffee for over two decades – stirred by its host, Bob Edwards. He was our national guide from dawn to commute, taking us through war, music, underdogs, overlords, several presidents, sports, authors, artists and criminals.
The opportunity to interview him came via LEO in 1996, an afternoon that I enjoyed very much despite the air being thick with intimidation – but I muddled through.
Over a decade later, I find myself seeking out another interview, this time with a goal to direct the conversation toward his native Louisville as The Kentucky Derby puts us on the map of the nation and in the hearts of those far away.
I imagine that Bob had to interview several of the mural icons.
“I’ve interviewed Pee Wee, Hamilton and Diane. I never interviewed Ali but I never missed ‘Tomorrow’s Champions’ on Channel 3 and probably saw his first fight at age 12. The one I wish I could interview is Louis Brandeis,” he states. “Few people in Louisville or anywhere else know what a hero he is. He was not only the strongest advocate for free speech – for labor and for privacy – but he also felt the people should be represented in every court case.”
The month of May holds both promise and memories for Edwards – his birthday, the passing of his mother, the beauty of spring and the traditions – and chaos – of Derby.
This favorite son of Louisville moves between our nation’s capital and his hometown whenever time and occasion allows, although residing in his adopted home of the Washington, D.C./Virginia area the past three decades has produced more blossom than root. The soil that is tapped by his soul is in Kentucky.
From St. X to XM
“As a kid, I hung out with the St. Elizabeth crowd in Germantown and the St. Stephen Martyr guys north of Audubon Park,” says Edwards. “My Our Mother of Sorrows buddies and I would hitchhike up Eastern Parkway to the Uptown to watch matinee showings of Vincent Price doing all those films made of Edgar Allen Poe stories.”
His first gig, and perhaps a mild brush with show business, was at a theatre on Fourth Street, where he received a 25-cent tip from an impressed patron.
His alma mater is still standing, however, and Edwards never fails to credit St. Xavier for giving “this working class kid” the tools to be where he is today.
Louisville Public Media president Donovan Reynolds’ office at Fourth and Chestnut looks down on the very street that used to be a weekend luxury for teenage Edwards and friends. Relocating from Michigan to Kentucky, Reynolds says he learned a lot about his new city during a conversation with Edwards.
“He’s a very unpretentious guy,” Reynolds says. “I asked him once where he grew up in Louisville. He said, with a wry smile, ‘I’m from the wrong end of Eastern Parkway.’ He’s very loyal to Louisville and never forgets his roots.”
In 2004, Edwards morphed from radio to satellite after leaving NPR’s flagship program, Morning Edition, in one of the most contested and jarring upsets in broadcast history.
“Bob Edwards was one of the key people who brought public radio from relative obscurity to a place at the center of American life,” Reynolds states. “His mellifluous, soothing baritone really embodied NPR for many people. When NPR replaced him on Morning Edition, there was outrage. Some people still haven’t forgiven NPR, which, of course, handled the whole affair very badly.”
Emerging victorious on satellite radio, Edwards not only thrives with a personalized format but stands as a testament to communication as a passion and a business. He hosts his own show on XM Satellite Radio Channel 133 and Sirius Channel 196, and he can be heard locally on WFPL 89.3. And don’t forget your iPhone and Facebook – Edwards has taken on all tools in order to communicate.
Over the years, Edwards has responded to the “inspiration” question with the fact that he’d always wanted to be ‘the voice in the box.’ (He was the kid in the box, if you will, as a guest on Louisville’s essential baby boomer program, T-Bar-V.) “I was fascinated by radio and TV. As a four-year-old, I knew the formats of all the shows,” he says.
Wrapping around the range of heroes, from Randy Atcher to Edward R. Murrow, Edwards savors both local and national media figures.
“Murrow was my hero and I always wanted a national audience, but local Louisville media were also influential,” he says. “The C-J was a top-ten paper. WHAS radio and TV were strong in news, prompting WAVE to also be strong in news in order to compete. Even the Top 40 stations, WAKY and WKLO had five reporters each on the streets. I loved the Brooks Brothers (Tom and Foster), Jim Walton, Bob Kay, Ed Kallay, Randy Atcher, Ryan Halloran, Ray Shelton, Reed Yadon, John Sharpe, Livingston Gilbert, Bill Small, David Dick and so many others.”
Teaming up with Louisvillian Dan Gediman, Edwards opens a vintage bottle of the original Edward R. Murrow series, “This I Believe,” each week on his show. Joined by technology, their segments are recorded at their respective locations and come together quite well.
“Dan Gediman does a fabulous job,” Edwards says, “We share a devotion to Murrow and a fascination with This I Believe and the very idea of it.”
I ask if, after becoming a public radio celebrity, Edwards was approached to pitch products.
“I’ve been asked to do commercials, but I won’t,” he says. “If I did, I’d want to be the national spokesman for Maker’s Mark or Woodford Reserve.”
Edwards might have a little trouble with pitching bourbon during Derby season, however. His recipe, published in NPR Cooks!, bucks tradition.
“The less said about the mint julep, the better. My recipe calls for eliminating the mint and the sugar. That leaves you with a bourbon on the rocks, absolute perfection in the field of adult drinks.”
Ringing In a Birthday
Robert Alan Edwards arrived in the thick of spring, May 16, 1947. I ask if he’d ever heard any details about his birth from his mother.
“I was born at the now long-gone St. Joseph’s Infirmary, two blocks from the only Louisville address I ever had – where I spent my first 22 years until I was drafted,” he says. “It was a Friday afternoon and she went into labor while hearing the novena bell from Our Mother of Sorrows church across Eastern Parkway. That was our parish and where I had my first eight years of school.”
Living within walking distance of University of Louisville, the Speed Museum and Churchill Downs put young Edwards in a cultural center of the city while keeping him close to his agricultural roots.
“I lived a block from the wide-open spaces that became the fairgrounds,” he reminisces. “My great-grandfather had a dairy farm where Kentucky Kingdom is now.”
Edwards’ first Derby experience was in 1968.
“College years – in the infield,” he says. “My horse won in ‘68, but was the only Derby winner ever disqualified.”
Years later, he would find himself doing the honors of co-anchoring “Dawn at the Downs” with KET. It poured rain that Derby in 1997 and Edwards claims it validated his choice of radio over television – no hassles with lighting or weather.
In his 2007 article “My Old Kentucky Home” penned for Cooking Light magazine, Edwards shared a particularly bittersweet first Saturday in May.
“At 7:30 p.m. on Derby Day, 2006, I got a call from my brother who still lives near Louisville. He had the saddest possible news. He told me our mother had died an hour earlier on her 90th Derby Day. An hour earlier? That was post time. I’m sure the TV set was on in her room at the nursing home. Perhaps the last sounds she heard were Stephen Foster’s chorus: ‘Weep no more my lady. Oh, weep no more today. We will sing one song for my old Kentucky home, for my old Kentucky home far away.’”