all photos: Dakota Fine
Bob Edwards is a Peabody Award-winning member of the National Radio Hall of Fame. Edwards, whose raspy voice would wake up America via NPR’s Morning Edition for nearly 25 years, is celebrating The Bob Edwards Show’s 7th anniversary. He just published his memoir, A Voice in the Box. We sat down with Bob at last week’s National Book Festival for a chat about being on the other end of the table, drugs at the Kentucky Derby, and some choice cuts from his 30,000+ interviews.
BYT: Is it weird being part of the story?
BOB EDWARDS: Yeah, when I’ve done 30,000 the other way. It’s a little strange.
BYT: Do you like it?
BOB EDWARDS: I like that someone is interested.
BYT: People must ask you a lot of questions about interviews that you’ve done. Interviewing the interviewer about the interviews. That’s pretty ‘meta’.
BOB EDWARDS: (Nods and smiles)
BYT: What’s the most awkward interview you’ve ever done, aside from this one?
BOB EDWARDS: (laughs)
BYT: It’ll get awkward.
BOB EDWARDS: Andy Warhol. I don’t know what he was on, but he was not here among us. And he had these two very young men with him. His companions. They were coked to the gills and giggling constantly. And he’d written a book.
BYT: Did he not want to be there?
BOB EDWARDS: He didn’t know where he was. He was somewhere else.
BYT: So what you’re saying is that it’s hard to interview someone when they’re…
BOB EDWARDS: Comatose, yes.
BOB EDWARDS: There’s a guy named Jonathan Richman, singer-songwriter, he does wonderful stuff. Unlike anything you’ll hear anywhere else. And I love the stuff. But he had some kind of chip on his shoulder about interviews. I don’t know why he gives them. So I’d ask him about a lyric or the inspiration for one of his songs and he’d say ‘what do you want to know that for?’ or ‘what kind of question is that?’
BYT: Contrarian, eh?
BOB EDWARDS: ‘Jonathan, I like your stuff, I’m trying to help you here, that’s why we’re doing this’. And I thought it was me. But I talked to Noah Adams, also NPR, pal of mine. And he tried to interview Jonathan and Jonathan walked out on him.
BYT: What’s your favorite interview that you’ve done?
BOB EDWARDS: There’s a Jesuit priest in East Los Angeles named Father Greg Boyle, who works with young Latino gang members. Gets them out of gangs, finds them jobs. He’s very good at it and he’s very good at telling the story of these young people and their lives. It’s just GREAT radio.
BYT: Ever interview Gene Simmons?
BOB EDWARDS: (laughs) No, but my friend Terry Gross sure has.
BYT: I assume you would have had better luck with him?
BOB EDWARDS: Well, no one has ever asked me about my ‘anatomy’…
BYT: Which leads me to my next question…
BOB EDWARDS: (laughs really hard) It’s doing just fine, thanks.
BYT: You heard it here first, on brightestyoungthings.com
BYT: Have you ever interviewed Charlie Rose?
BOB EDWARDS: Yes, and he’s also interviewed me.
BYT: Which one went better? Who did a better job is what I’m trying to say.
BOB EDWARDS: Well, I do (laughs)!
BYT: At being interviewed, right?
BOB EDWARDS: (laughs) He works at the Bloomberg Building in New York. I walked in and it started snowing, and by the time I got out of there it was a friggin’ blizzard. LaGuardia was closed. I couldn’t believe the snow fell that fast.
BYT: So you were stuck with Charlie Rose for like four days?
BOB EDWARDS: (laughs)
BYT: That sounds like a sitcom: Bob & Charlie’s Snow Days!
BOB EDWARDS: Stuck with Charlie Rose!
BYT: Is good interviewing akin to just being a good conversationalist?
BOB EDWARDS: Yeah, ideally they just sound like conversations, that’s what I’m going for. There’s not a lot of that on the radio anymore. There’s a hell of a lot of shouting on the radio.
BYT: Yeah, Terry Gross, I think you’re referring to, right?
BOB EDWARDS: (laughs) Yeah! No, I’m talking about AM talk radio.
BYT: Who does Bob Edwards well? Who else is doing the type of interviewing that you think is done well?
BOB EDWARDS: Terry is. I’ve been on her show, she’s been on mine. She’s thoughtful, she’s engaging, she’s very thorough, well-researched. She’ll ask the offbeat question every now and then that throws you off.
BYT: I thought you were gonna say Howard Stern, so that kinda blows my next question.
BOB EDWARDS: (laughs) You two are weird.
BYT: What makes Bob Edwards nervous?
BOB EDWARDS: Besides this?
BYT: Yeah. I seem to have that effect on people.
BOB EDWARDS: I don’t know. Maybe I’ve learned to not be nervous anymore. I’m engaged, maybe that’ll work.
BYT: So there’s no one you’ve interviewed that makes you get butterflies in your stomach?
BOB EDWARDS: Not anymore. I think the last one was many years ago, and it was Lauren Bacall. I looked into her eyes and forgot what I was doing and she said something very sexy to me. She said, “Where’s the loo?” (laughs).
BYT: So it doesn’t happen anymore.
BOB EDWARDS: No.
BYT: That’s good. You spent time in Louisville. Do you follow horse racing?
BOB EDWARDS: Not really. I do derby time.
BYT: Do you have any insight as to why there’s never been another celebrity jockey since Willie Shoemaker?
BOB EDWARDS: I think Calvin Burrel is becoming quite a celebrity because he’s got a story. People love a guy who’s a working class Joe, who’s spent years and years at his trade, finally getting a chance to ride the rail. And now he’s getting back-to-back victories. He was on The Tonight Show, and he’s got this “aw shucks” style about him and I think people love that.
BYT: So how many times have you been to the Derby?
BOB EDWARDS: I’d say about seven or eight times.
BYT: Any memorable stories?
BYT: Oh yeah, there are lots. The first time I went, I was in college and there were always people getting naked, climbing the flagpole. That was fun. There was a mosh pit one year when it was really muddy as well.
BYT: When was this?
BOB EDWARDS: It was in ’68 I think, and the winner was disqualified for drugs. It was a painkiller and was considered juicing.
[Ed. Note: The story of the disqualification of Dancer’s Image is worth a read]
BYT: How would you fix college football?
BOB EDWARDS: Put it under the NCAA. It’s powerless to do anything about these conference raids. It’s hurting me badly. I’m a Louisville man.
BYT: Would you pay college athletes?
BOB EDWARDS: I’m on two sides of that. I can see how they’re exploited. But the cost of tuition of these schools is what, 40 grand? That’s not nothing.
BYT: Speaking of sports, do you think you could take Steve Inskeep in a wrestling match?
BOB EDWARDS: (laughs) What? Arm wrestling?
BYT: No. Real wrestling.
BOB EDWARDS: Mind wrestling?
BOB EDWARDS: Greco-Roman. I would need some practice. I’m spotting him twenty years, you know. Maybe more.
BYT: Why do you think Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me is so annoying?
BOB EDWARDS: It’s not annoying, I love it. Carl [Kassel] lives for that show.
BYT: Have you ever had him record your answering machine?
BOB EDWARDS: No, you can’t, he won’t do it. You have to be on the show and win it. I tried to call in that shit, and I gave his induction speech at the National Radio Hall of Fame. I read at his wedding! Still, nothing.
BYT: You could get him on the phone one day and just record it.
BOB EDWARDS: If he returns my calls!
BYT: Are you a better interviewer standing up or sitting down?
BOB EDWARDS: At this stage of my life, I sit.
BYT: So it’s not more difficult?
BOB EDWARDS: I did the blues guy, John Lee Hooker. He was in bed at the Motel 50, over there near Fort Myer. He did not rise.
BYT: Have you interviewed many metal bands?
BOB EDWARDS: No. Lots of different kinds of bands, but not any metal bands.
BYT: So you don’t have any insight on which metal bands are the biggest pussies?
BOB EDWARDS: No. Or hair bands or any of that. Americana, yes.
BYT: So what Americana bands are the biggest pussies?
BOB EDWARDS: I love John Hyatt, I love Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Woods. That’s my kind of music. Neil Young…
BYT: Not taking the bait, eh? So you’re more of an outlaw country guy than a Nashville country guy?
BOB EDWARDS: Yeah.
BYT: Which of your honorary degrees is your favorite?
BOB EDWARDS: Well, all of them. There’s eight or so. DePaul was fun was because my fellow honoree was David Simon, and we had a great time talking during the commencement.
BYT: Did you ask him what happened with the fifth season of The Wire?
BOB EDWARDS: Yes. And he was just starting Tremaine at that point so…he blurbed my book, actually.
BYT: As a journalist, what was your take on fifth season of The Wire?
BOB EDWARDS: That was The Baltimore Sun, right?
BOB EDWARDS: He even worked in actual surnames of people in his life that he was not fond of. He had a character named Marimo who served at NPR briefly. He thought he was too focused on doing pieces that would win Pulitzer and not the grit of Charm City. He’s at a place in his life where he can.
BYT: Did you think it was an accurate representation of a newspaper?
BOB EDWARDS: They dealt with a lot of issues that needed dealing with, including plagiarism.
BYT: What are your thoughts on the future of journalism?
BOB EDWARDS: I worry about the lack of investigative reporting with the demise of newspapers. There are several efforts to do it online, thank god. But the future of journalism is online. There better be more on the line.
BYT: And what about the future of Gonzo journalism?
BOB EDWARDS: (laughs) I think it went with Hunter to outer space. (laughs)