In the 43 years she has been with St. Louis Public Radio, Mary Edwards has produced thousands of segments, including more than 3,000 dedicated to the arts, and over 154 broadcasts of the St. Louis Symphony. In recognition of this incredible body of work, Mary was recently inducted into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame.
We talked to Mary this week about her journey to St. Louis Public Radio, the many changes she has seen during her tenure, and what keeps her going.
What does it mean to be a Senior Talk Show Producer at St. Louis Public Radio?
It means that I oversee the daily talk show St. Louis on the Air. It’s the producer’s job to manage the content - making sure there are two interesting topics for each show and the most appropriate guests to discuss them, to field the multitudes of calls and emails from people hoping to be on the show or to arrange for the person they represent to appear, and to maintain the calendar and database of topics and guests for each segment.
The Senior part of my title indicates that I now have two additional producers to help in all these duties: Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt. The supervisory part of my job is easy because Alex and Kelly are so responsible in their work and we all work so well together, but occasionally there are decisions to be made that fall to me, and if something unforeseen arises, I’ll be the one to stay late or work on the weekend to address it if that is necessary. There are also a number of administrative duties.
Tell me about your path to St. Louis Public Radio. Why did you choose to come here?
I actually came to St. Louis Public Radio by accident. I was a music student at UMSL when the station went on the air and I was invited by a friend to program a classical music show as a volunteer. Just before graduation, I was offered a part time paying job that I accepted thinking it would be a good way to spend the summer before starting a music teaching job in the Fall. It wasn’t long before I quit looking for that teaching job and, a year later, accepted a full time position. 43 years later and having served in a number of capacities, I am still here and am so glad that’s how it worked out.
What’s the one thing you can’t work without?: I can’t start my day without my one large mug of coffee.
How do you choose topics for St. Louis on the Air? How do you prioritize?
I like to say that we are almost always “on duty” when it comes to identifying topics. Wherever we go and whatever we do, our “antennae” are up to find engaging topics. It could be attending an event, reading the newspaper, exploring the internet, monitoring social media, talking with friends and acquaintances - I never throw out any kind of paper or magazine that comes into my house until I am satisfied there isn’t a show idea in it - and we are pitched many more ideas than we can possibly do.
We work closely with the STLPR newsroom, looking for things that can benefit from a longer discussion than a news spot or news feature. Ours is the only local show, so we give first priority to local topics or trying to find a local angle to a national story. We also specifically look for important topics that are not being covered by other media that we can bring to light, and we pay attention to topics dealing with arts and culture in the region.
Is there a guest you want and haven’t been able to get?
I have always wanted to have former President Jimmy Carter on the show. Given his age, it’s not likely that it will ever happen. The closest we came was talking with his wife Roslyn about her book on the mental illness crisis.
Let's Talk Favorites:
- Favorite person/entity to follow on social media - To be absolutely honest, it is my daughter-in-law, Emily, who frequently posts cute photos of my two grandsons.
- Favorite NPR host - It is a tie between Morning Edition host David Greene and Weekend All Things Considered host Michel Martin.
- Favorite holiday - Christmas. I have always loved the music, both listening and being involved in the music program at my church. I also enjoy cooking and baking for my family, and more recently, experiencing Christmas through the eyes of my two year old grandson was beyond description.
- Favorite sports team - I have been a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals for as long as I remember and grew up listening to Harry Caray and Jack Buck broadcast the games.
- Favorite spot in the city - Powell Hall
What is your favorite part of being a producer/working for STLPR?
What’s great about being a producer is that if I see something that needs addressing, I can craft a talk show segment to address it. And one huge perk is that along the way I have learned where many of the resources in the city are. But the favorite part of producing the talk show is getting feedback that we have informed, enlightened, or entertained our listeners. And the absolute best day is when we hear that we have actually made a difference in someone’s life. The second favorite part of my job is being able to walk into Powell Hall on Saturday nights and play a part in bringing the St. Louis Symphony concerts to everyone in our listening area as well as listeners all over the world by internet.
How did the St. Louis Symphony broadcasts start?
KFUO broadcast the Symphony for one season before being sold. St. Louis Public Radio took over the broadcasts the following September which was the beginning of a wonderful partnership. We began with the 2010-11 season and just completed our seventh season.
What have been the biggest changes in the way you do your job now vs. when you started?
Just about everything has changed about my job in the 43 years I have worked here. In 1974, a computer was a main frame in another building that was accessed by punch cards or a terminal that resembled an IBM Selectric typewriter. There were no PCs so we used typewriters and it was years before we got a fax machine. In the studio we recorded on reel to reel tape which had to be edited with a razor blade and splicing tape and we recorded short pieces of sound on tape cartridges that looked like the old 8 tracks that were popular briefly in the 70s. We had a single low quality line from NPR and programs were shipped on reel to reel tapes. The format was mostly classical music with some news and jazz. All Things Considered was in its infancy and Morning Edition didn’t exist.
Over the next decade NPR began distributing its programming via satellite, we received the first two compact disc players that came into the city, and we began to record remote concerts digitally. It was the second decade before we got our first PC and the third before we started recording digitally in the studios. In the early 90s we added entertainment programs such as Car Talk and Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. In 1996 we switched to a news/talk format, and by the mid-2000s we got digital boards in all the studios and everyone had a workstation at their desk. In 2012 we moved into the state of the art UMSL at Grand Center building, complete with nine studios.
What are you up to when you're not working?
- Music artist currently in heavy rotation - The Los Angeles Master Chorale performing choral music by Morten Lauridsen: “Ubi Caritas,” “Magnum Mysterium” and “Lux Aeterna”
- Book you’ve read most recently - “The Soloist” which is L. A. Times columnist Steve Lopez’s gripping account of his friendship with Nathaniel Ayers, a gifted but homeless musician who struggles with mental illness.
- Do you play a musical instrument - Yes. Flute was my major instrument while I studied music education in college and I still play it frequently at my church.
- Last movie you watched - “The Music of Strangers:” Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble”
What are your biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge of producing the talk show is the pressure I feel as the quality controller and gatekeeper. I always aspire to have the most interesting and enlightening segments possible. Occasionally, despite our best efforts, a guest doesn’t meet our expectations or the discussion doesn’t turn out to be as interesting as we expected. Then I spend too much time second guessing how the situation could have been improved. Also, there are way more interesting guests and topics than we have room for, and I always feel badly for the ones that don’t get on.
Is there a story or two about your work with STLPR that really stick out as particularly funny or memorable?Former Cardinals pitcher/outfielder Rick Ankiel was scheduled to be on the show recently and his appearance coincided with a matinee of the “Lion King” at the Fox, which brought buses full of children and left the streets unnavigable. Just minutes before airtime, Ankiel had not arrived but two of the three guests (all librarians) for the second segment had, so we whisked them into the studio and swapped the segments. When Ankiel arrived, he told the receptionist he wasn’t sure he was legally parked, so she escorted the third librarian to the studio and Alex and I moved Ankiel’s car!
On the serious side, the show of which I am most proud and which is on a short list of the most memorable experiences of my life is the town hall meeting our show hosted at Wellspring Church in downtown Ferguson on August 28, 2014, just 19 days after Michael Brown’s death. We brought in NPR’s Michel Martin to moderate and the panel included Ferguson mayor James Knowles. In addition to airing the town hall during the regular St. Louis on the Air time, we offered it nationally and 30 stations aired it - including WNYC, the public radio station in New York City.
We are planning on inviting St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson to do a show before a live audience at some point after her first 100 days.
We will all be sure to tune in for that, and all the other incredible stories from St. Louis on the Air, which airs at noon each weekday on St. Louis Public Radio.