'Morning Edition': The Radio News Show That Almost Wasn't | St. Louis Public Radio

'Morning Edition': The Radio News Show That Almost Wasn't

Nov 5, 2019
Originally published on November 5, 2019 10:53 pm

Morning Edition turns 40 on Tuesday. Over the years, NPR's morning newsmagazine program has covered seven presidents, two Persian Gulf wars, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and nine Star Wars movies.

But the show was almost canceled before it even started — and there were obstacles to just keeping it on the air.

"They did this pilot with the original staff, and it was awful," said Bob Edwards, who hosted Morning Edition from 1979 to 2004.

The pilot played over closed circuit for NPR member stations' news and program directors, who complained that the show sounded too much like commercial all-news radio.

"It was absolutely a disaster. It was very chatty. It was like bad small-market television," Edwards said. "A lot of member stations had heard the pilot, and they didn't want any part of that."

Jay Kernis, a member of the original Morning Edition staff, said member station staffs were expecting to hear something that sounded more like a morning version of All Things Considered.

"NPR hired two producers from commercial radio [to develop the show]. They were quite accomplished gentlemen. They worked at a local Washington station that had 50% of the radio audience in the morning," Kernis said. "Unfortunately, they really didn't understand what NPR was about."

With criticism of the show cascading, NPR fired the producers from the commercial news station and also let go the two announcers who hosted the pilots, Mary Tillotson, who went on to work as a White House correspondent and talk show host for CNN, and Pete Williams, NBC News' justice correspondent.

Jay Kernis edits tape for a story at NPR in the late 1970s. He left Morning Edition in 1985. Kernis is now a producer for CBS's Sunday Morning.
George Geesey / NPR

The show's major retooling came just two weeks before Morning Edition was set to premiere. There was talk of delaying the launch, but stations had already heavily promoted it.

"There was a meeting at the home of the news director at the time," Kernis recalled. "And the president of NPR, Frank Mankiewicz, looked at me and said, 'Well, you seem to know something about radio. We want you to get the show on the air.' "

An early boycott

Kernis was just 27 years old. He had produced arts and culture stories. He'd never run a daily news show. "I was pretty scared," he said.

First things first. Kernis needed a host. So he borrowed one from across the hall: Edwards, who co-hosted All Things Considered with Susan Stamberg. Edwards agreed to temporarily host Morning Edition for a few weeks until the show "got off the ground." Barbara Hoctor, a Washington, D.C.-based radio journalist, was hired as Edwards' co-host.

Armed with new hosts and a new format, Kernis launched Morning Edition in just 10 days.

"I remember at one point Mankiewicz looking at me and saying, 'Just don't embarrass me,' " Kernis said.

The revamped Morning Edition was warmly received by station personnel, but Edwards said the show was not out of the woods yet.

"The [NPR] reporters boycotted Morning Edition," he said.

Edwards said the reporters were already working long hours filing pieces for All Things Considered. Now they had to provide stories for Morning Edition without a raise.

Cokie Roberts, a Morning Edition contributor until her death in September, was one of those angry reporters. In a 1989 interview she said, "They [the NPR managers] told us we wouldn't be doing very much for it at all, that we'd be writing a news spot here and there. They lied!"

But Roberts and other NPR reporters eventually relented.

"They had all of these statistics that showed that morning is when a lot of people like to listen to the radio, and they knew that all of us were egomaniacal enough so that once we found out everyone was listening, we'd beg to be on that program — and right they were," she said.

Shaping a show

And there were yet other big hurdles to clear.

NPR newscasters Jackie Judd (left) and Carl Kasell (right) with Morning Edition host Bob Edwards (center), circa 1979. Judd became a reporter for ABC News and broke the Monica Lewinsky story. Kasell was the show's lead newscaster for 30 years before joining Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! full time in 2008.
Stan Barouh / NPR

The day before the show's debut, militant students had taken over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran. Edwards remembered that it was other news outlets' lead story for months. "Did we have [a reporter] in Tehran? No. No one near Tehran," Edwards said. [Morning Edition debuted on Nov. 5, 1979. Check out the first show's rundown of segments here.]

NPR had only one foreign-based reporter at the time, Robert Siegel, future All Things Considered host.

So with few overseas resources and reporters reluctant to file pieces, how do you fill a daily two-hour show? "We did a lot of live interviews," Edwards said.

"We wanted to establish ourselves on Capitol Hill, and so we would interview a member of Congress every day. I thought it was ridiculous. I called it 'Meet the Member,' " Edwards said. "But, you know, it was a good thing. It was very smart that they had me doing that."

Edwards interviewed some of the biggest names in politics before they were big, including then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and then-Tennessee Rep. Al Gore.

Kernis also tapped a lot of commentators — ones who helped build an audience for the show through distinctive voices. There was Ellen Gilchrist, a short-story writer and novelist from Fayetteville, Ark., who with a gentle Southern accent would wax poetic about creativity and the joy of writing. John Ciardi, an etymologist, explained the origins of words and phrases with wit and charm. And Red Barber, a Hall of Fame broadcaster, was supposed to talk about sports with Edwards on Fridays but wound up veering off into advice about gardening, watermelons and sometimes news about cats. Edwards calls Barber, considered appointment listening, "the greatest audience builder for NPR."

"It really prepares you to do live seat-of-the-pants breaking news when you're dealing with Red Barber," Edwards said. "It sounds ridiculous, but I think I did a better job on Sept. 11 talking to Red Barber for 12 years."

Edwards said the commentators were essential to building Morning Edition's identity.

"You put an Ellen Gilchrist on. You put a Red Barber on, and we didn't sound like this, you know, elite Northeastern-U.S. inside-the-Beltway outfit," Edwards said. "We sounded like America — and still do."

Looking back over 40 years of Morning Edition, Kernis said there's one moment from the early days that stands out for him. It came shortly after NPR hired the producers from commercial radio to develop the show.

"[They] thought we were a messy group of producers," Kernis said.

So they put in a dress code.

"Now maybe that says what was wrong with the pilots, you know," he said. "They paid more attention to what we looked like than what we were making."

Correction: 11/04/19

A previous caption for the Morning Edition staff photograph misidentified Barbara Hoctor.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

With happy birthday wishes for this program, MORNING EDITION is 40 years old today. Here is what the first show sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOB EDWARDS: Good morning. Today is Guy Fawkes Day. Guy's plot to blow up Parliament was discovered on this day in 1605. Today is the beginning of National Split Pea Soup Week, and it's the debut of this program. I'm Bob Edwards.

BARBARA HOCTOR: I'm Barbara Hoctor. Today is Monday, November 5. This is NPR's MORNING EDITION.

(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS' "ORIGINAL MORNING EDITION THEME")

GREENE: The show debuted on this day in 1979. And over the years, it has covered seven presidents, two Persian Gulf Wars, September 11 and also nine "Star Wars" movies. But here's the thing - MORNING EDITION was almost cancelled before it even started.

EDWARDS: They did this pilot. Only the stations heard it. It was closed-circuit. And it was awful. It was absolutely a disaster.

GREENE: That is Bob Edwards, who hosted this show from 1979 to 2004.

EDWARDS: It was very chatty. It was like bad small-market television. And a lot of member stations heard the pilot, and they didn't want any part of that.

JAY KERNIS: There were many pilots. They were all pretty bad.

GREENE: That is Jay Kernis. He was part of the original MORNING EDITION staff. And he says, in 1979, NPR hired two managers from an all-news radio station to develop the show.

KERNIS: They were quite accomplished gentlemen. They worked at a local Washington station that had 50% of the radio audience in the morning. Unfortunately, they really didn't understand what NPR was about. And the stations heard these pilots and said it sounded like commercial radio.

EDWARDS: Well, I think that's an insult to commercial radio (laughter). Commercial radio was not that bad (laughter).

GREENE: All right. So two weeks before MORNING EDITION was set to premiere, NPR fired the managers from the commercial news station and the two announcers who hosted the pilots.

KERNIS: There was a meeting at the home of the news director at the time. And the president of NPR, Frank Mankiewicz, looked at me and said, well, you seem to know something about radio. We want you to get the show on the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: First things first, Kernis needed a host, so he borrowed one from across the hall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

EDWARDS: This is Bob Edwards. I'll be away from All Things Considered for a while. Instead, I'll be with you each morning for National Public Radio's new MORNING EDITION.

GREENE: A while turned into nearly a quarter century. Barbara Hoctor joined the show as Bob's co-host. And 10 days later, MORNING EDITION was on the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS' "ORIGINAL MORNING EDITION THEME")

KERNIS: I remember at one point Frank Mankiewicz looking at me and saying, just don't embarrass me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

EDWARDS: Today is the day the Nuclear Regulatory Commission tells Congress that no nuclear plants will be built until new safety...

GREENE: That first show was well-received. But Bob Edwards says they weren't out of the woods yet, especially with NPR's own staff.

EDWARDS: The reporters boycotted MORNING EDITION. They said, we're going to be doing twice the work for the same pay. And we don't want any part of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COKIE ROBERTS: They told us that we really wouldn't be doing very much for it at all, that we'd be writing a news spot here or there. They lied.

GREENE: That is Cokie Roberts, who was with this program until her death in September. Here she is in a 1989 interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERTS: They knew they'd have us over a barrel in the end because they had all of these statistics that showed them that morning is when a lot of people like to listen to the radio. And they knew that all of us were egomaniacal enough so that once we found out that everybody was listening, we'd beg to be on that program. And right they were.

EDWARDS: So the program had the pilot, strike one against it, the reporter boycott, strike two. And then strike three, the program debuted on November 5, 1979. On November 4, 1979, militant students took over the American embassy in Tehran. And it was the lead story in everybody's news for the next 15 months. Did we have anyone in Tehran? No (laughter), we had no one near Tehran.

GREENE: But MORNING EDITION covered the news and built an audience through live interviews with newsmakers, politicians and celebrities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCASTS)

EDWARDS: Dr. Kissinger, as the Watergate cover-up came unraveled, why didn't you quit?

HENRY KISSINGER: Because I felt it was my duty to hold our foreign policy together. Whatever...

EDWARDS: Visitors to the Carter Presidential Center can ask you the question, why didn't you bomb Iran?

JIMMY CARTER: Would have resulted, in my opinion, in the almost instant execution of all the American hostages...

EDWARDS: I have a confession. I'm almost 36 years old, and I enjoy your show (laughter).

FRED ROGERS: Anybody likes to be in touch with somebody who's honest.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?")

ROGERS: (Singing) It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood...

GREENE: Confessions with Bob Edwards. All right. So MORNING EDITION also built its audience through distinctive commentators, none more distinctive than Red Barber.

EDWARDS: Red Barber was a legendary pioneer broadcaster who was the voice of first the Cincinnati Reds, then the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees in - from the '30s through the '60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RED BARBER: Joe DiMaggio up - swung on, belted. It's a long one - deep into left center. Back for it, Gionfriddo - back, back, back, back, back, back. He makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen. Oh, doctor.

GREENE: Every Friday for more than a decade, Bob would talk live with Red from his home in Tallahassee, Fla. And it was appointment listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BARBER: Good morning, Robert. And this is the 20 of June. And more than that, there's an old saying around these parts that when the crape myrtle blooms, the watermelons are ripe. And the crape myrtle is in full flower.

EDWARDS: I've never heard that saying before.

GREENE: Yet Red was supposed to talk about sports - at least, that's what was supposed to happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BARBER: Did you happen to see the Sunday Times - The New York Times on November the 14, Bob?

EDWARDS: Red...

BARBER: There's a four-column story and a two-column-wide picture of an Abyssinian cat named Toob.

EDWARDS: (Laughter) Not again, Red.

You know, it sounds ridiculous, but I think I did a better job on 9/11 talking to Red Barber for 12 years. That really prepares you to do live, seat-of-the-pants breaking news. And it was the greatest audience builder for NPR. So many people were drawn to NPR because of Red Barber.

GREENE: Other listeners were drawn to the writer Ellen Gilchrist, a short story writer and novelist from Fayetteville, Ark., who would talk about the art of writing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ELLEN GILCHRIST: A poem is a ball of energy that must be very tight, all the excess words paired away so that the images are clear. One good image is better than...

EDWARDS: You put Ellen Gilchrist on, you put Red Barber on, and we didn't sound like this, you know, elite, northeastern U.S., inside-the-Beltway outfit. We sounded like America - and still do.

GREENE: That's Bob Edwards, who hosted MORNING EDITION for its first 24 1/2 years. And we'll be celebrating this program's 40th anniversary throughout the week with a series of segments produced by a legend on this show's staff, senior producer Barry Gordemer.

(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS' "ORIGINAL MORNING EDITION THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.