WAMU's Ed Walker, Host of 'The Big Broadcast,' Has Spent His Life in D.C. Radio

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

On a recent afternoon at WAMU, an engineer cues some melodramatic theme music -- the swelling strings and sonorous piano of a more earnest age -- and the smooth man in smoked shades leans into the mike. "Hello again everybody," he croons. "My name is Ed Walker and this is 'The Big Broadcast.' "

Walker has been doing this every week since becoming host of the popular old-time radio series Sunday nights on 88.5 FM almost 20 years ago. He roooounds his vowels and pops his final T's and K's, just as he's done throughout a career of talking on the radio that spans nearly six decades. And he smoothly runs two right-hand fingertips over the bumpy sheets of Braille that help him negotiate his world -- a unique realm of rich sound, high drama and absolute darkness -- just as he has done since the day he was born in 1932.

"We'll have another episode of 'Johnny Dollar,' America's fabulous freelance insurance investigator; we'll have 'Dragnet' and 'Gunsmoke,' the 'Adventures of Philip Marlowe' and then 'Gangbusters,' " Walker says, setting the stage for his weekly, backward-facing cavalcade of pop culture from a time when the gumshoes were tough as 20-minute eggs and dames were to be trusted only as long as it took to get one in a lovebird's clinch.

"Right now, it's time to forget everything except the nostalgia of old radio," Walker purrs, "as we go back into the '30s, '40s and '50s and bring back . . . The Big Broadcast."

Swoon, violins, swoon.

Is it easier for a sightless man to look back? For Walker, the answer is usually no. Despite his role as undisputed dean of long-gone radio, the 77-year-old is typically too busy to be mired in rear-view longing. The husband of 52 years and grandfather of five still plies the city via MetroAccess, traveling each morning to NBC's Washington bureau, where he works part-time answering phones for his lifelong friend and radio partner, Willard Scott, who still does occasional weathercasts for the "Today" show. Walker is fully wired, surfing the modern world with text-to-voice software and scanning the skies of satellite radio.

Now, Walker is poised to ascend into the Radio Hall of Fame in Chicago, awaiting the outcome of an online vote (http://www.radiohof.org) that ends Aug. 1. As the well-wishing e-mails and calls have poured in, Walker has spent a lot of time lately pondering a life of broadcasts gone by.

"Radio has been everything to me," Walker says, sitting in the office he shares with Scott at NBC studios on Nebraska Avenue NW, its walls lined with sombreros, banners and the other goofy souvenirs of Scott's zany "Today" show career. "When I was a kid, radio was my comic books, movies, everything. Now I look back and marvel that I was able to make a career out of it for 50 years in one market. I've gotten to interview all the people I used to listen to -- Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby. It's just amazing."

Since he and Scott signed on as a DJ duo at WOL in 1952, Walker's voice has been heard on Washington radio more than just about any sound short of the emergency broadcast test signal. He's been a big band jock, talk show host and, most famously, half of the "Joy Boys" tandem through which he and Scott dominated Washington airwaves for nearly two decades. Each day on the old WRC, the two buddies sang their theme song ("We are the Joy Boys of radio, we chase electrons to and fro!"), voiced a multitude of silly characters, ad-libbed clunky sound effects and riffed seamlessly about everyday absurdities, a pair of Siamese jesters joined at the mike.

"That was the best," Scott says. "That was the most fun I ever had in this business. Anybody who saw Eddie work, they just marveled at him."

But getting that first chance to prove himself was anything but easy for a young blind man in the early 1950s. Walker had been obsessed with radio almost since he was born, completely blind, in Forrest, Ill., during the Depression. According to family lore, little Eddie's first words were "Turn the radio on." His mother told of how he once snooped out the big Delco portable she had hidden in a closet awaiting Christmas Day.

"She would say, 'You'd think it would be easy to hide something from a blind kid,' " recalls Walker's daughter, Susan Scola, 51, a teacher in Potomac. "But not a radio."

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