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."
When the neighborhood kids were outside playing ball, Walker traveled with the Shadow, Fibber McGee and Jack Benny to a world where he had the eyes of a fighter pilot.
"Not many people get more from radio than Eddie," Scott says. "What do they call it, theater of the mind? That's perfect for him."
Soon after his family moved to Washington, Walker's parents turned him from listener to broadcaster by giving him a phonographic oscillator, a kind of low-watt toy transmitter. Walker hooked it up to an outside aerial, boosting its range to the end of the block, and his radio career began, at age 8.
"I had my own show on that thing," he says.
After finishing his schooling at the Maryland School for the Blind, Walker was ready for the real thing. He applied to American University's new broadcasting program, the first of its kind in the country.
He had the voice, but not the eyes. The District's rehabilitation agency would pick up tuition for a radio major only if Walker could produce a professional willing to vouch for the concept of a blind person functioning in a broadcast booth.
"Everyone said it was impossible," Walker remembers. "They wanted me to be a social worker or a piano tuner. That's what blind people did."
He finally found a program director willing to call Walker's ambitions feasible. He became AU's first blind student, helped launch WAMU, then a tiny AM campus station, and hit it off with Scott, a fellow student broadcaster.
"We were doing satire from the first words we ever spoke to each other," says Scott, who once let Walker take the wheel of his car on Whitehurst Freeway to satisfy his friend's curiosity about driving. "We're like brothers, only better. We really love each other."
For years, they scrounged on-air gigs. Walker found ways to accommodate his blindness. His father dictated commercial copy as Walker typed it in Braille. At one station, Walker would deliver the headlines by listening to the news broadcast of another station in his headphones and repeating the information into his own mike.
Like an interpreter, "he did it instantly," Scott says. "One day, he put the headphones on and it was the 'Bible Hour.' They'd screwed up the schedule. Ed said, 'Due to technical difficulties, we won't have the news at this time.' "
The pair hit the big time in July 1955, when WRC signed them as the "Joy Boys." They were so popular, kids reenacted their skits the next day in many a local classroom. Their theme song was hummed everywhere. Their guests got bigger and bigger: Don Adams wrote a skit for them; Bill Cosby dropped by.
Scott went on to play Bozo the Clown and Ronald McDonald on Washington TV, and to become weatherman and funnyman on NBC, but he and Walker have remained a team off the air and both look back at the "Joy Boys" time as a creative high point.
"That was a wonderful time," says Walker's wife, Nancy, who is sighted. "We were invited to Constitution Hall for concerts, movie premieres at the Uptown. I was always amazed at how many people we met who had no idea Ed was blind."
Scola says her father has always hated to be shut out of any arena or activity just because he walks with a white stick. She remembers long games of hide-and-seek with him.
"You could hide from him right in the middle of the room," she says. "I would always giggle, but my sister could be absolutely still."
Walker doesn't often talk about his blindness on the air. His official biography at WAMU doesn't mention it at all. Those who know him say he's spent his life making sure his achievements, which included shows on WMAL (630 AM) and NewsChannel 8, are measured on their merits, not by his disability.
"I don't want to get an award because I can't see," Walker says. "It's not important. A blind person can do just about anything, except drive a car or fly an airplane. And Willard let me drive once, so maybe I can do that, too."