Radio host Bob Edwards, who drew millions of listeners to National Public Radio for three decades but was demoted earlier this year, is taking his signature voice to a competing radio universe, according to Edwards and executives of Washington-based XM Satellite Radio.
Starting Oct. 4, Edwards will host his own morning show on a new channel being launched by XM, as the growing subscription radio service makes its move into public-radio programming.
Edwards, who was unceremoniously dumped as anchor of NPR's "Morning Edition" in March, prompting widespread public protests, will bring the blend of news, talk and interviews he was famous for at NPR to the new "Bob Edwards Show," airing 8 to 9 a.m. daily -- opposite "Morning Edition." The show will repeat immediately afterward.
"They want to give me a program, so I can continue to host and be heard every day instead of occasionally, as I would have been at NPR," Edwards said Tuesday while driving around Maine as part of a three-month book tour/public radio fundraising effort that ends this weekend.
"It's also new. It's like being at NPR when I joined NPR in 1974. It was less than three years old -- as old as XM is now. I get to be a pioneer again. How often does someone get that opportunity twice?"
Edwards, 57, had agreed to remain at NPR as a correspondent -- he was expected to return to work shortly -- but had hinted recently that he might be moving on. What NPR didn't know, however, was that Edwards had been won over by the largest satellite radio network in the country. After developing its own music programming in its first three years, XM is pursuing its ambition to distribute public-radio programming and its own original shows in the public radio vein.
With that in mind, XM President and CEO Hugh Panero, who has been developing the new channel (XM Channel 133, premiering Sept. 1), heavily wooed Edwards in hopes his presence would expand XM's subscriber base (By the end of his 25 years as anchor, Edwards drew 13 million early-morning listeners to NPR's "Morning Edition" every week). XM, which offers more than 100 channels, currently has 2.1 million subscribers, who pay $9.99 per month for the nationwide service. An XM receiver that can be switched from home to car to boombox costs $99.
XM Satellite Radio has yet to officially announce the Edwards deal. But Panero, reached on vacation with his family yesterday, could not hide his excitement.
"Bob Edwards is a guy I respect, a guy who has done nothing but contribute his entire life to public radio, and continues to offer great value to his listeners," Panero said. "I could not be more thrilled to be able to offer him a place to continue to do what he does extremely well."
NPR management, which has acknowledged that the Edwards move was mishandled, issued a statement after news of the deal leaked yesterday: "We understand that Bob has decided to end his distinguished tenure at NPR. We wish him the best of luck in his new endeavor and thank him for the contributions he has made to public radio."
Edwards -- who will be working with former NPR producer Mark Schramm -- is still in the early stages of developing the show's format.
"It'll be loose," he said. "It'll be long interviews, short interviews, and then maybe departments. . . . You've got to have the news . . . it's not going to be all features, yet it's not going to be the Financial Times, either."
Panero hopes the show will anchor a still-developing lineup of programming, some of it created by XM and some coming from public-radio providers, including Public Radio International, American Public Media (an arm of Minnesota Public Radio) and WBUR in Boston. NPR has an exclusive distribution agreement with Sirius, the other major satellite radio network, whose subscription base is a fraction of XM's.
The people at XM "get radio," Edwards said. "They're excited about it. They remember how it was and they want to go off in new directions and be part of radio's future. With all those channels, you can do both, of course, and that's exciting."
Edwards was in Austin yesterday at a public radio convention, where he was winding up the publicity tour for his book on Edward R. Murrow and preparing to receive an award for his longtime fundraising efforts for public radio. Throughout that book tour, he said, he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support he received from listeners, who also sent him mountains of mail in his final days on "Morning Edition." Edwards and many listeners were upset by the abruptness of the decision, the suggestion that he was too old, and his not being allowed to remain in the job a few more months until his 25th anniversary as host of "Morning Edition."
"People in book lines will walk up to me, hand me a book, open their mouth to speak and just bawl," he said. "It's emotional. People, they've heard about my dog and brought presents for my dog. . . . I tell you, public radio listeners are something."
Panero was one of those listeners, a self-described fan who saw in Edwards's demotion an opportunity that dovetailed with what he and his staff are trying to develop at XM.
"A lot of fans have shown their devotion to Bob Edwards in a lot of different ways," Panero said, noting the 35,000 e-mails NPR received in protest. "As a CEO and president of a radio network, I have some other options at my disposal."
Edwards only recently made his decision, after months of mulling various opportunities. And although it's clear he's displeased with how his career ended at NPR, he says he's ready to move on.
"It's been a couple of months, and I've turned it over in my head again and again," he said. "I think I was pretty sure all along. Which is not to say that it was an easy thing to do at all. Thirty years, for heaven's sake. That's kind of bittersweet.
"I'm sad," he continued, "and yet very happy at the same time. I thought until March that I would retire from there, or maybe even die there. I had no notion of being anywhere else. I'm a loyal guy. But here's an opportunity, and I think I ought to take it."
Besides, he said, the new job won't get him out of bed at 1 a.m. And he barely has to alter his commute.
"It's not terribly far from NPR," Edwards said of XM's Northeast Washington headquarters. "I know the way. And they're very nice to me."