'Morning Edition' Celebrates 40th Anniversary Morning Edition debuted on Nov. 5, 1979. The newsmagazine show had a rocky beginning, including a total revamp of hosts and leadership, an internal boycott by reporters and resource challenges.
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'Morning Edition': The Radio News Show That Almost Wasn't

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

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

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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")

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