Bob Edwards: Beloved Radio Host and Labor Leader (1947-2024)

Our guest author is Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, author of "Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy" and a member of the Albert Shanker Institute Board of Directors.

I was saddened to read of the death of Bob Edwards, who for 24 years hosted NPR’s Morning Edition with a mix of gravitas and wit.  For people of a certain age, he was, said NPR’s Susan Stamberg, “the voice we woke up to.”  The obituaries noted that when, in 2004, he was fired at age 57, just shy of his 25th anniversary at NPR, listeners erupted in outage.

I got to know Edwards very casually when we overlapped as board members of the Albert Shanker Institute, and he shared his views on the role of labor in a democratic society.  NPR listeners loved Bob Edwards for his fundamental decency and respect for people of all backgrounds.  Those values were at one with his belief in the importance of a strong American labor movement.

Although he was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, a state not known as a hotbed of union organizing, he believed in giving workers a voice in how the workplace is run and a chance to bargain collectively for wages and benefits.  For a time, he served as National First Vice President of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.  In a remembrance yesterday, NPR’s Steve Inskeep mentioned Edwards’s role as a “union leader” at NPR. “He once led a long-running protest to get contract employees hired as full-time staff, and the young reporters who benefited included me.”

After Edwards left NPR, he went to host the “Bob Edwards” Show on Sirius XM for ten years.  I was thrilled to appear on his show twice, both times to talk about organized labor.  In 2007, I appeared to discuss a biography I wrote about Al Shanker, the great labor leader and education reformer, who was president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974-1997.  In 2012, I spoke with Edwards about a book I coauthored with Moshe Marvit on Why Labor Organizing Should Be A Civil Right.  They were extended interviews, either half an hour or an hour long, as I recall, where Edwards’ thought-provoking questions made for good conversation.

The big thing that sticks out in my mind was how Bob Edwards opened the interview about Shanker’s life.  I thought he might start off with a question about Shanker’s significance in labor or education, or perhaps begin by asking about his childhood and how came to possess the values he held.  Instead, right out of the gate, Edwards asked: “Who were Shanker’s biggest enemies?”  It was a brilliant question.  Shanker had adversaries on the right (union busters, those wanted to privatize public education) and the left (the anti-integrationist Black Power movement that tried to attack unions and fire white teachers without due process)  The question got to the heart of what made Shanker different, and Edwards understood that.

Millions of listeners greatly appreciated Bob Edwards.  Union members, and all Americans who value worker dignity, have an additional reason to mourn his passing.

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