Steve Edwards likes to talk.
And he's good at it.
Whether he's telling stories in the living room of his Oak Park home, talking too long at a dinner party (so says his wife), or starting this week back on the radio on his new afternoon show on WBEZ, Edwards is good company.
Being a convivial free-form conversationalist, a well-prepared questioner, and an active listener are good qualities for a person who hopes to bring a nimble curiosity back to local radio.
"More and more today, we are long on opinion and short on facts ... long on ideology and short on truth ... and long on hard-wired answers and short on questions — and curiosity, really," says Edwards.
He hopes to change that with the debut this past Monday of The Afternoon Shift, weekdays from 2 to 4 p.m. on WBEZ (91.5 FM).
Edwards has played many roles at the public media outlet. Listeners know him best as a past host of the morning magazine program, Eight Forty Eight. He filled that slot from 1999 to 2007. More recently he has been the station's program director and currently serves as the Content Development Director of Chicago Public Media, parent organization of WBEZ.
The new show is causing some stir, partly because WBEZ listeners, progressives though many of them might be, are notoriously change averse. And shifting other shows to make way for this locally focused, two-hour block of news, interview and call-in show, is definitely a change. The new program is part of a broader shift at WBEZ to create more local programs during the daytime hours.
The Afternoon Shift is the first new locally produced and permanently scheduled weekday show on WBEZ in many years, he says.
Both excited about and terrified by the idea of being a live program host again, he likens the experience to "standing on the inbound Eisenhower Expressway, facing outbound, dodging cars, and trying to figure out which one you are going to try and climb into.
As the host, he says he has to be flexible, nimble and able to edit on the fly. It's also kind of like directing the flow of traffic, metaphorically speaking, at a dinner party.
"[WBEZ] still wants to be able to provide the great programs that people have come to know," he said. "But is there space in a 24-hour day, seven days a week to do more local programming that talks about the important ideas, unpacks the news of the day, and brings people fascinating conversation that is relevant to their lives? Can we put challenging conversations into play and actually get people participating in conversations in all sorts of ways? We think the answer to that question is yes, and this new local programming is how we can do that."
His American life
In the living room of Edwards' 100-year-plus-old Victorian cottage-style Oak Park home, he is telling stories ... again. Today it's the one about how a red transistor radio helped him find his station in life.
As a youngster in the 1970s, Edwards, now 41, was raised on the early days of National Public Radio. He'd be in the family car, driving around the Kansas City area with his dad, a fan who was mesmerized by what he heard on All Things Considered, and then, starting in 1979, Morning Edition.
Young Edwards resisted at first but then began listening.
He never stopped.
By age 12, he was waking up to Bob Edwards (no relation) and falling asleep to Ken Nordine's Word Jazz.
"I found myself really just kind of being transfixed, transplanted and transported by this aural world that [Nordine] had created," he recalled.
Instead of rock stars, his idols were NPR icons: Cokie Roberts, Linda Wertheimer, Susan Stamberg, Noah Adams, and Robert Krulwich.
Edwards, a big baseball fan, said he also counted on his old red transistor radio to vicariously transport him to every game.
His seminal moment came earlier than some, at age 17.
In high school, he and a classmate caught wind that Dan Quayle had just been named the vice presidential running mate of George H.W. Bush in 1988. Quayle, a senator from Indiana, was speaking at a chamber of commerce breakfast at a hotel in Kansas City, less than a mile away. The students asked their radio/TV advisor for a pass to cover it. He complied.
"The upshot is that we get there and we don't have credentials, and my classmate and I didn't know the first thing about that. But there was an entire media horde of correspondents from all the networks there covering it, and we struck up a conversation with a Secret Service agent who was just twiddling his thumbs in the lobby, while the activity was happening in one of the convention rooms."
That Secret Service man gave the unflappable boys a break.
"My classmate yells me over and we set up our microphone and camera, all alone in front of this door, and out comes Sen. Quayle," he recalled. "So we go and ask him questions, not knowing the protocol. Basically, we bum-rushed the guy, and of course the entire media swarm of 100-plus reporters and cameramen come immediately upon him, and the Secret Service guys are pushing us all away."
The scrappy young politicos covered seven different local events during that political season, which culminated in a so-called "hackneyed" news feature. The class project, Edwards said, aired on the local cable access station.
"Being out there in that press corps with the adrenalin rush and excitement of telling stories for the news and politics, trying to figure out how you can convey the important events of the day in ways that people can understand, and in ways it will resonate with them, that, I think, was a pivotal turning point for me," Edwards said.
More synchronicity arrived during his junior year at Amherst College when Edwards landed an internship on the staff of All Things Considered in Washington D.C.
"That was amazing for a kid like me," he recalled. "It was like spending an entire summer inside the Cubs locker room or dugout. Just watching how they did their work was transformative."
In his 30s, Edwards took a sabbatical from WBEZ and spent the 2007-2008 academic year as a mid-career journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. He and his family lived in Ann Arbor, which in a way, eventually led them to Oak Park two years ago.
Being a local radio celebrity, Edwards' face is rarely recognized around Oak Park. Instead, he is just another dad who, with his wife Andrea, 42, is raising two elementary-age boys, William, 8, and Elliott, 5, who attend Beye School.
His anonymity evaporates as Edwards heads up Taylor Avenue to catch the Green Line to WBEZ's studios at Navy Pier. There he goes to work on this new program with a sense of discovery, delight and some trepidation.
Edwards met his wife in 1999. She was one of four show producers who interviewed him for the Eight Forty Eight host gig. Prior to that, he had been the anchor of the nightly news magazine, Final Edition, on WDCB-FM, a public radio station at the College of DuPage in west suburban Glen Ellyn.
They married in 2001.
"Knowing how hard the hours are, how the job can be stressful, how you can work 14-hour days — I did that, so I know what it's like," observed Andrea, an award-winning radio producer herself.
Notwithstanding, at dinner parties, Andrea said she sometimes kicks him under the table.
"I'm thinking, stop talking," she said, laughing. "The guy is very articulate about a lot of subjects, which is a very great gift."
In a time when the merits of public broadcasting have come under some political fire, and he is asked his opinion, Edwards doesn't hesitate to speak up.
"I think public radio and, broadly speaking, public media is absolutely vital to our communities, our culture and to our functioning as a democracy."