4:01pm

Thu March 6, 2014
Arts & Life

A Lifelong Radio Man Wins New Fans With 'Big Broadcast'

Originally published on Thu March 6, 2014 7:50 pm

Every Sunday night, the Washington, D.C. member station WAMU takes a trip into the past. Music swells and guns blaze as dramas from the golden age of radio hit the airwaves again, on the beloved program The Big Broadcast.

Ed Walker hosts the four-hour show, which has been a mainstay on WAMU's air for decades. He usually starts off with the adventures of Johnny Dollar — the man with the action-packed expense account — before treating listeners to Dragnet and Gunsmoke.

The show ranks first in its timeslot, and its audience is remarkably young for a public radio crowd. "I get a lot of requests, believe it or not, from children — from kids," Walker tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "They have television, but I've gotten emails that say, 'We don't even turn the television on on Sunday night.' And they love it, because with the good sound effects and everything like that, it is — somebody referred to radio as the theater of the mind, which it is."

Walker, who is 81 years old, was born blind, and his close connection to radio started when he was very young. "Radio was everything to me, not being able to see," he says. "The sound on radio was important. Radio took the place of comic books and newspapers and the funnies and all that stuff. So I grew up with it."

Walker would fall asleep to the sound of Bob Hope on his radio — a pattern he sees echoed today. "Some of the kids that send me emails say, 'We listen, we put our transistor radio under the pillow and listen to the show until we got to sleep,' " Walker says with a chuckle. "What's old is new again."

When he was a kid, Walker even had his own radio show. "I used to go down the street to the houses, knock on the door and say, 'I'm going on the air in about a half hour,' " Walker says. "The kids never took much of it. But it held me in good stead when I went to [American University]."

At college, Walker wanted to study broadcasting, but his tuition was to be paid for by a vocational rehabilitation service. And they didn't think a blind man could work in radio. He visited lots of campuses with radio stations and heard the same thing: "You can't do that, you can't do that."

That just made Walker more determined, and soon he struck a compromise: "Rehab said, we will sponsor you for your college tuition if you're agree to major in sociology and then you can become a social worker. And I said, 'Nothing against social workers, but I don't want to do that.' And they said, 'Well, if you can prove to us in your first two years there's a future for you in broadcasting we'll let you change your major.' So I did.

"The first year I got started with a couple other guys at the campus radio station which now is WAMU [88.5] FM. I'm proud of that fact," Walker says." And it kinda holds you, when you know, when I was in college, being heard on the campus station made it easier to get dates, for example. So, it's true, I mean, that opened a lot of doors for me."

At AU, Walker met a man who would become a longtime friend, both on the air and off: Willard Scott. Before The Today Show introduced him to the country as an avuncular weatherman and birthday-celebrator, Scott was a radio man in Washington.

In 1952, he and Walker teamed up for a music and comedy program, The Joy Boys. They were on the air for more than two decades, and for many of those years, their evening show was appointment listening.

But as television overtook radio, the Joy Boys' star faded. The program ended in 1974.

After years of hosting various local programs, Walker took over The Big Broadcast in 1990.

On Tuesdays, when the show records, he reports to the studio with a handful of scripts he types at home on a Braille typewriter. But it's clear he doesn't really need them: he's a one-man radio archive. "I guess I was born in nostalgia," Walker says.

And here's the key to Ed Walker, and the reason he and The Big Broadcast have earned such a loyal following: He clearly loves what he's doing. And it's contagious.

After beginning each broadcast with a quick run through the night's schedule, Walker pauses for his signature welcome. It's a soothing message for the audience — and for Walker, too.

If you have anything that's bothering you in the coming week, don't worry about it now. Or any problems that you had in the week just past — forget them too. This is our time in the week — right now. The island between last week and the coming week. So settle back, relax, get yourself a cup of coffee or whatever you want, and get ready to enjoy The Big Broadcast.

It's radio as refuge, every Sunday night: an island of calm with Ed Walker.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Wait, scratch that. Let's try it again - with a little music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Ah, that's more like it. We're going to spend the next few minutes looking back at the Golden Age of Radio. Our tour guide is a man named Ed Walker. And if you live here in Washington, D.C., and listen to member station WAMU on Sunday nights, you know his name and this music. Walker uses it to open his much-beloved program, "The Big Broadcast," a mainstay in Washington for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, ''THE BIG BROADCAST'')

ED WALKER: Well, here we go again folks, time for the "The Big Broadcast." And we hope you're ready for some old-time radio for the next four hours.

CORNISH: Among the old-time radio you're likely to hear...

(SOUNDBITE OF RINGING PHONE)

WALKER: (As Johnny Dollar) Johnny Dollar.

CORNISH: That's usually first on Walker's list. Then...

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC for "DRAGNET")

CORNISH: "Dragnet," of course. And the biggest hit with listeners...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT, GALLOPING HORSE)

CORNISH: ..."Gunsmoke." "The Big Broadcast" ranks first in its Washington time slot, and its audience is remarkably young for a public radio crowd.

WALKER: I get a lot requests, believe it or not, from kids. They have television, but I've gotten emails that say: We don't even turn the television on, on Sunday night. And they love it because with the good sound effects and everything like that, it is - like, somebody referred to radio as the theater of the mind, which it is.

CORNISH: Walker, who is 81 years old and was born blind, records "The Big B," as it's known at the station, every Tuesday morning.

WALKER: Hi, folks.

CORNISH: Hi there, Mr. Walker.

WALKER: How are you?

CORNISH: Audie Cornish.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You guys want a chair?

WALKER: Yeah, al lright. Make yourself as comfortable as you can. (Laughter)

CORNISH: We recently visited Walker in his studio to talk about "The Big Broadcast" and his earliest radio memories.

WALKER: See, radio was everything to me. Not being able to see, the sound on radio was important. Radio took the place of comic books and newspapers and the funnies, and all that stuff. So I grew up with it.

CORNISH: Can you describe what you heard? What show really struck you, and you remember - kind of describe what it sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE NATIONAL BARN DANCE")

CHORUS: (Singing) Fit as a fiddle and ready for love. I could jump over the moon up above...

WALKER: "The National Barn Dance"; I was a little kid then. That was - I was pre-school. It was sort of like the Grand Ole Opry, but it was from WLS in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE NATIONAL BARN DANCE")

JOE KELLY: Hello. Hello. Hello, everybody everywhere. How's Mother and Dad and the whole family?

WALKER: Somebody had a cowbell, and they'd ring this cowbell. And somehow, my mother found one and gave it to me, and I would ring that cowbell. That was my first indoctrination into radio. So like, I'd go to bed maybe after 10 o'clock at night. Bob Hope, I guess, was on at 10 o'clock; and some of the others that I would listen to, as I went to sleep. It didn't matter. I just listened to everything I could get.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RADIO BROADCAST)

BOB HOPE: (Singing) Ah, thank you so much...

How do you do, ladies and gentlemen? This is the Pepsodent Kid, Bob Hope...

WALKER: Some of the kids that send me emails say: We listen - we put our transistor radio under the pillow, and listen to your show until we go to sleep. (Laughter)

CORNISH: Do they remind you of yourself, then?

WALKER: Oh, yeah. Yeah. What's old is new again.

CORNISH: Now, I read that you actually had your own radio show when you were a little kid.

WALKER: Oh, yeah. I used to go down the street to the houses, knock on the door and say, I'm going on the air in about a half-hour.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: You were your own promo guy.

WALKER: Yeah. Oh yeah, my own rating service. The kids never took much of it. But it held me in good stead when I went to AU.

CORNISH: AU is nearby American University. There, Walker wanted to study broadcasting. But his tuition was to be paid for by a vocational rehabilitation service. And they didn't think a blind man could work in radio. He visited lots of campuses with radio stations, and heard the same...

WALKER: You can't do that. You can't do it. So I said - well, that made me more determined. So rehab said, we will sponsor you for your college tuition if you'll agree to major in sociology, and then you can become a social worker. I said, well, nothing against social workers but I don't want to do that. And they said, well, if you can prove to us that there's a future for you in broadcasting, we'll let you change your major. So I did.

The first year, when I got started with a couple other guys - the campus radio station, which now is WAMU-FM. I'm proud of that fact. And it kind of holds you, and when - you know, when I was in college, being heard on the campus station made it easier to get dates, for example.

(LAUGHTER)

WALKER: So - it's true. I mean, that opened a lot of doors for me.

CORNISH: Not only that, it was at AU that Walker met the man who would become a longtime friend, both off the air and on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST, ''THE TODAY SHOW'')

WILLARD SCOTT: Happy Birthday from Smucker's. Take a look, if you will, Elizabeth Woodard...

CORNISH: That's Willard Scott. Before "The Today Show" introduced him to the country, Scott was a radio man in Washington. And in 1952, he and Walker teamed up for a music and comedy show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RADIO SHOW)

WALKER: This is "The Joy Boys Show."

SCOTT: I'm putting the microphone here, you old mic hog.

WALKER: Oh, excuse me. Was I too close - this Ed Walker here.

SCOTT: Let's sit that microphone right over here. I'm sick and tired of playing second fiddle...

WALKER: This is Ed Walker here...

We did things on "The Joy Boys," like we made up a soap opera called "As the Worm Turns."

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN MUSIC)

WALKER: (As Announcer) And now, the continuing true-to-life story, "As the Worm Turns." The story of Lehigh(ph) today...

We both did different voices and everything.

CORNISH: What did you specialize in? What kind of voices did you do?

WALKER: One I used to do was an old man's voice. I always called him Old Granddad. And he talked like this, you know, he was old. That's my regular voice now.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: For much of their two decades on the air, "The Joy Boys" evening show was appointment listening. But television eventually overtook radio and the program ended in 1974.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And the intro to "Gunsmoke: A Liar From Black Hawk."

WALKER: "Gunsmoke: A Liar From Black Hawk." That's pretty good, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: That's a good one.

WALKER: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Rolling.

WALKER: Three, two, one...

CORNISH: After years of hosting various local programs, in 1990, Ed Walker took over the show he hosts today, "The Big Broadcast."

WALKER: Join me for "The Big Broadcast," won't you, from six to 10? We'll have Johnny Dollar, "Dragnet," "Gunsmoke," "The Life of Riley"...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You crackled a little there. Let's redo.

WALKER: Yes, master. Oh, yeah. See, that's why I have Toby.

CORNISH: Toby is Toby Shriner who has been on the other side of the glass for most of Walker's 23 years on "The Big B." Walker reports to the studio with a handful of scripts he's typed at home on a Braille typewriter. But it's clear he doesn't really need them. He is a one-man radio archive.

WALKER: I guess I was born in nostalgia, I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Do-do-do-do-do-do-do.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: What you doing, (unintelligible)?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Doodling. Can you doodle?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Can I doodle? I can't get it out of my noodle.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How come?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Singing) 'Cause I love you a bushel and a peck...

CORNISH: And here's the key to Ed Walker and the reason he and "The Big Broadcast" have earned such a loyal following. He clearly loves what he's doing. When Toby plays a song from the coming week's broadcast, Walker whistles along.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: About me?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Singing) Yes, about you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) My heart is leaping, having trouble sleeping...

CORNISH: And after beginning each broadcast with a quick run through the night's schedule, Walker pauses for his signature welcome.

WALKER: If you have anything that's bothering you in the coming week, don't worry about it now. Or any problems that you had in the week just past, forget them too. This is our time in the week, right now, the island between last week and the coming week. So settle back, relax, get yourself a cup of coffee or whatever you want and get ready to enjoy "The Big Broadcast."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Is that for the audience or for you?

WALKER: That's for the audience.

CORNISH: And a little bit for yourself?

WALKER: For me, too.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Well, Ed Walker, thank you so much for speaking us and letting us tag along for the taping. This was fun.

WALKER: Well, I hope I didn't bore you all to death.

CORNISH: No. Of course, not. I loved being on this little island with you.

WALKER: Well, thank you dear. That's good.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Singing) I'd love to spend each Sunday with you...

CORNISH: Ed Walker, host of "The Big Broadcast" from WAMU in Washington, D.C. And the program streams all week long at WAMU.org.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Singing) Let's make a date for next Sunday night. I'm here to stay. We'll be... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.