Steve Edwards, the venerable host of WBEZ’s Afternoon Shift, is taking his considerable talent to the world of public policy and politics.
The long-time public radio newsman, host and producer announced on Monday that he had accepted a position as Deputy Director, Programming at the University of Chicago’s new Institute of Politics. The Institute was formally announced in January and is the brainchild of former Senior White House Advisor David Axelrod, who will lead the non-partisan Institute following the conclusion of the current presidential campaign.
“Leaving here is an enormously difficult decision in so many ways,” Edwards said. “I believe in the work that we do, the show that we’re building, the staff, the audience, the mission. But I felt in the end this was something I couldn’t pass up.”
Edwards has covered politics throughout his career and during his time at WBEZ, he has hosted live election coverage, statewide political debates, town hall meetings and the political module, The Best Game in Town.
Edwards’ says his mother claims his passion for politics and policy first emerged around the age of two, when she says he became fascinated by the ads for a gubernatorial candidate in the state of Kansas.
“Apparently, I was transfixed by this guy, Morris Kay, and these commercials of him standing in a wheat field talking directly to the camera,” Edwards says. “When friends of my parents would come over to the house, I would introduce myself by saying ‘Hi, I’m Morris Kay!’”
In high school, Edwards convinced a faculty advisor to allow him to “cover” the 1988 presidential campaign (Edwards says feigning air quotes), beginning with an event at which then Republican vice presidential nominee Dan Quayle was speaking.
Despite not having a tape in his ‘shoddy, cheap, duct-taped camera,’ Edwards and a companion managed to get a few words in with the Senator before the befuddled media hoard caught up.
“I was hooked,” he said. “And we went on to cover eight different presidential and vice presidential candidate events that fall.”
Edwards’ interest in public media as a dual platform for his twin interests of journalism and politics grew out of his upbringing.
An early Start in Public Radio
“I’m probably among the first generation of kids whose parents started listening to public radio in a significant way.” Edwards said with a wry smile. “I grew up being subjected.”
The voices and stories of public radio stations around the country informed him and connected him to the world.
“As I started to become more interested in news and politics and journalism specifically, my idols in the field and my sources of information were the reporters and hosts at NPR. Edwards said. “People like Cokie Roberts, Linda Wertheimer, Robert Krulwhich and Noah Adams were among the voices that connected me to a wider world.”
During college, Edwards interned with “All Things Considered,” furthering his journalism credentials and exposure to high-level politics, before producing for Bloomberg’s upstart television and radio network in New York.
Starting in Chicago
He eventually made his way to Chicago’s western suburbs, where he worked as assistant news director at WDCB 90.9 FM.
“It was during that time that I was able to get even further immersed in the stories of this area,” Edwards said.
Hard-won, shoe-leather skills are fundamental to this kind of career, but it is Edwards’ ability to act as a go-between, connecting audiences with information in a meaningful way that has characterized his time at WBEZ and will no doubt serve him well as he engages students, policy makers, thinkers and political reporters in his new role.
“He acts as a surrogate for our audience,” WBEZ CEO Torey Malatia said of Edwards. “He’s outward focused, he always has been.”
Though Edwards’ departure is a loss for the WBEZ family, there is a certain sense of pride in the legacy Edwards helped build at WBEZ and for public radio in general.
“It’s natural to him to think about how to help people,” Malatia said. “In a way, it’s sort of like not putting your nose up against the glass and not looking out any more but getting past the glass and getting to actually meet the people you want to meet.”
Other staffers echo those sentiments.
“Steve’s fascination with art, politics, facts and learning, and all the highs and lows of human life, comes from the way in which he turns his heart outward to the rest of us,” Cate Cahan, Investigations Editor at WBEZ said. “He cares.”
The voice of WBEZ
Edwards served in multiple roles at WBEZ, from host to programming director as well as a foundational role in establishing WBEZ’s digital platforms.
Many of Edwards’ colleagues consider him to be the voice of WBEZ. That is in part due to his demeanor with guests, his ability to distill complex information into lively conversation and his exceptional talent at connecting with individuals and the broader audience.
“My father has a natural curiosity about everything, and some of that, I think, rubbed off on me,” Edwards said. “My mother taught me how to listen – to really listen intently and be in the moment, which is absolutely essential in any good interview.”
In college Edwards interned for a local radio news-talk station in Kansas City.
“On my very first day on the job, at 5:30 a.m., the news director says, ‘so are you ready to go on live?’” Edwards recalls. “I was expecting to spend the internship fetching coffee, but two minutes after I arrived, I was on the air co-anchoring the news with him as an intern.”
Two weeks later the news editor left to deal with a family emergency, leaving Edwards at the helm of the morning drive time. Then, on Wednesday of that same week, the first war in Iraq started and he was left to anchor the entire broadcast himself.
It was a baptism by fire, as Edwards described it.
“Those experiences give you both battle scars and some wisdom. And hopefully the confidence to handle unexpected things when they happen,” he says. “Live radio is always a bit of a high-wire act.”
Edwards has contributed much of that wisdom and confidence in his many roles at WBEZ, helping to establish local programming that transcends the one-way osmosis of traditional media outlets. It’s a trait that should come in handy as he seeks to do the same for politics and public policy.
“I think this new opportunity at the university will allow me to do that, and to grow in exciting ways,” Edwards said. “I also hope that this will allow me to collaborate in all sorts of ways with my friends and colleagues here at WBEZ.”
This week those colleagues were still coming to grips with his imminent departure.
“For us, Steve is one of the few people who can make the glass seem as if it’s not there.” Malatia said. “He can make media fundamentally disappear. You really feel like he’s talking straight to you. There is no radio, there is no transmitter. It’s just Steve and you.”