For those who do not regularly read my grunts and grumblings on social media, chances are that you are unaware of what has been a regular part of my Sunday evening routine for many years now. WAMU FM, one of the PBS radio stations here in Washington, airs a program called “The Big Broadcast” on Sundays from 7-11pm Eastern, featuring classic radio shows from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. During each broadcast a host of stars such as George Burns and Gracie Allen, Eve Arden, Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, and countless others come pouring out of the speakers once again, as they once did many decades ago. I’ve always made it a point to tell my social media followers about it on Sunday nights, asking them to tune in on-air or online, as collectively we sit back, relax, and listen to great comedy, drama, and music.
The host of “The Big Broadcast” for the past 25 years was Ed Walker, who died yesterday. Mr. Walker, who was 83, had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and on the advice of his physicians had reluctantly agreed to retire from radio in order to focus on his treatment. The last episode he hosted was recorded a week ago, from Mr. Walker’s bed in Sibley Hospital here in DC.
For regular listeners this was a particularly poignant broadcast. Although Mr. Walker did not sound at all well, and clearly had some idea of what was coming, on the occasion of his final show he took the opportunity to select some of his all-time favorite recordings, explaining why he enjoyed them. This included the brilliant radio play version of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, with Humphrey Bogart and Walter Houston reprising their original roles from the classic film. Reports are that when “The Big Broadcast” aired this past Sunday evening, Mr. Walker listened to the show surrounded by his family, and then passed away a few hours later.
Mr. Walker was an institution in these parts, having been in radio for well over 60 years. Generations of Washingtonians grew up hearing his voice; with the advent of new media, he reached many more listeners well beyond the confines of the Capital Beltway. Tributes have been pouring in from all corners of DC media, many of which have noted that his appeal was such that he continued to reach new, young audiences right up until his passing. Comments on social media and blogs over the past 24 hours have revealed how many people across the generational divides – Greatest Generation-ers, Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers, Millennials – loved listening to his work.
While “The Big Broadcast” was never about Mr. Walker himself, his gentle humor and enormous knowledge of the radio genre made the program something more than a compilation of old recordings. He always gave listeners interesting tidbits and commentary about what we were listening to, such as pointing out the appearance of a then-unknown future star in a radio play, or reminding us of a connection between performers of yesteryear which we might not otherwise know. However what was perhaps most remarkable about Mr. Walker, and something which he rarely if ever alluded to on the show out of his own modesty and self-effacement, was the fact that without alluding to it, he brought us into his world, and showed us what it means to make the most out of our lives.
For as it happens, Mr. Walker was born totally blind.
Ed Walker was the first blind student to attend his alma mater, American University, and in 1950 he helped launch the original WAMU on campus. Despite his disability, Mr. Walker went on to a successful career in broadcasting, beginning in 1955 with his good friend (and future NBC “Today” show weatherman) Willard Scott, on their comedy show “The Joy Boys” from 1955 to 1974. He also worked at various television and radio stations around Washington, until he took over the captain’s chair at “The Big Broadcast” in 1990, to date the longest-running program on WAMU since it first aired in 1964.
Never having been able to see with his own eyes, Mr. Walker nevertheless lived in a rich world which allowed him to see with his mind, and to teach others how to do the same. The radio broadcasts of yesteryear require no visual stimulation whatsoever on the part of the listener, who creates the scene in his head, rather than having it placed before him on screen. The brain is highly stimulated because it is forced to imagine, relying upon the sounds reaching the ears to understand and process the information being sent. For these few hours a week, at least, Mr. Walker and his listeners were united in a way that demonstrated how much more alike than different we all are. Whatever our abilities, we human beings experience joy, sorrow, apprehension, and humor together.
Although it has been announced that “The Big Broadcast” will go on, the loss of Mr. Walker’s calming, grandfatherly voice on Sunday nights will be deeply felt. He always asked his listeners to put their cares (and fear of Monday morning) away for a few hours, in order to spend time together enjoying good stories and good music. In a cacophonous and hyper-stimulated world, his call to simply be still and listen is something that ought to resonate with us all the more.