Reprinted from “The Washington Post,” Oct. 27, 2015.
Note: I first met Ed Walker in 1968. I was in high school and a huge fan of Ed and Willard Scott — “The Joy Boys” — on WRC radio. Ed was so helpful to me as a media and theater worker-in-training and later as a supporter of a Big Band jazz band I sponsored. In the 1990s, Ed — an ardent advocate for audio description — was the keynote speaker at an international gathering of audio-description enthusiasts at the John F. Kennedy Center. In 2003, ACB recognized Ed with the prestigious Durward K. McDaniel Ambassador Award; and in 2012, Ed voiced the Audio Description Project’s first-ever audio-described tour of the White House.
— Joel Snyder
Ed Walker, who amused and entertained a generation of Washington-area listeners as half of “The Joy Boys” radio team with Willard Scott and spent 65 years on the local airwaves as a deejay, news host and genial raconteur, died Oct. 26 at a retirement community in Rockville, just hours after his final broadcast. He was 83.
Mr. Walker had been undergoing treatment for cancer, said his daughter, Susan Scola.
A lifelong radio connoisseur, Mr. Walker became one of its most skillful practitioners over his long career. For the past quarter century, he hosted a popular weekly radio-nostalgia program, “The Big Broadcast,” on public radio station WAMU-FM (88.5). Each week, he invited listeners to “settle back, relax and enjoy,” as he discussed and introduced replays of such golden-age programs as “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar,” “Dragnet” and “Gunsmoke.”
He recorded his last “Big Broadcast” on Oct. 13 from a hospital bed while being treated at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington. Walker listened to the final broadcast Sunday night on WAMU, surrounded by his family, a few hours before his death, according to the station.
Born blind, Ed Walker grew up with radio as his constant companion from an early age. By age 8, he was operating a low-power radio transmitter in his family’s basement, beaming music to his neighbors’ houses down the block. He would go on to spend almost all of his adult life involved in the medium in some way, all of it on stations in Washington.
It was “The Joy Boys” — a gently humorous, somewhat anarchic and broadly popular daily program — for which Mr. Walker is perhaps most fondly remembered.
Mr. Walker and Scott became friends while working on American University’s campus radio outlet, WAMU, then an AM station. They got their professional start in 1952 doing short comedy bits on a weekend radio show on WOL called “Going AWOL.” In 1955, they moved to daytime on NBC-owned WRC with a show called “Two at One.”
When the show became a local hit, they moved into the evening hours as “The Joy Boys.”
Mr. Walker conjured up a series of characters and situations, some of them topical. He did the voices of such characters as Old Granddad and Bal’more Benny (“the poet of the Patapsco”) while Scott played the straight man. They parodied NBC’s leading newscast, “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” with “The Washer-Dryer Report” and a popular soap opera with a continuing bit called “As the Worm Turns.”
The duo took “Joy Boys” from the nickname used by student radio technicians at an engineering school in Washington, Scott said. For years, they used a jaunty theme song: “We are the joy boys of radio; we chase electrons to and fro.”
The program traded off the improvisational skills of the two men and their on-air chemistry. Scott was typically the writer of their bits, which were roughed out in outline rather than fully scripted. Mr. Walker was the “talent,” according to Scott, who would take the comedy in unexpected directions.
“We were like brothers,” said Scott, who would go on to become the weatherman on NBC’s “Today” show, in an interview. “I never had a better friend.”
“The Joy Boys” would feature occasional guests; over the years, these included comedian Bill Cosby, “Get Smart” actor Don Adams and novelist and quiz-show panelist Fannie Flagg. As Mr. Walker recounted on his final “Big Broadcast,” the duo scored an interview in 1968 with the radio, TV and film star Jack Benny and performed a brief sketch with him.
One of Mr. Walker’s characters was Mr. Answer Man, who served up lame jokes in a monotone.
“What was the inspiration for the song ‘Melancholy Baby’?” a listener from Falls Church once asked.
“The composer had a girlfriend with a head like a melon and a face like a collie,” Mr. Walker replied. “Hence ‘Melancholy Baby.’”
As Scott said in an interview in 1999, “The Joy Boys’ bits were corny; for the most part, they were terrible. But there was a certain spirit.”
A link to radio’s classic era of family-friendly entertainment, “The Joy Boys” aired on WRC from 1955 to 1972, and on WWDC from 1972 to 1974. It was cancelled by WWDC to make way for the station’s switch to rock music, a change that reflected the growing dominance of baby boomers over Washington’s, and the nation’s, popular culture.
Mr. Walker went on to work at radio stations WPGC and WMAL and television stations WJLA and Newschannel 8. Among the programs he hosted on WMAL was “Play It Again,” a retrospective of music from the Big Band era. He also hosted a weekly magazine show for NPR aimed at the disabled called “Connection.”
In 1990, Mr. Walker took over hosting another kind of nostalgia show, “The Big Broadcast.”
The program had begun as “Recollections” in 1964 by John Hickman, who had appeared from time to time on “The Joy Boys” as a performer. When Hickman’s health began to fail, he asked Mr. Walker to take over the program.
Edward Heston Walker was born in Fairbury, Ill., on April 23, 1932. His family moved from Forrest, Ill., to Washington when he was 4. His father, a former railroad telegrapher, joined the federal Railroad Retirement Board.
His earliest memories involved listening to the radio. He recalled ringing a toy cowbell as small child along with the performers and audience he’d hear on a program called “The National Barn Dance.”
“Most kids [got] a kick out of comic books, and funny papers and stuff like that,” he said in an interview with NPR’s StoryCorps in 2012. “To me, radio is it. The sound effects to me were most important. . . . I absorbed [the medium] very well because I was listening very intently.”
Mr. Walker graduated in 1950 from the Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore and was the first blind student to attend American University. The District’s vocational rehabilitation agency, which funded his college scholarship, wanted him to study sociology in order to become a social worker, one of the few professional career paths open to the blind at the time. Mr. Walker insisted on pursuing a career in broadcasting. He completed his communications degree in 1954.
Besides his daughter, of Potomac, survivors include his wife of 58 years, Nancy Murphy Walker of Rockville; and eight grandchildren. Another daughter, Carole Potter, died in 2004.
Long after “The Joy Boys,” he continued to work with Scott when his old friend was on “Today.” Among other duties, Walker handled the crush of people seeking recognition for a friend or relative celebrating their 100th birthday. He helped produce the short tributes that Scott read on the air.
Walker never attempted to conceal his blindness, but he didn’t often speak about it on the air. “When I first got into this business, I never let it be known on the air that I didn’t see,” he told The Washington Post in 1985. “Not that I was ashamed of it. It was in my mind that if I was going to be successful in this business, it was because I was a good performer, not because people felt sorry for me.”
From his earliest days on the air, he used a braille typewriter to produce scripts. While on the air, he kept his left hand on a braille clock to maintain the precise timing necessary to hit the “marks” for commercials or the end of his show, said Lettie Holman, program director at WAMU, who worked with Mr. Walker for years. He was so skilled that most listeners were surprised when they learned, often many years into his career, that he was blind.
He was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2009 as a local-radio “pioneer.”
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Maryland School for the Blind, 3501 Taylor Ave., Nottingham, MD 21236, or to WAMU Public Radio, WAMU Media Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20016-8082.