UMSL music alumna turned radio producer inducted into St. Louis Media Hall of Fame

by | May 29, 2017

Just before graduating in 1974, Mary Edwards started what she thought would be a short-lived summer job at St. Louis Public Radio. She never left.
Mary Edwards at St. Louis Public Radio

The day after Mary Edwards submitted her final college paper at UMSL in the spring of 1974, she started what she expected to be a short-lived summer job at St. Louis Public Radio. More than four decades later, Edwards is still with the station, where she currently serves as senior producer of “St. Louis on the Air.” (Photos by August Jennewein)

Midway through a busy Thursday afternoon, Mary Edwards had only just sat down to be interviewed about her career at St. Louis Public Radio | 90.7 KWMU when her cellphone buzzed with a more pressing matter.

The longtime producer had to take the call, which was from a potential guest for Friday’s live show.

“We were wondering if you’d have about 15 minutes tomorrow to join us by phone,” Edwards explained to the hydrologist on the line.

After a monsoon-like couple of weeks in the region, Edwards and the rest of the “St. Louis on the Air” crew planned to take a look “Behind the Headlines,” offering listeners an in-depth conversation about the recent flooding. The perspective of a hydrologist would be key, and this one wasn’t available.

Edwards didn’t appear worried. Within a few minutes she’d made follow-up calls and lined up another expert, making a perpetually challenging job look effortless. Then she returned her attention to a much less typical task at hand: talking about herself.

“As someone who’s worked behind the scenes all these years,” said the University of Missouri–St. Louis alumna, “I’m not used to being in the limelight.”

It was back in August that Edwards learned she would be inducted into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame. On vacation when the initial call came, she remembers she was standing on a ladder while changing a light bulb – with her cellphone on her as ever.

“I was just really shocked,” she said, adding that she feels humbled and honored to be in the company of both present and past inductees.

It’s a well-deserved laurel, to say the least. Now in her 43rd year with St. Louis Public Radio – which is a service of her alma mater – Edwards has been an employee of the station almost as long as it’s been in existence. And she witnessed its beginnings in the spring of 1972.

The St. Louis native had just transferred to UMSL to pursue a degree in music education at the time.

“From very early on I saw this sign that said ‘KWMU’ in Lucas Hall,” Edwards said. “I kind of watched it be built, and I heard it was going to be a station that would play mostly classical music, which of course fascinated me, and so I started listening.”

At that point she was still intent on a career as a music teacher, something she’d firmly decided on at the age of 9 after two weeks of flute lessons. And it was that path that had led her from Southeast Missouri State University to UMSL in the first place after a great flute teacher – the main reason she’d enrolled at Southeast – left the university following Edwards’ freshman year.

Mary Edwards, senior producer

“As someone who’s worked behind the scenes all these years,” says UMSL alumna Mary Edwards, “I’m not used to being in the limelight.”

When Edwards heard that she could study with the principal flutist of the St. Louis Symphony if she transferred to UMSL, she decided to go for it. The warm welcome she received from her adviser and UMSL’s first full-time band director still stands out in her mind.

“My dad just happened to call up to UMSL and got Warren Bellis, and he was very helpful,” Edwards recalled. “He told my dad to call him at home, and I thought, ‘How cool is it that a professor gave me his home number?’”

Bellis and the rest of the music department faculty did not disappoint. The facilities were an interesting mix across what was then a very young campus, but Edwards has fond memories of that aspect of her college days, too.

“I came just after the days when the band met in an old laundromat on Natural Bridge,” she said with a laugh. “There was no music building, and the music rehearsal rooms were what are now handball courts in the Mark Twain Building, so we were down there with the P.E. majors … And then the voice teacher taught in Clark Hall, and Lucas had just been completed.”

Along with solid training and knowledge, Edwards gained lifelong friends at UMSL – and then, one day, a unique and unexpected gig at the radio station. It all started with a punishment of sorts.

Shortly before Edwards’ last semester at UMSL, at Christmastime, the general manager of the station caught student staff members playing a version of “Jingle Bells” where dogs are barking the notes. This was deemed unacceptable, and the students’ penance required them to begin producing two-hour shows from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Friday nights. They needed to prepare blocks of 10 minutes of news and 20 minutes of classical music for midnight listeners.

“None of them knew anything about classical music, so they were looking for a music student to program that for them,” Edwards explained. “They asked me if I wanted to do that, and I said, ‘Sure, that sounds like fun.’ And they got to know me, and I learned to put together shows.”

The volunteer role turned into a paid job a few months later when the station offered Edwards a 32-hours-per-week position as music assistant while she was wrapping up her studies at UMSL.

“I turned in my last paper one day, started [at KWMU] the next day and graduated the next week,” she said. “And I was thinking, ‘Well, that’ll be a fun thing to do for the summer, and then I’ll get my teaching job in the fall.’ And I’m still here in my first job.”

Or at least with the same employer, that is. In her four decades at St. Louis Public Radio, Edwards has worn multiple hats. Becoming assistant music director in 1975, about a year after she was initially hired by the station, she’s gone on to titles and roles ranging from program director to production manager to senior producer.

Over the years, the station has shifted to doing more and more news and talk and less music. And while Edwards didn’t foresee that, she wouldn’t change it, either. As much as she loves music and still plays the flute, her work on the “St. Louis on the Air” program since its debut 21 years ago has become a central passion.

“I’ve said that if somebody would walk in today and offer to give me a whole channel of classical music to do anything I wanted with, I would keep doing the talk show,” she says. “The great thing about it is that I get concerned about issues that face this town, and I have this vehicle here where we can plan a show about these issues.

“And the real thing that keeps me going is the thought that – while every day we hope that we’re educating and enlightening – there’s some days where we get some feedback that we might have made a difference in someone’s life, and that’s just really rewarding.”

On top of her demanding day job, Edwards has managed to fit a lot of music and even some teaching into her life, too.

She taught a radio production course at Webster University for several decades, and on 24 Saturdays a year she can be found inside Powell Hall producing St. Louis Public Radio’s live broadcasts of St. Louis Symphony concerts.

“That’s just a real thrill, a lot of fun,” Edwards said. “It’s a wonderful way to combine my two passions – radio and music.”

The UMSL Experience

Evie Hemphill

Evie Hemphill