Bob Edwards Reassigned: Ageism or Just Change?

At last count, more than 35,000 people have written, e-mailed and phoned NPR about Bob Edwards' imminent departure. Friday, April 30 will be his last broadcast as host of Morning Edition and many listeners remain disheartened.

Edwards will not be lost to the program. NPR says he will be back on the program as a senior correspondent. While the details of that assignment are not final, I hope he will be doing more interviews like those he did with the late Red Barber. If I were his producer, I would think of Edwards as NPR's version of Charlie Rose.

In the short term, Edwards will be on the road for the next few months promoting his new book on Edward R. Murrow. He'll take his annual summer vacation and be back on the air in the fall.

Temporarily replacing Edwards will be Renee Montagne and Steve Inskeep. Many listeners have written to say that they are both solid radio hosts, and the Montagne-Inskeep version of Morning Edition will continue the tradition of good radio journalism. Still there is sadness about the change.

Age Discrimination?

Some listeners have written wondering if NPR has committed — inadvertently or not — a form of age discrimination by reassigning Bob.

Age discrimination is defined by the federal government in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA):

It protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older from employment discrimination based on age. The ADEA's protections apply to both employees and job applicants. Under the ADEA, it is unlawful to discriminate against a person because of his/her age with respect to any term, condition, or privilege of employment — including, but not limited to, hiring, firing, promotion, layoff, compensation, benefits, job assignments, and training.

While some listeners suspect "ageism" here, I doubt that it is the case. Many employees at NPR are of a certain age, as the saying goes. Without knowing the exact ages of NPR hosts and reporters, my sense is that there is a range of ages on and off the air that balances experience with different perspectives.

The suspicions of ageism were exacerbated when management said it wants to "freshen up" the sound of Morning Edition. Some listeners assumed that "freshen up" must automatically mean "younger." In my experience, some of the most jaded people I've worked with were callow youths and some of the wittiest were older and more fearless journalists who delighted in being cheeky and irreverent.

Sounding "fresh" is an attitude — not an age bracket.

Too Old or Too Young?

I receive e-mails from listeners who say they find the serious tone of NPR "fogey-esque."

These (presumably younger) listeners still say they listen in spite of the length or the subject matter.

Others insist that older is better. They say the listeners who send in their pledges to their member stations are of that certain age, so NPR should focus on the tastes and interests of those paying customers. They especially don't want NPR to appeal to those young whippersnappers whose musical tastes are not like those of Rev. Richard Myers from Spokane, Wash., a Lutheran pastor who writes:

The Edwards move has unsettled me… Never particularly critical of NPR, I have become ready to groan about things that have bothered me for a time... like your damnable post-modern music selections... you use as bumper music. You know, that awful stuff that starts nowhere and goes nowhere and that repeats and repeats the same phrases over and over. You've been doing that for a while. I'm sure someone out there likes it. I despise it.

The Power of Public Radio

What has emerged in the e-mails to me over the past month or so is a reinforcing of the passion of the listeners. Many have put into words the feelings that they have for public radio, some for the first time. The e-mails have been astonishingly open and heart-felt.

The voicemail messages have also been powerful. In some cases, listeners ended their messages to me in tears, unable to go on.

Management has been seen to be less than candid about the changes. Some of that reticence is inevitable. As I have mentioned before, it may be public radio, but some relations between employer and employee must remain private and confidential. That is only fair to all concerned.

But that meant that the message about the change became entangled in the need for a certain measure of confidentiality.

The way NPR handled the change has been opaque — perhaps necessarily so. That has only exacerbated concerns among many listeners. Management has acknowledged that it goofed. NPR's Executive Vice President Ken Stern was quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer, "If we were to do it again, we'd have done it differently." By not waiting until Bob's 25th anniversary in November, said Stern, NPR executives "looked as if we didn't care about Bob."

I'm not sure how else it could have been done that would have been fair in equal measure to Edwards, the staff on Morning Edition, the member stations, NPR management and, of course, to the listeners.

Management has the right to manage. The rest of us are up here in the peanut gallery, pointing out what we perceive to be flaws and critiquing the programs and changes from our perspectives. Dear listeners, forgive the cliché but in this case it's true — only time will tell.

"New Beginnings…"

One of the classiest acknowledgements of Bob's departure came on Morning Edition on Monday, April 26.

Cokie Roberts ended her weekly political chat with Edwards like this:

COKIE ROBERTS: Bob, I have to say it's our last Monday together and it's been a great run. Here's to new beginnings, old friend.

BOB EDWARDS: Thank you Cokie.

But the final word should always go to a listener, and in this instance, from the appropriately named Peter Bye:

Hello Jeffrey,

I'm at last writing about the impending change moving Bob Edwards away from Morning Edition into the senior correspondent role. I live in New Jersey and listen to Morning Edition and All Things Considered through WNYC. Yes — I am a member of WNYC.

All these years, whenever Bob was away from the program it was OK listening to the substitute hosts although I really was waiting for Bob's return. His summer month-off vacations were the most trying, although of course I had to accept that even he needs and is entitled to a vacation. What do I admire and respect in Bob? Just about everything. Clarity, humor, perspective, knowledge, articulation, balance, probity, and yes — his wonderful warm baritone voice.

I certainly understand a need for diversity and excellence. After all, my business is in the field of diversity and inclusion. It seems that Morning Edition has both. I cannot fathom the change. I also cannot understand, given that NPR is in the business of communications and media relations, the manner in which the change was communicated. While I won't try to guess at actual motives and motivation, I will say that it "felt" uncaring and unthinking on the part of NPR leadership. Having read the FAQ posted on the Web site, my feelings are unchanged. The FAQ answers strike me as rather vague.

Will I continue to listen to Morning Edition? Yes. I can only hope that all the words from the leadership about raising the bar, continuing to move towards higher quality programming, etc. are meaningful. Could it all have been achieved while continuing with Bob as the primary host? I bet the answer is yes. I hope it will still be done well with other hosts. And, I hope that Bob will be a frequent presence in his senior correspondent role.

Best regards,

Peter Bye

Listeners can contact me at 202-513-3245 or at ombudsman@npr.org.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

NPR Ombudsman

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.