Some Closure on Bob Edwards' Departure

It has been almost a year since Bob Edwards left Morning Edition.

Although their numbers are diminishing, listeners still want to know about Bob. They confess to remaining flummoxed about why he left (on April 30, 2004), and they want to know where he is now and whether Morning Edition is really much the better for his leaving.

I think it's time to invoke some closure on this issue so we all can move along.

'What Happened?'

This e-mail is from listener Mary Wallis Gutmann. Her note articulates the questions and concerns of many other listeners:

Question One: When Bob Edwards was fired, it was said he would be a commentator and appear often on NPR. What happened?

Question Two: One reason NPR gave for firing him was to draw a younger audience. I can't imagine the current lackluster programming has attracted the youth market. Has it?

Question Three: Have others contacted you to speak of how sad we are to have our long-standing and excellent morning program changed into an ordinary one?

Question Four: Will you print these questions and your answers?

Trying Something New

This was my answer to Ms. Gutmann:

1. Bob was asked by management to leave the host's role to become a senior correspondent for Morning Edition. He decided that he preferred having his own program and left NPR to go to XM Satellite Radio, where he now resides.

2. NPR's press release at the time never said that moving Bob off the show was in order to attract a younger audience. However the most recent audience survey shows Morning Edition's audience has grown by 800,000 listeners (over the past year). A larger audience may not be the ultimate sign of success, but it's hard to ignore.

3. Morning Edition seems to be trying out some new ideas and some new voices and, as with all radio programs, the listeners (but not all of them) appreciate something new. Yet other listeners still say they miss Bob.

Bob's role at Morning Edition was integral to the program. But the program was, and still is, based on a strong and widely respected journalistic service. That service is still there and still doing the job it is supposed to, in my opinion.

Finally, when I was Bob's boss from 1997-2000, I thought he was exhausted. I can only presume that he was still pretty pooped when he left NPR in 2004.

I ran into him a few weeks ago. He looks great and he also seemed happy with the change. I told him that sometimes, life is fair.

'I Miss Him'

Ms. Gutmann's reply:

A good answer and I appreciate it. Too bad, though, there's no one of his stature around now except Lenny Lopate on WNYC (and I miss him, too, after moving to West Virginia), and Terry Gross. Bob Edwards knows everyone and they are comfortable with him. His speech pattern is not mannered and his scholarship is far reaching — in style and substance he is the best. I can't imagine he was tired or, if so, that his hours could not have been adjusted or some other measure taken. That story rings hollow.

Guess I will have to invest in satellite radio.

A Classy Guy

Bob was a recent guest on Tavis Smiley's show on PBS. As many NPR listeners know, Tavis hosted a radio program of the same name on NPR for three years until this past January. In leaving radio, Tavis publicly criticized NPR. On his television program, he tried to get Bob to join him in denouncing NPR.

To his credit, Bob wouldn't be drawn into that. In fact, Bob stated the opposite — that he admired and respected NPR. He also said that he still listens.

Bob showed himself to be a very classy guy in that interview.

Change in radio is always hard, in my experience. Harder than changes in other media, I believe. It's because radio is intensely personal, even intimate. People relate to it so intensely that it's sometimes difficult for listeners to adjust to a new voice first thing in the morning.

Pressures on Management

On-air hosts know that. In my experience, long time on-air radio hosts can exert enormous pressures on management, simply because they understand — sometimes better than management — the powerful nature of their personal connection with the listeners.

Still, change is inevitable, and management has an obligation to manage, even in a medium as resistant to change as public radio. I think that Morning Edition is sounding quite good. I think it needs to change even more so that it sounds and is in fact, more diverse — culturally, intellectually and politically. But that's another column...

I asked Jay Kernis, NPR's senior vice president of programming, how he thinks Morning Edition is doing. His response:

Jeffrey, one year later, Morning Edition is a better radio program, and 800,000 more listeners a week attest to that. Renee and Steve are wonderful morning companions. They are superb writers and interviewers. Steve has insight and humor that elevate the nature of the program. Renee brings a gracious presence, along with the confidence to ask tough questions. Hosts who leave the studio to investigate the news themselves make a difference. The stories that they have reported from the field have brought listeners closer to news events and to the people those events have had an impact on. Also, the staff has worked hard to offer even better health and business coverage, to be very aggressive about chasing newsmakers, and to make sure that each time zone is getting the most up-to-date stories (the show is actually fed to member stations via satellite between 5 a.m. - noon ET).

Although we haven't made a big deal on the air that the program is now bicoastal — Renee is usually sitting at NPR West in Los Angeles and Steve is in Washington, D.C. — having Renee and her producers on the West Coast has brought different voices to the broadcast. Morning Edition now has a new rhythm, a new sound, and an even deeper commitment to asking hard questions and making sense of the news. It's still a work in progress after all these years, but one we're very proud of.

Solidly Journalistic

I agree that Morning Edition is a more solidly journalistic program, even as it evolves into more than just Morning Edition without Bob Edwards. The listeners and I will still criticize it regularly, however!

After a year of changes, I hear praise and encouragement from listeners… even from those who miss the program's previous sonorousness. Morning Edition in its post-Bob incarnation is also quickly finding new voice(s). Many listeners tell me they think it's working.

As for the satellite radio version known as The Bob Edwards Show, I haven't yet heard it (I'm not a subscriber). I am told by colleagues and by some NPR listeners that it sounds… well, it sounds fine — just like Bob, but with less of the heft and backup of NPR News.

In the long run, change is probably a good thing for satellite radio and a good thing for NPR. I trust that the change will prove to be good for NPR's listeners.

And for Bob, too.

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