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College student looking young, Edwards looking uneasy
Chapman (right), who set up Savebobedwards.com, meetes with an NPR spokesman. Edwards (center) came out and thanked him. (Photo: Current.)

Morning minus Bob:
‘This wasn’t fair and something should be done’

Originally published in Current, May 10, 2004
By Steve Behrens

Bob Edwards will not have to wait for retirement or death to bring out his listeners’ appreciation of his labors for NPR.

Whatever adoration, respect and fondness not already expressed in letters to newspapers and more than 35,000 messages to NPR will probably be voiced during the ex-anchorman’s two-month, 55-city publicity tour for his new biography Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism. This week he’s in New York City, Seattle, Portland (Ore.), San Francisco and Los Angeles.

But he got his biggest single dose of adulation the day before his last as Morning Edition host, when NPR accepted a petition with more than 23,400 signers expressing disappointment with the network and asserting that Edwards “deserves to leave at the time of his choosing.”

A freshman at George Washington University, Edward Chapman, collected the signatures on the Web. He handed over the petition April 29 on the windy sidewalk in front of NPR. Rodney Huey, v.p. for communications, accepted three blue plastic binders and told the freshman it’s important for listeners to keep supporting their stations.
Edwards himself strolled up and thanked Chapman. He had timed his cigarette break for the petition’s arrival — he learned the appointed time, he said, by checking Savebobedwards.com.

Chapman became an NPR fan when he was in high school in Atlanta. A friend told him about Fresh Air. “I listened to it that afternoon, and Morning Edition the next day, and I’ve listened to NPR ever since,” he said.

Last month, on a tour of NPR headquarters, the student remembers seeing Edwards smoking on that same sidewalk. That first visit to NPR was the coolest thing he’d done since moving to D.C. to attend college, Chapman said. The very next week he was shocked into action when he heard NPR’s plan for Edwards.

“It was the first reaction I had: This wasn’t fair and something should be done.” He thought NPR could be persuaded to see its error. “If anyone would change, it’s NPR, which is so dependent on the public.”

The web campaign was almost inevitable after Savepacifica.net and Bringbacklinda.org, created to protect Pacifica’s politics and Linda Wertheimer’s hosting job on All Things Considered, respectively. Chapman created the website on March 24, the day after the network announced Edwards’ new job.

Some signers of Chapman’s petition added comments praising Edwards — one said he is “a wonderful stabilizing force in the world.” More had choice words for whoever took Edwards out of the anchor chair — a “callous,” “sneaky,” “egomanical corporate jerk” who panders to youth and should apologize to Bob and get fired himself.

“I didn’t expect a whole lot to happen,” Chapman said. He told Wonkette.com about the petition. Blogs spread the word. Hundreds signed. Big newspapers mentioned Chapman’s Savebobedwards.com. Thousands more signed. Some urged Chapman to complain to CPB or picket NPR, but he punched binder holes in the ream of printouts and gave it to Huey.

Though he stoutly defends Edwards’ skills and experience, Chapman doesn’t dispute NPR’s right to reassign employees. “It’s the way they went about it,” he told Current. “The biggest thing I want to make clear is that they definitely damaged their relationship with listeners.”

A student of NPR

Chapman gave this analysis on his website in May after delivering the petition.

What I have learned about NPR

Up until NPR moved Bob, I had never actively contemplated what exactly NPR is as an organization. I trusted NPR News more than any other source, and believed that NPR provides a better news product than anything in commercial broadcasting (and I still do believe this). As NPR's ombudsman has pointed out, as a listener I also felt like I was a part of it somehow. It was NPR and we listeners against the world.

I also believed NPR felt this way about its listeners as well. I thought that NPR and the listeners were together and had a relationship that was unique to broadcasting. Much of this no doubt came from the barrage of claims made during fundraising drives that made me believe that NPR was in the trenches and only the listeners who love it could help keep it alive and eventually pull it to safety.

After becoming involved in the save Bob site I have learned this to be far from the case. That relationship I described is alive and well but only between the local station and its listeners. As a part of the last bailout of NPR, the organization has become insulated from its listeners. Except to ask for large amounts of money for NPR's endowment (and a wonderful and dedicated listener response line) there is no contact with the public. The management of NPR sees the public as the management of CNN or any other cooperate news organization does.

Considering the background of the people at the top and the structure of NPR's revenue streams this makes sense but it never crossed my mind before Bob's departure. Even if this has been the case for a long time, it has just recently become apparent to many listeners including myself. I believe NPR was looking at the competition's ability to respond instantly and wanting to have that for NPR instead of realize what an incredible niche NPR had filled. While every commercial media outlet in America offered an instant response regarding what happened and opinion about who was to blame only NPR looked back at events, put them in context, and offer analysis that explained what was really going on.

NPR management

First, I want to point out that I believe NPR has every right to make any personnel move that they see fit as long as they are willing to live with the consequences and be honest with the listeners about the changes that they make.

From the beginning NPR and its PR department tried to mislead its listeners. This was never Bob's choice and NPR should not have tried to make it seem as such. Bob was being downgraded not promoted! Jay Kernis in his web-chat and in an LA Times article also created a false impression by making people think that Bob was offered a chance to co-host the new show.

These actions have damaged the relationship between NPR and its listeners more than kicking Bob out of his host chair. The management team at NPR treated Bob, the local stations, and the listening public poorly. No one has ever been given a straight and honest explanation as to why this move happened. The local stations, who, as discussed before, are the ones most connected to the listeners were never given an opportunity to discuss the move, even though half of NPR's funding comes from them.

Stations act as the intermediary between NPR and the listeners and they should at least have some time to figure out how to handle the changes. Instead of letting local stations deal with the change in a personal way with listeners, NPR e-mailed stations a list of talking points that made them sound condescending and ambivalent. Those are not two words that should be associated with spring pledge drive.

Web page posted May 24, 2004
Current
The newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2004

EARLIER ARTICLES

Edwards announcement shocks, then befuddles listeners.

Why NPR says it made the move: co-host needed to improve coverage.

LATER ARTICLE

NPR's president says he was embarrassed by "all the missteps we took here," May 2004.

OUTSIDE LINKS

Chapman's website, Savebobedwards.com.

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