NPR’s reassignment of Bob Edwards shocks, explanations befuddle

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The cry from a distraught public rang out: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

After announcing the reassignment of Morning Edition host Bob Edwards
March 23, the network struggled to explain itself amid a coast-to-coast
NPR-bashing in the media and a record influx of listener complaints.

Some public radio managers joined the attack on NPR brass. Even those who
supported the network’s aim — to strengthen Morning Edition with
a two-host setup — criticized it for poor timing and lack of public-relations
finesse. Many stations were scheduled to begin on-air fund drives shortly
after the announcement and feared repercussions.

The network will reassign Edwards as a senior correspondent at the end of
April, removing him from the high-profile post he held for almost 25 years.
It informed stations and its own staff only hours before issuing a news release.

NPR received 28,000 e-mails and letters of complaint. Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin
received more correspondence on Edwards’ departure than on any other subject
in his four-year tenure. Bewildered listeners grieved the prospect of breakfasts
and showers without Edwards as their companion.

The attacks on NPR leadership became personal and vicious, surprising Jay
Kernis, NPR’s senior v.p. of programming and a chief architect of the change.
“One of our core values is this belief in civil discourse,” he said, referring to the Public Radio Program Directors’ tenets he carries on a laminated card in his wallet. “I have received the most uncivil mail that I have received in my professional career.”

Letter writers (a sampling) said Kernis
and cohorts were the uncivil ones. They deluged NPR with accusations that
it was out of step with its audience.

“The demotion sounds like the kind of dumb move you might expect from
commercial broadcasting, where change is often made because somebody in charge
wants to make his mark,” wrote Tom Dorsey in the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal,
Edwards’ hometown paper. “In any case, it’s hard to imagine anybody doing
the job better than Edwards.”

Stations: why now?

With his trademark bass, laid-back delivery and long tenure, Edwards had
become one of NPR’s most recognizable personalities. Some listeners credited
the front man with the show’s remarkable success, making his removal seem
all the more senseless to them.

Morning Edition is public radio’s most popular show and the second-most-listened-to
radio program in the country, with a weekly cume that rose 41 percent in the
past five years to more than 12 million listeners.

In recent years, however, NPR has changed many of its news programs in big
and small ways, and Morning Edition was not to be spared. The show
will employ two hosts, better positioning it to deliver both breaking news
and in-depth reports, Kernis explained. Edwards had resisted a co-host.
(See accompanying article.)

“This particular exercise was bungled badly by NPR,” said John
Proffitt, g.m. of Houston Public Radio in Texas.

NPR did consult with stations — about 50 to 60 over an 18-month period,
Kernis said, though the conversations were not specifically about reassigning
Edwards. It was about six months ago that Kernis first settled on the change,
he said. With Bruce Drake, NPR’s v.p. of news, he broke the news to Edwards
two weeks before it went public.

After making the decision, Kernis said, it would have been inappropriate
to conceal it from Edwards any longer. The host was about to begin touring
to promote his new book, Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism,
and Kernis expected he would be asked about his future at NPR along the
way. “We didn’t want him to look foolish,” Kernis said. Asking Edwards
to conceal the decision also seemed unrealistic.

Dismissing Edwards before the show’s 25th anniversary in November struck
some as insulting, but Kernis disputed that waiting until afterwards was preferable.

“There probably never was a great time to do it,” he said.

Whatever the case, the announcement’s proximity to fundraising season riled
pubcasters. They reported angry listeners registering their displeasure by
withholding pledges, though they explained to their audiences that the decision
was NPR’s. Edwards discouraged such boycotts in an interview posted on NPR’s

“We have to go into sort of full protective mode,” said Lamar
Marchese, g.m. of Nevada Public Radio in Las Vegas. “You’ve got enough
things going on, and obviously the focus is to raise money.”

Some station execs reported in Internet discussion groups that fundraising
was unaffected. Of 27 stations tracked by NPR, all but two made their goals,
said Joyce MacDonald, director of station relations.

Unnatural “evolution”?

NPR took additional flak for muddling its explanation for Edwards’ reassignment.
The March 23 press release gave no reasons. A Q&A for stations cited the
show’s “natural evolution” and dodged specifics.

“What ‘natural evolution?'” asked Richard Cohen, a Washington
columnist. “What does that mean?”

Tom DuVal, g.m. of WMRA in Harrisonburg, Va., said that after reading early
memos he thought, “‘This isn’t telling me anything.'”

A day later, Kernis told the system in a letter that Morning Edition
needed “a different type of host” that could leave the studio to
cover stories. But it was unclear, at least to the public, why Edwards wouldn’t
be one of those anchors until the Los Angeles Times reported March
29 that Edwards had demanded to keep his solo position. Kernis confirmed that
in an online chat with listeners April 5.

Edwards, who declined to discuss recent events with Current, said
in early news reports that his future role with NPR was unclear, though the
network had announced his new reporting gig.

“I think that they handled it poorly,” Marchese said. “They
came off as being disingenuous and as treating Bob poorly.”

Kernis blamed reporters who he said don’t always understand “the inner
workings of programming.” But “maybe we didn’t explain [the reasons]
in a clear way,” he said.

As for NPR’s communication with stations, “I think, in retrospect,
we regret that we weren’t able to give them more specifics more quickly, and
we would maybe do it a little bit differently,” MacDonald said.

The large-scale drama resonated for station execs who have weathered onslaughts
from listeners infuriated by local program changes.

“Stations are used to making really difficult program changes,” said Eric Nuzum, director of programming and operations at WKSU-FM in Kent, Ohio. “NPR is not.”

“As you may have heard,” said John Stark, g.m. of KNAU-FM in Flagstaff,
Ariz., “there is a suspicion among some that there is no PR in NPR.”

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