Why NPR reassigned Bob Edwards: show needs co-host to improve coverage

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NPR reassigned Morning Edition host Bob Edwards to make way for a two-host setup intended to strengthen the show’s news coverage, said Jay Kernis, NPR’s senior v.p. of programming.

An additional host will allow for more flexibility in handling breaking news and preparing for future programs, he said. Updating the show, which feeds at 5 a.m. Eastern time and repeats until noon, will be easier with two hosts, Kernis said.

The arrangement will also free hosts to report from the field — giving them first-hand experience with news that will come across in their hosting work, according to Kernis and others. Some observers in public radio had criticized Edwards for sounding disengaged.

Edwards leaves the show April 30 [2004]. Before permanent successors are named, Renee Montagne and Weekend All Things Considered host Steve Inskeep will anchor the show from Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., respectively.

Responding to listeners and public radio programmers who asked why NPR would mess with success, Kernis said the goal was to build on the network’s achievements.

Morning Edition “isn’t broken,” he said. “The question is, how do you grow it? . . . How do you replenish it? How do you take it in new directions?”

The show’s growing demands

NPR’s review of its programming is prompted in part by the $200 million bequest from late billionaire Joan Kroc. The network recently hired Bill Marimow, former editor of the Baltimore Sun, in a new managing editor position.The events of 9/11 also increased demands on NPR to respond to breaking news.

Other single-host programs such as Weekend Edition Saturday will not be changed, Kernis said.

Programmers inside and outside NPR had been calling for changes to Morning Edition for years. Edwards briefly had a co-host when the show began but had hosted solo in the two decades since.

Kernis, who helped create Morning Edition in his first stint at NPR, said that while working for CBS News after leaving the network he sometimes heard from former co-workers that the show was such a burden it needed two hosts. “And I said, don’t do it. I said, ‘Bob works solo and that’s how he works best. Do not do this to him.'”

“When I got back to NPR [in 2001], it became clear that NPR’s news presentation needed to change,” Kernis added. “It was no longer acceptable to be late on a story and call it analysis. It was no longer acceptable to miss a major story or not cover it in depth.”

During Edwards’ recent vacations NPR experimented with a dual-host format using Inskeep and Montagne. The network asked John Stark, g.m. of KNAU-FM in Flagstaff, Ariz., for feedback.

“I think that with a co-host NPR ran the risk of it sounding contrived or corny or too clever,” he said. “No. It sounded very much in keeping with what we expect of host performance in the shows.”

Stark welcomes the change to Morning Edition and believes Edwards will contribute valuable reports as a senior correspondent, as have Susan Stamberg and Juan Williams, both former hosts who now have similar wide-ranging jobs, he said.

But “listening to Bob Edwards on Morning Edition never made me cringe,” Stark said.

To others, Edwards has sounded out of step with the show. He sometimes conducted brilliant interviews, said Tom DuVal, g.m. of WMRA-FM in Harrisonburg, Va. But “there were times I felt he was just reading questions and not really engaging that much with the interviewee,” DuVal said.

Reports from hosts in the field will improve Morning Edition, said Eric Nuzum, director of programming and operations at WKSU-FM in Kent, Ohio. NPR asked Nuzum last April to evaluate the program. He pushed for two hosts.

“There’s a different expectation for a host of a program than maybe there was in the past,” Nuzum says. “There should be a sense of engagement and passion about the world they’re talking about, and I think that as a listener I enjoy knowing that this person understands the world because they’ve been there. As a station person . . . I really trust someone who is out there doing that kind of work.”

Illinois pubcaster Tim Emmons writes in a Current commentarythat Morning Edition needs not only two hosts but also more star talent and investigative reports.

Another Rukeyser-gate?

Edwards won’t be a co-host of the new Morning Edition because he insisted on hosting alone, Kernis said. Edwards declined to speak with Current but confirmed in a Los Angeles Times interview that he didn’t want a co-pilot.

“I’d gotten used to working alone,” he said. “It is a vanity thing, I am ashamed to say, but we do have egos and that is why we go on the air.”

Edwards also took the dismissal personally. “I think he’s tired of listening to me,” he said of Kernis, in a Washington Post article.

For some observers, the departure of Edwards, 56, suggested a parallel to Maryland Public Television’s 2002 dismissal of Louis Rukeyser, then host of its Wall Street Week. The firing of the 69-year-old host prompted criticism that MPT and PBS wanted to attract younger audiences. NPR faced similar accusations, which Kernis denied.

Kernis believes that the improvements to Morning Edition will bear out the merits of Edwards’ controversial farewell. Station executives and the public remain divided and unsure.

“It could be great,” said WMRA’s DuVal. “We may look back on this in five years and say, wow, that was a sea change for Morning Edition and for public radio — we’re glad we went that direction. Or we could look back on it and say, ‘So what’s a whole lot different?'”

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