We'll still be listening for you, Bob

National Public Radio announced last month that it will replace Bob Edwards, who has hosted Morning Edition for 25 years. NPR ombudsman, Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, wrote a letter to Mr. Edwards for the NPR website that is excerpted here with permission.

Dear Bob, I've received a lot of e-mail about your departure from Morning Edition. More than 9,000 and climbing - almost every one a protest against your leaving. There is a lot of sadness and anger over the lack of a clear explanation of why this is happening.

This issue is one of the most intense I've encountered as NPR's ombudsman. Almost every one pointed out that their lives just won't be the same after you leave Morning Edition at the end of April. Listeners feel that NPR has let you down and let them down at the same time.

This e-mail from listener Karyn Severson is pretty typical, if somewhat restrained compared with others: Much of the reason I listen to the show every weekday morning, without fail, is that I can count on hearing Bob Edwards conduct a newscast that is serious, comprehensive and credible - leavened with adult humor and irony. Apparently the geniuses at NPR believe people are looking for something else in a news program. Some people may be, but those people don't listen to NPR.

The official explanation from NPR left many listeners wondering what is meant precisely when it is decided to "freshen up" a program.

Even those who said that perhaps some change might just be good for you and for Morning Edition wrote with a spirit of real love and support. All seem to understand that their new world - and yours - will take some getting used to.

A lot of what makes Morning Edition listeners so passionate is you - especially your calming presence at a time of commercial radio hype. And that wonderful baritone - all men who ever come near a microphone have larynx envy for those "pipes" of yours. Of course it's more than that. And it's more than just habit, although it's almost impossible to understate how habit works for radio listening.

What you've done - perhaps from the beginning - is to communicate something essential about radio. It is, in almost every way, the most personal, even intimate of all media.

We've talked about the writing on Morning Edition, about when a script just doesn't work. But when you read a script that does work - that is to say when it connects with the listeners both intellectually and emotionally - we know something happens inside the listeners' heads. They start to actually imagine what you're talking about - they can see what you're describing.

Your gift to listeners was to take that well-crafted script and allow them to be complicit in the act of imagination. They felt they were actually there - in Vietnam, Israel, Nicaragua, and anywhere in the US a public radio reporter turned on the microphone to describe what is going on. They wrote to tell us that's what happens when they hear your voice.

You also have the gift of being the agent for listeners whenever you interviewed someone who seemed hesitant or unwilling to open up.

I remember one interview where the sarcasm wafted out of the radio when, after a patently false answer, you used only one word in response: "Really..." I was hearing your eyebrows rise in skepticism. So did about 30 or so listeners who wrote to tell me the same thing.

That quality sets a very high standard for whoever comes next.

So a lot of us are sorry to imagine life post-Bob. Listeners may not always like what they hear, but they knew that they could trust you and the staff of Morning Edition to try to make sense of it all.

You and I have talked about how difficult change is at NPR. I think that changes in public radio are often hard and painful because they happen so infrequently. NPR journalism - for all of its reputation for so-called liberalism - is a very conservative culture. Change happens slowly, if at all. Journalists like to observe and report on dramatic changes, but they hate things to change around them - or for change to happen to them. But some change is bound to happen.

It may be cold comfort to you and listeners, but managing change in journalism - especially in public radio - is a most daunting task. But I won't be extending too much sympathy to NPR management. Virtually all of the e-mails take management to task for this and for what listeners perceive to be the official and somewhat lame explanation.

This is as tough a situation as I've seen in public broadcasting. It's tough on you, the other staffers at NPR, member stations, and the listeners especially. But it could be worse: As tough as it is for everyone, it's nothing compared with bringing home a foreign correspondent. They've seen a lot of dreadful things - perhaps too many. Nothing back home compares. Everything stateside seems so one-dimensional after life as a foreign correspondent.

Program hosts have a much higher success rate at finding their new legs compared with those correspondents. Just ask Linda Wertheimer, Danny Zwerdling, Susan Stamberg, or Noah Adams.

I think they sound just fine, and so do the listeners. I know you'll sound fine, too. You may not feel fine for a while, but that, too, will pass.

We'll all be listening for you.



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