Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Throwback Blowback
I know I'm a bit late getting around to this . . . but news of the departure of Bob Edwards from the anchor chair on Morning Edition came as as much of a surprise to me as it did to everyone else. Morning Edition is the number-one national morning show--bigger than Howard Stern, bigger than Bob and Tom. Only Rush Limbaugh has more listeners every day than Edwards does. He's a fixture. The world may be going to hell a little bit more every day, but at least we have someone we trust to tell us about it.

Outside the circle of NPR executives who made the decision to dump Edwards, very few people think it's a good idea. The New York Times reported last week that some affiliates thought Edwards sounded disengaged on the air, and they wanted Morning Edition to have a better capability to handle breaking news live. So what we're apparently going to get is something more like All Things Considered--at the very least, a dual-anchor format. What benefit NPR sees in this isn't entirely clear. If you notice, NPR's dual anchors on All Things Considered never actually speak to one another. In fact, one day last year, shortly before Linda Wertheimer left ATC for her own senior correspondent's gig (the same title Edwards is going to have after his adios), substitute co-host Susan Stamberg addressed Wertheimer directly on the air, and Wertheimer quite audibly jumped out of her skin in surprise. There's talk of making one anchor a roving correspondent reporting from various newsworthy locations, which would be a switch--but why this person couldn't simply have been added to Edwards' show isn't entirely clear, either.

One bit of speculation about NPR's motives invokes the spectre of rightward drift. First PBS replaces Bill Moyers' Now show with one featuring bow-tied young conservative dimwit Tucker Carlson; then Walmart becomes an NPR underwriter; then Edwards gets turfed in the name of making his show more contemporary. But the words that carry the most weight might be "young" and "contemporary." Edwards' style is a throwback--resonant, grandfatherly, and in the current world of media, an anachronism. It only sounds disengaged by comparison with the bang-zoom, in-your-face style common to commercial radio morning shows (although honesty compels me to report Edwards is not the best interviewer I've ever heard, often sounding like he's thinking up the next question only after his guest answers the last one). So it's not irrational to believe that NPR would like to attract younger listeners--more of the kind of people who think Ira Glass is cool--and that Edwards is less likely to do it than his successors presumptive, Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne.

One thing is clear, though. NPR blew the announcement of the transition, and blew it badly. Edwards will leave Morning Edition five months short of what would have been his (and the program's) 25th anniversary. News of the departure comes just as NPR stations are launching their spring pledge drives. And it comes at a moment when NPR may be facing its strongest competitive challenge yet. Radio industry observers think NPR will be the primary competitor for Air America, the new liberal talk-radio network launched last week.

NPR's senior VP for programming, Jay Kernis, sat for an online chat with listeners earlier this week, and when he wasn't stonewalling or reciting PR points, he denied that Morning Edition would become a more headline-oriented service with less of the in-depth reporting NPR is known for. People all over the country will be listening in hopes of holding him to that. But thousands are also signing an online petition to save Edwards' job. Online petitions are a few pixels north of useless, of course--but as a symbolic gesture, you might want to sign this one anyhow.

Recommended reading: From Best of the Blogs last Friday, guest blogger Michael Scott (whose stuff has been great) on four ways Bush wins the election no matter what else happens. A comment to the post gets at a fifth one that I've already been worrying about: If Ronald Reagan should happen to croak within close proximity of the election, the Repugs could easily turn the vote into a referendum on whether people liked the guy or not. If so--game over, four more years.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?