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Stormy days for NPR

The network's decision to replace Bob Edwards as 'Morning Edition' host has been met with widespread criticism.

March 29, 2004|Allan M. Jalon and Steve Carney | Special to The Times

The outwardly ordered world of National Public Radio has been upended as station managers, editorial writers and more than 13,000 listeners have reacted with anger and confusion to last week's announcement that the network was removing the highly popular Bob Edwards as host of its flagship show, "Morning Edition," as of April 30.

The widespread criticism included dismay that NPR officials explained the decision in hazy, generalized language that gave those trying to decode it little to hold onto. But new details have emerged that suggest that Edwards' high personal profile and vocal insistence on retaining his position as the program's sole host are partly behind management's conclusion that, in his words, "I'm the past."

Particularly galling to a number of NPR affiliates was that Tuesday's news came just as many of those stations were beginning their spring fundraising drives. The ultimate financial effect on donations is hard to predict, local public radio station managers say, but doubts and even mockery of how NPR managed the announcement echoed last week on websites and in newspapers from Hawaii to Washington, D.C.

"What 'natural evolution'? chided Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, in a biopsy of NPR's explanation. "What 'changing needs.'?"

"I've kind of polled the managers in California, and nobody is fine with this," said Frank Lanzone, general manager of KCBX-FM in San Luis Obispo and KSBX-FM in Santa Barbara, which have been in fund drives since last Monday. "It seems like they were not being very smart about it."

"NPR is suffering a severe credibility loss because of the inexplicability of this management move," said Michael Titterton, who oversees four stations as president and general manager of Honolulu-based Hawaii Public Radio. "There is no rational explanation to anyone else outside National Public Radio as to why this should be done."

Yet Jay Kernis, NPR's senior vice president for programming and the person mainly responsible for shifting Edwards to a senior correspondent's job, remained steadfast that his decision was "the right thing for me, the right thing for Bob and the right thing for the system." Kernis said he and others at NPR considered the decision "carefully and cautiously."

Mark Handley, president of New Hampshire Public Radio and second-term chairman of NPR's board of directors, said some of the officials at affiliate stations who are now expressing surprise or outrage at the move in the past had quietly agreed that "Morning Edition" needed a change.

"You would not have been able to go to a gathering where representatives of member stations were present and not hear talk about how 'Morning Edition' could be improved," Handley said. "I think management has done due diligence on the whole thing." NPR officials, countering criticism of their timing, said they acted before Edwards left on a promotional tour for his new book, on early broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, believing that would be better than delaying the transition until he returned.

The storm comes at a time when NPR is undergoing a major self-assessment after receiving $200 million from the late Joan B. Kroc, wife of McDonald's magnate Ray Kroc. Key to the network's future, NPR officials say, is strengthening its ability to respond quickly and in-depth to breaking news and to conduct investigative reporting. They point to the recent hiring of William K. Marimow, former editor of the Baltimore Sun and a Pulitzer prize-winning investigative reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Meanwhile, NPR's leaders are working on new initiatives that have already included the establishment of a major West Coast headquarters, NPR West, in Culver City.

With its weekly audience of 13 million, "Morning Edition" trails only conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh for national listeners, and the program was broadly identified with Edwards. Yet even he speculated that NPR officials had started feeling "I was too big for my britches."

Edwards said he wondered whether he hadn't fallen afoul of a cultural distinction between commercial broadcasting, where personalities like Howard Stern rule, and the egalitarian ideal of nonprofit radio. "The way they see it, the brand is NPR news, not me," Edwards said.

However, that sentiment wasn't shared by the many thousands who voiced their disapproval of NPR's move.

Typical of the unhappy listeners is Jeff Smith, 60, of Pacific Palisades, who says he donates about $150 a year each to KCRW-FM (89.9) in Santa Monica and KPCC-FM (89.3) in Pasadena and who last week complained about Edwards' ouster to the latter during its fund drive. "I offered them $500 if they would say they were outraged," he said. The station didn't bite. "This is National Public Radio; the public wants the guy."

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