Public Relations: Goodbye to NPR’s Bob Edwards:
Bob Edwards, the mellifluous, avuncular, iconic – pick an adjective – anchor of NPR’s Morning Edition since its inception in 1979 was booted at the end of April 2004. NPR ratings doubled in the previous 10 years on his watch. Edwards’ program was second only to Rush Limbaugh in total listeners. Yet executives told the Washington Post this is “a programming decision about the right sound” and “a natural evolution” that “had to do with the changing needs of our listeners.”
AP quoted the 56-year-old Edwards saying he was given no specific reasons for the change and he assured there was no” Janet Jackson incident.” Edwards said, “You have to figure it’s going to happen some day and you get out before they do it, but I failed.” He will become a senior correspondent.
Negative emails to a Washington Post chat room the morning of the announcement numbered 70 by 11am and kept increasing. A few local NPR stations worried this unpopular move would hurt fund-raising. Edwards, a contemporary radio presence reminiscent of TV’s Walter Cronkite in an earlier era is gone. (Come to think of it, I still don’t understand CBS’s force-out of Cronkite for Dan Rather in 1981, and I’ll bet the network, in hindsight, doesn’t either. Rather is a terrific reporter, but Cronkite was a god.)
Having spent about 30 years in radio and television I think the Edwards removal illustrates a nasty habit. Some broadcast executives cannot or will not view on-air talent the way their audience does. I believe the pressure of higher ratings, change-making, and dollar saving makes them genuinely believe that on-air anchors are as interchangeable as car engines. Remove them, ride out the intense but usually temporary viewer complaints, and if the bottom line holds, no-harm no-foul. But there is harm.
Ten years after leaving TV news, people still ask me why there is so much on-air turnover at the local stations. They complain, “Just when you get to know someone, they’re gone. It’s a revolving door.” My response?
First, television personnel changes are often no more frequent than corporate changes; it’s just that the public can see it happen on the screen.
Second, this is a medium-sized market (Greensboro – High Point – Winston-Salem, NC) where some move up to bigger cities.
However, decision-makers occasionally lose touch with their audiences and err.
The notion that NPR’s Bob Edwards is replaceable exemplifies this thinking, an attitude held by a single executive or an entire corporation. Unbelievably, a corporate president once cheerfully bragged to me in a Dallas elevator that he had just fired his entire anchor team there and invited me to check out the new faces.
Having lived in the piedmont area of NC for almost three decades I have watched on-air stability vary with owners and managers regardless who was winning the ratings. Only one station, WGHP-TV, left anchor teams mostly intact all that time. Anchors appear to be valued as community symbols. Other station managers seem to be emulating that now. Good.
While there is no substitute for the precision and depth of the printed press, most Americans rely on television for news. Broadcasting is unique. Its faces and voices are like friends and relatives. With families fragmented by jobs, education, firings, marriages, divorces, and personal upheavals, we want steadiness and constancy wherever we can get it. The permanence of established broadcast anchors is needed especially in this uncertain world. We want the comforting presence of folks we know. Not just Brokaw, Jennings, Rather, and until now, Bob Edwards; but, locally, Hughes, McNeil, and Kent to talk us through it. Trust comes with time. We don’t want someone we hardly recognize. We need these people to reassure us like nuclear families did before society splintered.
I urge broadcast executives not to take on-air talent for granted and replace them just to save a few bucks or for the sake of change. For our peace of mind, let us keep our valued national and local anchors. We need someone to believe in when the world threatens. We need the reassurance of those like Bob Edwards.