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As Long as We Remember...

May 6, 2004

Is Bob Edwards Too Old?

Joe Volz

The top brass at National Public Radio has fired Bob Edwards, host of the network's most popular program, "Morning Edition."

Bob broadcast his last show April 30 after almost 25 years as solo host for the news program. His deep laid-back baritone voice had become a reassuring voice to millions of Americans awakening every day to a troubled world. (The program can be heard locally on WYPR, 88.1, or WAMU, 88.5.)

Oh, the brass did not come right out and say Edwards had been forcibly ejected from his anchor seat. In fact, he will continue as an NPR "senior correspondent." But it is clear that the high command wanted to change the concept of what an NPR anchor does. For one thing, the executives wanted two hosts, not one, and Bob had resisted. Jay Kernis, senior NPR vice president for programming, says, "Bob has always made it clear he wants to work solo."

Kernis also wants anchors to get out into the field more often. Edwards figured his role was being on the air at the anchor desk each morning. The listeners expected that.

"We made our decision based on our love of in-depth journalism," said Kernis. He has not explained just what kind of journalism Bob, in conducting thousands of interviews over the years, was engaging in. But, clearly, Bob liked the features, the subtle insights into life, talking to average people as much as anything. NPR officials are pushing for more emphasis on breaking hard news.

Bob has taken his reassignment, which he did not seek and is not overjoyed about, with grace. In an NPR interview with long-time colleague Scott Simon, he said softly, "Tastes change. They wanted something else. That's cool."

But most of the 35,000 listeners, who wrote or called in, did not think the decision was cool at all. In fact, some thought that 56-year-old Bob was the victim of age discrimination.

The network's ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, says: "Some listeners have written wondering if NPR has committed, inadvertently or not, a form of age discrimination by reassigning Bob." But Dvorkin, who is not a member of management, doubts it.

"Many employees at NPR are of a certain age, as the saying goes," observes Dvorkin. Kernis adds that six new hosts have been hired in the last two years, ranging in age from the mid-30s to Bob's age.

(In this era of journalistic full disclosure, I must confess that I have been a fan of Bob's since he first went on the air on what was supposed to be a 30-day temporary assignment. I have appeared on various NPR programs over the years, including Bob's.)

I don't think Bob should have been forced out. He is just too good - and too popular.

But was Bob discriminated against because of his age? I agree with Dvorkin. Probably not.

In determining age discrimination in the workplace against anyone over 40, regulators and courts consider if management's decision was based on age, instead of what kind of a job the employee was doing. Of course, management has the right to make reasonable demands of the workers. Presumably, pushing for two anchors, instead of one, is a reasonable demand.

Over the years, though, broadcasting executives, particularly in commercial TV, have often "reassigned" anchors in cases where their appearance or age seemed to have been primary factors. Female TV anchors have been particularly vulnerable.

Bob's problem seemed to be his view of what is news, not his age. He is a features guy in what is becoming a hard news world.

The stories he loved were the ones that illuminated life in subtle ways. His regular Friday morning talks about baseball with the veteran former Brooklyn Dodgers broadcaster, the late Red Barber, were classics. Ostensibly about sports, they were really about living. We listened to Red, who called Edwards "colonel" because he was an honorary Kentucky colonel, deal with change as he advanced into his 80s.

Red, himself, lost a broadcasting job for the New York Yankees when he asked the cameramen to pan the nearly empty stands.

"Red taught me a lot about life," observes Bob.

But it would be hard these days for Red to compete against Osama bin Laden and the cast of thugs that take up so much news space these days.

This summer, Bob will be on the road peddling his new book about another award-winning broadcaster who did not see eye-to-eye with his bosses. It's called "Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism."

E-mail Joe Volz at

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