Bye-bye, Bob: AMs won't be the same

I woke up this morning, as I have recently, at 5:30am, a disturbing trend but one I seem incapable of curing. This unwelcome development is eased somewhat by the knowledge that Bob Edwards, host of NPR's "Morning Edition," is awaiting me, reporting the news in his mellifluous, comforting baritone.

Edwards' voice is the soundtrack of these early hours as I plow through my e-mail, light that first delightful cigarette of the day, and enjoy the morning jolt of numerous cups of strong coffee. He has been my morning companion throughout my working life. Edwards himself has been up since 1am, reading the day's papers and setting up overseas interviews before anyone wakes.

Over the 25 years he's been doing this, I have often marveled at his tenacity. I sometimes think I couldn't imagine beginning the day without him.

But this morning I learned I will soon have to.

Just short of his 25th anniversary as host of "Morning Edition"– a job he has held since the program's debut– NPR announced last week that Edwards will be replaced in the near future. The decision, according to NPR programming executive Ken Stern, is part of the network's efforts to "update its programming." Stern is quoted in The New York Times explaining the decision:

"This is part of the natural evolution of NPR, and finding the critical mix of new voices and familiar voices. This is not about individuals but about goals for the show itself. Bob is not leaving. He's going to be on the air for years to come, and that is the context that this needs to be understood in."

I'm trying to understand this, but Stern's rationale doesn't make sense to me– or, it seems, to Edwards himself.

"I would prefer to remain the host of Morning Edition, certainly through its 25th anniversary in November," he told the Times. "But apparently it's not my decision. It's my baby. I was there from the get-go. I never had any plans to do anything else."

This sudden announcement has taken Edwards and his devoted listeners by surprise and left more than few in shock. It's especially curious since the program, with 13 million listeners weekly, has grown NPR's audience share by 41 percent in the last five years. Edwards was unceremoniously told of his ouster earlier in March with no advance warning. Given the brief opportunity to absorb the shock, NPR allowed him to inform his staff before issuing a press release March 23 announcing its decision to reassign Edwards into a senior correspondent position.

Stern said that correspondents (read: possible replacements) Steve Inskeep and Renée Montagne would host the show beginning May 1 when Edwards launches a promotional tour for his latest book, Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism.

 Reading this news ruined my morning, and I listened to Edwards' show with more intensity than usual, wondering if he would say anything. He didn't.

I'm disturbed by the news of Edwards' removal not only because I'm a fan and loyal listener, but also because it shows startling hubris on the part of NPR management. I wouldn't be so hurt if Edwards himself bowed out; in fact, I'd understand it completely. Devoting a quarter century of his life to a single program that requires him to adopt a lifestyle few adults could accept– since beginning the show he has gone to bed at 6pm in order to arrive at the studio by 2am– would exhaust lesser reporters of much younger years. But Edwards is a youthful 56 and seems not in the least tired or stale. He takes much-deserved hiatuses from the show each year and returns, presumably, refreshed. He obviously loves his job.

The decision also raises the question of NPR's motivation and judgment. Excusez-moi, but in an era when most news programs are frightened to lose their "name" anchors, I am mystified by NPR's explanation. Amplified by the fact that NPR relies heavily on its listeners and is often the target of public-funding debates in a conservative Congress, it's astonishing that NPR would make such a move. Edwards is far from retirement age. Arbitrarily replacing him is absurd, not to mention a disservice to public radio listeners and supporters.

It's also a maddeningly bad business blunder. I'm sure Stern believes that his own stock will rise once the furor has died down. There's no other answer. I agree with him that broadcasting requires the infusion of fresh new voices when longtime anchors become too entrenched and no longer hold the attention of their audience.

The last time I put NPR on hold for a significant time was years ago, when Edwards' longtime mentor, sports-casting legend and Friday commentator Red Barber died in 1992. Barber, who lovingly referred to Edwards as "Colonel" in a nod to the anchor's Kentucky heritage, came out of retirement to join the show's regular contributors in 1980. Edwards seemed almost to suffer a breakdown when Barber died, and he took a break to write a wonderful memoir of his years with the venerable journalist. I stopped listening because I sensed the loss as much as Edwards did– Fridays weren't as much fun without Barber.

But I soon returned to the fold, as did Edwards, and "Morning Edition" again became a staple of my morning routine.

It's an understatement to say that the show won't be the same sans Edwards, even as he's "promoted" and will continue contributing as a senior correspondent. I may even get used to it. But I don't have to like it. Maybe I'll just sleep in.

Bill Ramsey is a freelance writer and former Charlottesvillian now living in Texas. When he worked with The Hook's editors at another paper, he was the creator of several short-lived media columns including "GailForce" and "Peyton's Place."

"Morning Edition" host Bob Edwards