The television executive, who looked almost old enough to vote, explained to me that his network really did not care about anyone over 50.
“But we’re not aging the way our parents did,” I said. “We’re reinventing the process. Besides, there are a lot of us out there.”
To his credit, he didn’t actually laugh out loud. Yet it troubled him not one bit that those of us over 50 might have more money to spend than 18-year-olds, or even 35-year-olds. Advertisers, he told me, aren’t interested in old coots. I left his office, grateful once again for public broadcasting, where there are no advertisers and, therefore, no thirtysomething ageist idiots deciding that all life stops when you can no longer bare your belly button without offending the general populace.
Time, however, puts down whoopee cushions everywhere. This week, National Public Radio, apparently acting on the theory that if it’s not broke, break it, announced that Bob Edwards was no longer its choice to host “Morning Edition,” the program he began, shaped and -- for the last 25 years -- informed with his intelligence, wit and grace.
Although nobody came right out and said so, it’s clear that the new honchos at NPR believe the man whose voice has soothed millions of us into day after day of too much reality is, at 56, too old for the task.
Were the ratings sinking, perhaps? They were not. “Morning Edition’s” audience grew by 41% in the last five years; Edwards’ is the most-listened-to morning radio program in the U.S.
A spokeswoman for NPR said only that the change was “part of a natural evolution.” She said a new host would “bring new ideas and perspectives to the show.” Uh-huh.
Edwards, who for 2 1/2 decades has shown up at the office at 2 a.m. to prepare for a two-hour broadcast that begins at 5 a.m., said he was surprised. “I never had plans to do anything else,” he told a reporter. After his last “Morning Edition,” on April 30, he will be “reassigned” as a senior correspondent for NPR.
Edwards will be OK. He’s too good not to be. But what about the rest of us? What message shall we take from this?
We baby boomers, still the basketball moving through the snake, are doing our best to redefine what it means to get older. Can we hang on to our looks, our energy -- our jobs? Can we compete with 30-year-olds? Can we learn new tricks? We as a generation have always believed we can have it our way, mainly because we so often have. Tomorrow has always been an important word to us. Then we learn the truth. We can exercise ourselves to skin and bone, eat nothing but broccoli, pay the plastic surgeon, dye our hair, date (and marry) much younger men and women, boogie the night away, start new businesses and change old habits. We can even become, dare I say it, wise with our years, but we cannot stop time.
I understand that NPR wants a younger audience. I don’t agree with the simple-minded thinking that says a younger audience will accept the news only if a younger person delivers it. That was used against the first women broadcast journalists, of which I was one. Men won’t believe the news if it comes from a woman, they said. They were wrong.
Our trouble is, we’ve allowed young to define old. Golda Meir was 71 when she became prime minister of Israel, Michelangelo was 66 when he finished the “Last Judgment,” George Burns won his first Oscar at 80, Grandma Moses didn’t start painting until she was in her 70s. But they didn’t do any of those things in 21st century America, where reality is a television format, celebrity is a profession, and age is a moral failing.
They say corporations never blush, and NPR is, after all, a corporation, so I don’t expect that any howling on our parts will change the minds of the people who have decided to put Edwards out to pasture.
But there is this. We, the audience, are the principal “advertisers” of NPR, its funders, or so it tells us every pledge drive. OK. Next time it comes calling, some of us might be feeling too old to rummage around for our checkbooks. We might not even hear the phone from the porch where we sit rocking, thinking about how short life is, how short and beautiful and fine -- and filled with lies. Like the one about time flying. Time doesn’t go. Time stays. We go. Or, as with Edwards, are forced out, way before there’s any good reason to leave.
And so it goes.
Linda Ellerbee, a longtime anchor and correspondent for NBC News, produces Nick News, a TV news magazine for kids.