Remembering NPR’s Ken Barcus, a tough editor with a big heart

Remembering NPR’s Ken Barcus, a tough editor with a big heart

Ken Barcus, longtime Midwest bureau chief for NPR’s National Desk and a revered mentor to public radio journalists, died Tuesday in Cleveland. He was 67.

His death from complications resulting from throat cancer was confirmed by his family.

Over an NPR career that spanned three decades, Ken made an indelible imprint: He brought in countless stories and trained dozens of reporters and editors across the Midwest, from Ohio to the Dakotas.

“Ken was a passionate advocate for coverage of the Midwest,” says NPR’s managing editor for news, Vickie Walton-James, who was Ken’s supervisor for 14 years. “He never stopped pushing for stories that illuminated life away from the coasts. Even after decades in his job, he wanted to make sure no one ever thought of the region as ‘flyover country.'”

Or as Ken put it, “[I wanted] to make sure that people would choke on the words ‘Rust Belt’ or ‘flyover’ when they think about my region.”

So many of the voices you hear on NPR will tell you that Ken shaped them into the reporters they are today — by mentoring, cajoling and sometimes critiquing with blunt, painful truths when a story was weak or a description cliché.

“Tough and gruff!” is how NPR correspondent Tovia Smith describes her first impression of Ken as an editor. She still clearly remembers one of her first edits with him, decades ago.

“He said he wanted my story to sing,” she recalls. “And when I gave him what I wrote, he just went silent for a second. And then he blurts out at me, ‘I was asking for a symphony. This is like elevator music!'” She pauses. “That stung.”

But it didn’t take Tovia long to discover Ken’s big-hearted side.

“Just below that prickly exterior, he really was a total mushball,” she says. “He was really nurturing by nature. And it’s no wonder he loved his job, working with young journalists and bringing them along.”

In the early 1990s, one of those young journalists was Eric Westervelt, now a veteran NPR correspondent.

“He was a great mentor to scores of young and up-and-coming reporters. He was to me,” says Eric, who grew to value Ken’s forthright style. “He would completely cut through the BS. And I’d hear him in my head, years later. If I was overseas on deadline, covering a war or conflict, here’s Barcus in my head asking the ‘So what?’ question: ‘Is this new?’ And ‘Why would some listener in Miami or Des Moines want to hear this?'”

NPR correspondent David Schaper, who is based in Chicago, calls Ken “unforgettable” and says, “I owe my career to him.”

In the process of editing his reports, David says, “we butted heads every now and then, but it was always to make the story better. And he pushed me in that way. He really put the listener first. He wanted to create vivid scenes and bring our listeners to the place where the story is. … Radio is creating pictures in the mind, and he brought that home to me and to others so intensely and so well.”

Ammad Omar, chief editor on NPR’s National Desk, counts himself lucky that Ken took him under his wing when he was a young producer in his early 20s working in Chicago. “I wouldn’t be here today without his support and kindness,” Ammad says.

An ardent defender of the Midwest

Ken was born on Jan. 18, 1955, in Cleveland and grew up there. He graduated from Cleveland Heights High School and received his B.A. in liberal studies from Sonoma State University in Northern California. Ken nearly went to law school but had a change of heart and instead entered American University’s graduate program in journalism in Washington, D.C., from which he received his master’s degree.

Prior to joining NPR, Ken reported for member station WAMU in the District of Columbia, and he worked for nearly eight years at Monitor Radio, the now-defunct broadcast arm of The Christian Science Monitor newspaper, where he covered the White House and served as Washington bureau chief.

Ken’s NPR career initially included a stint as an overnight editor for Morning Edition (“NPR’s version of hazing,” he later joked).

He went on to become an editor on the National Desk, and in 1998 he persuaded NPR to move his job from D.C. to his beloved native Cleveland.

That’s where he and his wife, Ellen, whom he married in 1988, raised their daughters, Julia, now 29, and Kate, now 27.

Ken took immense pride in his Ohio roots, and he championed coverage of his region, the Midwest, through NPR’s robust network of member stations.

In 2002, on NPR’s call-in show Talk of the Nation, he took pains to counter some stale misconceptions about his region:

“The Cuyahoga River,” he said, “which caught on fireas you all know in the ’60s or ’70s — ‘the river that burns’ was the big joke for Cleveland — is a river that I now take my children out on kayaking, and we see eagles every time we go out. It’s just different than the perception, different than the stereotype and different than that old New Yorker cartoon of a flyover Midwest area.”

This approach was warmly welcomed by the many reporters at NPR member stations in Ken’s region.

“Ken really understood that not everything is as it appears in Washington,” says Maryanne Zeleznik, news director at WVXU in Cincinnati. “He felt it was really important to hear stories of people who are living their lives not on the coasts, not in the biggest of cities, but just people living across the country, and he thought it was very important to get those stories out.”

Because he prized and fought for these regional stories, Maryanne says, Ken was “always slammed. The joke always was that when he’d answer the phone, it was ‘Ken-Barcus-please-hold,'” blurted out in one quick burst.

It was thanks to Ken’s inspiration that NPR now has five regional bureau chiefs based around the United States.

Among them is NPR’s Northeast bureau chief, Andrea de Leon, based in Maine, who counted Ken as a close friend as well as a trusted colleague — “my work husband,” as she puts it.

“Most especially I think he loved stories that were very human,” she says, “and that took us to places that we might not otherwise go. It wouldn’t have to be exotic war zones. They could be much quieter places. But just sort of expanding how we see our country and our fellow Americans and our fellow humans.”

Ken always pushed for moments of joy

Ken had a rich sense of humor and was always looking for ways to inject lightness into stories, especially when the news could be so dark and distressing.

“One of the things he always pushed for,” says Maryanne, “were moments of joy. These moments of joy could be so uplifting, and he really pushed for that. ‘Look for that,’ he said. ‘Look for those moments of joy.'”

This summer, when Ken announced his upcoming planned retirement, he wrote in an all-staff email, “I’d like to retire as the king of what have now been branded ‘Moment of Joy’ pieces.”

Outside of work, Ken adored being outdoors; he loved to kayak, hike and bike. He converted his daughters’ swing set into a fancy coop for his backyard chickens and could never resist adopting rescue dogs. His Cleveland garden was, and is, a glorious profusion — every inch covered with plants.

“Oh my gosh, he has the most amazing garden!” says Annie Wu of Ideastream Public Media in Cleveland, who lives nearby. “There is a water feature of a bicycle where the water makes the tire spin. There’s a tire swing off of a giant tree in his front yard, and he has always invited children around the neighborhood to swing on that at any time.”

This tells you something about Ken: He delighted in sharing both what he knew (he was an excellent source of office gossip) and what he had.

Random gifts, like the purple hyacinth bean seeds that Maryanne found in her mail one day, culled from his garden.

Or the perfect gift he once sent to Andrea, his National Desk colleague.

“He was in Montreal,” Andrea remembers, “and he was like, ‘I found these great, cheap tomato knives! I’m sending them to everyone I know who grows a lot of tomatoes, so here’s one for you.’ That’s just who he was.”

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