Yesterday, I heard that Ken Bader, a colleague of mine during many of my years in public radio, had lost his battle with cancer. Some of you reading this might have known Ken quite well, others not at all. Either way, if you listened to The World on WGBH, or the news on WBUR, or various programs from National Public Radio in Washington, you doubtless heard his uncompromisingly principled editorial voice. It was there in his own work on-air, and it was there in the voices of the myriad of correspondents, producers, and hosts he worked with throughout his long career.
I can’t write about Ken as a personal friend, and I don’t think he’d want me to. I went to The Bader Bash, his yearly July 4th barbecue, a couple of times. We saw a few Red Sox games together (he always joked about being the only guy at the ballpark with a copy of The New Republic), but we really weren’t that close outside of work. At the very least, we shared a love/hate of those disgusting, lukewarm Fenway Franks, which we never ceased to joke about in the office.
I’m still enough of a journalist, though, to say with confidence that Ken was a real mensch—a stand-up guy who cared deeply for those closest to him. He also loved rock and roll, especially The Beatles and Elvis. He loved his dogs. He loved helping others. He loved public broadcasting. And he seemed forever compelled to speak the truth, even if the personal cost of doing so was sometimes very high.
In the newsroom, Ken was never afraid to go for the jugular, but he usually did it with humor. I remember one time when he was guest hosting The World. This was just after 9/11, and we managed to get through to a Taliban spokesman on a very scratchy phone line in Afghanistan. Ken started out with a couple of softball questions, and then hit him with this: “So, can you tell me where Osama bin Laden is hiding?” Silence. More Silence. Then a slight chuckle. “Sorry, no my friend, I cannot.” Ken shrugged and said, “Worth a try!”
For Ken, it really was all about that effort, about grinding it out, about doing the work. I remember one time, when I was still incongruously serving as The World’s “Technology Correspondent,” Ken asked me, very seriously, if I knew how he could save money on his cable bill. We spent 10 minutes obliquely discussing this before I admitted that the specifics of that probably fell outside my remit. I joked that maybe he should just turn his cable box off and then turn it back on again, and then see if the bill magically went down. We laughed, briefly, and then got back to editing my copy about some new gadget to help solve world hunger or malaria or something—stuff that neither one of us really understood or would even remember the next day. Ken probably knew I was faking my way through that gig. But my impostor syndrome didn’t matter. First, because Ken was a kind person and he’d never publicly call me on it. And second, because there was a deadline looming and much editing to be done. You just get on with it.
Here’s the real secret to his editing superpower: despite the fact that I was out of my depth, I wrote that copy as cleanly and precisely as possible because I knew Ken Bader would be editing it. I bet you can find plenty of other reporters, producers, and hosts in public radio who took the same exacting approach when a “Ken edit” loomed on the horizon. If you didn’t, you would pay for it. Ken was willing to spend hours arguing with reporters to get a script he was satisfied with.
In fact, when Ken was editing the daily broadcast of The World, his style was so inimitable that his last name became a verb. We didn’t ask, “Has that been edited?” Instead, the question was always: “Has it been Baderized?” That’s DNA level influence on a radio program. It’s the kind of thing that folks say either sticks with them forever, or takes them a lifetime to get over. For me, it’s a bit of both.
Ken didn’t give a crap where you fell on that scale. The only thing he cared about was making the story better. And that, for me, is Ken’s lasting gift to every public radio listener. I think he despised the trend toward “personality-driven storytelling.” In working with him, I learned an invaluable lesson that echoes well beyond journalism: you’re not the story. My opinions, audio flourishes, and misguided attempts to be “public radio cute” meant nothing if they failed to serve the interests of the story, and therefore the interests of the listener. I learned that these things can, should, and ultimately will be cut.
Did I always accept it at the time? Hell, no. But like I said, Ken was willing to go 15 rounds with you when he felt he was right. You had to come to the edit with some pretty compelling editorial reasons if you were ever going to land a punch. And now, with the seemingly unchecked rise of scripted stutters and breathy, overly dramatic attempts at “storytelling” across so much of public media, I have a much deeper appreciation for Ken’s one-two punch—clarity and concision. The story’s not a thing. It’s the thing. And, as the author, you would do well to get the hell out of its way as much as possible.
I don’t remember exactly when I last spoke with Ken. I do have a memory of a phone edit sometime during my reporting stint in Brussels for The World (2010 or 2011). “Hey Clark, it’s your old Uncle Ken!” he’d always say when you answered the phone. Then, you’d steel yourself, ready to have your copy ripped apart and maybe never put back together again. But this time, Ken just said, “The third paragraph. Change ‘the’ to ‘an.’ And cut the tape to have it start where he says ‘the financial crisis…’ That’s it. Nice piece. Hope you’re well.” Click.
It was the tiniest of touches, but it still made the piece markedly better. And that’s the true mark of the man: as far as I can tell, everything and everyone he touched, inside and outside the newsroom, was made better by his sharp eye, keen mind, and kind heart.
Godspeed, Uncle Ken.
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