As listeners are hearing today on Morning Edition, longtime sports commentator Frank Deford, a Wednesday morning fixture on NPR for more than three decades, is going to appear less frequently on NPR in the future.
Deford, who has been delivering his Sweetness and Light commentary weekly since 1980 (except for a two-year hiatus in 1989–90), will now be heard on the first Wednesday of the month. Varied new commentators—there's no set roster—will fill the sports slot the other weeks.
I asked Sarah Gilbert, the executive producer of Morning Edition, about the change. She told me the show is "developing a diverse group of new contributors" to comment on sports, and added, "One of Frank's greatest achievements has been to widen and deepen the conversation about sports. We're all excited to continue that mission by bringing new and diverse perspectives to the conversation alongside him."
In another change, she said, Morning Edition will hear new movie commentators, in addition to longtime contributor Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times.
In announcing the switch to once a month, Deford noted this morning that he has delivered more than 1,600 weekly commentaries, "which must be an arcane broadcast record of sorts," adding, "I hope that in these 35 years I've introduced some greater understanding and appreciation about an institution that is often derided as merely vulgar."
To him, he said, sport "is the most significant cultural element in this imperfect world. It calls for serious attention. No, sport is surely not the purest human expression, nor that which will leave the deepest mark—but sport is an art, it has incredible appeal everywhere on this earth, and it fills so many human breasts with passion, that it's impossible to dismiss it as simply the familiar junior partner of bread. Sport is more a devotion than a circus."
He concluded, "Others may well disagree with opinions such as that, so NPR will now, fairly enough, allow other diverse voices to also rise above the roar of the arena." With the switch to monthly commentaries, he said, "Who knows, maybe the longer time between my orations might possibly produce more wisdom?"
This expansion of the commentator ranks is potentially a very positive move for one of NPR's flagship programs—and it's long overdue. As I wrote in July, the regular critic spots are one obvious place to make changes if NPR wants to realize its oft-stated goal of bringing a more diverse range of voices—and thus viewpoints—into the mix. The latest results of NPR's self-examination into the diversity of those who appear on its air show that it is falling short of those ambitions in many respects.
Some listeners will inevitably be disappointed, as listeners often are when NPR adjusts its lineup. Deford, whose career has included work for Sports Illustrated and HBO as well as NPR, has many loyal fans and I hear from them when he misses a week. But his commentaries, particularly those that deal with soccer, have also upset many listeners in recent months. I heard from many Latinos, and one outraged 12-year-old girl, about his dismissive comments regarding soccer in this most recent one, and his Sept. 30 conversation with an NPR host needed two corrections.
I say the changes are potentially positive because it depends on what NPR now does with the commentator ranks. I look forward to hearing what develops.