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Bob Oakes bounced from reporter to producer to editor when he first arrived at WBUR in the early 1990s. So, when he got a shot to host "Morning Edition," he expected another quick stint.
"I thought I would do it for a few months or maybe a year," Oakes recalled. "And I've been in the chair for 27 years."
Now, Oakes, 65, is eyeing retirement. Listeners who love waking up to his familiar baritone and distinctive pronunciation of the station's name, "double-hew-bee-you-are," have several months to savor the experience, as the station conducts a national search for his successor. Oakes then plans to take on one final assignment: senior correspondent.
"Ever since I turned 60, a few years ago, I've been thinking about how I should close out my career," he said. "And, for a long time, I've thought what I'd really like to do is go out as a reporter because that's how I came in."
"Margaret Low, [WBUR's chief executive], presented me with this idea, and I jumped at the chance," he added.
Low said Oakes is "a towering figure in Boston and beyond. He's just been such a steady presence in the lives of our listeners over 27 years. It's an incredible run."
On air, Oakes brings wit, warmth — and toughness, when needed.
"Okay, everybody hold. I said hold!" he interjected when moderating a memorably rancorous gubernatorial debate in 2002. "I'll cut the microphones off, in order to get the question in, if I need to. This was supposed to be a civil discussion."
Off air, colleagues hold Oakes in high regard for using his clout to help others. He played a leading role in station employees' unionization effort last year.
"I'm so grateful for what he did for us, for the union," said Sara-Rose Brenner, a union steward and senior writer for "Morning Edition." "He was already established. He wasn't one of the people who needed a union, necessarily. He stuck his neck out for us, the little people."
Oakes said he believed unionizing was "most important for the new people here at WBUR, who at that time, I think, were being taken advantage of, in some ways. I was going to do my part to help them."
WBUR and its union signed their first contract in June. Also that month, the station laid off more than 10% of its staff in a restructuring precipitated by a recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The departures included some veteran journalists.
Oakes is taking a step toward retirement under different circumstances, but his eventual exit continues a period of change at the station.
Oakes recently anchored WBUR's special coverage of the presidential election. During major news events, he is "a rock, the person the region relies on," said Dan Mauzy, the station's executive editor for news.
"His fearless, but always respectful, interviews with newsmakers have brought light and accountability," Mauzy added. "Debates, live election specials, remote broadcasts and countless features — Bob has done it all. And, along the way, he's brought many moments of delight and wonder."
In a statement, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said: "I want to thank Bob for his decades of service in being a trusted and reliable source of news for WBUR listeners across the region. As a longtime listener of 'Morning Edition,' I can say that his voice and his presence on the show will certainly be missed."
Oakes said he is looking forward to pursuing story ideas that have been piling up for years. His top interests include history, politics — and a secret project.
"There is one that I don't want to talk about because I don't want to give it away," he said.
An experienced radio host like Oakes knows a good tease keeps the audience listening.
Editor’s note: WBUR’s Callum Borchers reported this story, and WBUR’s Elisabeth Harrison is the story editor. Under standard practices for reporting on WBUR, no other BU or WBUR staff were allowed to review the story before publication.
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