Steve Edwards, a Chicago Public Media mainstay who helped transform WBEZ into a ratings success story and go-to source for local journalism in the city, is leaving the station to become a director at an executive-search firm.
WBEZ Managing Editor Tracy Brown will take over his role as chief content officer, making her one of the most influential newsroom executives and journalists of color in Chicago media.
“His character, his integrity and his passion are woven in and out of who we are at WBEZ. In that way, it’s a really difficult transition,” Chicago Public Media interim CEO Matt Moog said of Edwards. “On the other hand, it’s such a meaningful passing of the baton to Tracy, somebody who’s been here, who’s gotten to know everybody, who understands the city and knows the newsroom. She so identifies with the core mission and purpose of public media.
“Over the last few years, Tracy and Steve have built a strong partnership to lead our newsroom and content efforts, and together they have built one of the largest and most respected newsrooms in the city,” Moog continued. “While we will greatly miss Steve, we are in extremely capable hands with Tracy and her leadership as she starts her new role.”
Edwards, 50, is leaving to join Koya Partners, part of Diversified Search Group, an executive search and strategic advisory firm with offices in Chicago. He will become a managing director at the company.
Edwards first joined Chicago Public Media in 1999 and gained prominence as host of WBEZ’s daily magazine program, Eight Forty-Eight. He went on to hold several key roles at the station before leaving on a five-year stint with the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, where he rose to become executive director.
In 2017, Edwards returned to WBEZ as chief content officer and is regarded as one of the key architects behind a dramatic jump in listenership, with the station now ranking in the top 10 across all day parts, fourth overall in market share and No. 1 during the key morning drive-time slot.
WBEZ now has a listenership of nearly 550,000 people a week across radio and digital streaming platforms, and its digital audience for non-audio content has doubled in size to more than 1 million people weekly. During Edwards’ run, the station also launched The Rundown, a popular daily email newsletter, and produced a series of nationally acclaimed, award-winning podcasts.
“I have been privileged to spend the vast majority of my professional life at WBEZ, and the experience has enriched me and shaped me in every aspect,” Edwards said. “Even though I’ll not be getting a paycheck from Chicago Public Media any longer, my passion for the mission and my belief in the importance of quality journalism and the future potential for WBEZ are undiminished.
“I will return to my first role as a listener, as a member and a fan, but I will always be connected to Chicago Public Media in profound ways,” he said.
Earlier in his journalism career, Edwards was an expert interviewer of Chicago mayors, Illinois governors and U.S. senators. But he shined in talking to everyday people not steeped in power or wealth, and he relished spending time on the air with artists, writers and musicians.
“The magic of this work has been the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life and to be allowed into their world, for however long, to learn from them and be enriched by their experiences and touched for a moment by whatever challenge, insight or story they’re willing to share with us,” Edwards said. “The things that shaped me the most are the unexpected conversations from all walks of life: neighbors, workers, moms and schoolteachers and clergy members who are, in their own way, like we all are, navigating through life and trying to make meaning out of our existence.”
Edwards, whose final day on the job at the station is May 14, praised Brown, who arrived at the station in 2019 following a distinguished career in print journalism, including as an editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“Tracy is one of the most impressive, thoughtful newsroom leaders I’ve ever encountered,” Edwards said. “She brings not only a deep commitment to the fundamental mission of service journalism, to impact journalism, but also a real sense of creativity and investment in people and the idea that the work we do is not just about pageviews or audience size but about purpose.
“We’re doing much more impactful, enterprising journalism than we’ve done in WBEZ’s history, and that’s testimony to Tracy’s leadership and work,” he said.
As WBEZ’s managing editor, Brown had a direct role in making WBEZ become one of the first newsrooms in the U.S. to spotlight the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 among Black and Latino communities.
While Brown oversaw the day-to-day operations of the newsroom, WBEZ also has broken major stories on Chicago’s ticketing and towing practices, ongoing inequities in mortgage lending practices and the ongoing federal corruption probe involving Commonwealth Edison and top Illinois political figures.
Last year, WBEZ was the only local newsroom in the country to win three prestigious Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the most of any local newsroom in the nation.
“Both Steve and I deeply believe in the importance of local journalism and being of essential service to our community,” Brown said. “I’m looking forward to a new chapter ahead for WBEZ with the entire team. It’s been incredibly rewarding to work for and with Steve, and I’m delighted knowing he will continue to have a huge impact on Chicago in his new role.”
Moog said Brown’s skill-set perfectly equips her to become Edwards’ successor.
“Tracy is the kind of person who recognizes and nurtures talent, who respects and admires the core mission of what we’re trying to do. Her commitment to diversity and inclusion and equity is something incredibly important to us,” he said.
“Journalism in Chicago is undergoing strain and disinvestment in many ways,” Moog said. “I think Chicago Public Media needs to aspire to be sort of at the center of the public conversation in a way it hasn’t been in the past. I think Tracy sees the same opportunity to lead a newsroom that is leading the public conversation.”
He said he expects to fill Brown’s current newsroom job within a four- to six-month period.
“Our plan is to open up the managing editor role and make it available for people who have been with Chicago Public Media for some time to apply for, but also to invite people from across the city and country to apply for it,” Moog said. “It will be an open and transparent process.”
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.