He went from singing in the Heights Men’s Chorus, to being the voice reporting the news on NPR, and then editing and mentoring countless others who would become some of the most preeminent voices on the network today. Ken Barcus spent more than three decades working in journalism. He merged his unwavering passion for storytelling and for his hometown by moving his family across the country to raise his kids in Cleveland, and creating his “dream job” working remotely for NPR, championing stories that would spotlight the region’s unique culture and dispel the notion of the Midwest, as mere “flyover country.”
Ken graduated with a masters in journalism from American University in 1983, and covered the White House for The Christian Science Monitor Radio and reported for the local public radio station in D.C., before starting work at NPR in 1985. After returning to his Midwest roots, he took a job at Cleveland.com, before he managed to persuade NPR to build a national bureau system that would harness the reporting power of more than a thousand local public radio reporters around the country. His next task was to convince NPR to install him as the system’s first Bureau Chief/Editor– which, of course, would be in Cleveland. Ken continued that job for more than 20 years, building a powerhouse of a regional network that would literally transform the structure and sound of NPR. The new collaboration would eventually yield some 1,500 stories a year, from breaking news such as the civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd to the “moments of joy” he was famous for, like the story about harvesting dandelion greens as a delicacy.
His indelible impact has been noted by countless colleagues. One called Ken “a sweet, curmudgeonly, patient, impatient, generous, earnest, hilarious force for humanity… who gave a daily clinic on how a good story ought to sound, – and why it’s so important to care about how the broader goals of this organization are reflected in each and every story.” His work has been recognized with several national journalism awards, including the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy award for a series on Latino gangs in prison. (And yet, one of his proudest accomplishments was getting network broadcasts piped into the restrooms at company headquarters.)
Ken was a nurturer by nature, as devoted to his daughters Julia and Kate (Heights class of 2011 and 2013 respectively) and his countless cub reporters, as he was to his chickens, rescue dogs and his lush gardens. Off hours, he was, in his own words, a “whirling dervish of energy”– always on the move, hiking, biking, paddling, walking the dog, or driving cross country to visit a friend. Ken was friends with everyone. He was loyal, irreverent, fun, funny, self-deprecating and adventurous, and as eager to share tales of how he forgot he had bikes on his roof rack when he pulled into his garage, as he was to share news of triumphs like his first 100-mile bike ride. He was famous for his annual holiday letters chronicling the family’s achievements –and foibles: the time his daughters made the Heights choir and the Heights marching band, the day his wife, Ellen celebrated her book club’s 100th book, and the day Ken’s barber pointed out his receding hairline.
When Ken’s mother Evel passed away at 99, he described her as “an adventurer, a reader, a volunteer, a lover of garage sales and seemingly everyone’s best friend and helper.” The apple did not fall far from the tree.
MA in Journalism, American University