Award-winning journalist Howard Berkes has been covering the news for National Public Radio from his base in Salt Lake City for almost 40 years … despite a couple of attempts to get him to move elsewhere.
“I had an editor once who had gone to school in Colorado and thought of Denver as the center of the West, which only people in Denver think,” Berkes said. “He actually came out here and visited me, and he decided to leave me alone. And I had another editor once, say to me, ‘Well, you know, we don’t really need a reporter in Salt Lake City.’
“But I think I’ve come through for them. I’ve won 40 major journalism awards. They’re very, very happy with the kind of stuff I’ve done, so I think I think it worked out for them, too.”
Berkes isn’t from Utah. He grew up in Pennsylvania, moved to Oregon and never spent much time here before he was hired in 1981 as one of NPR’s first eight national reporters. At the time, the organization had a team in Washington, D.C., and single reporters based in New York, Chicago and London.
“Ultimately, it was decided that this would be a good place for me to be because we weren’t getting any reporting out of the interior West at the time. And there was a lot going on here,” he said. “We had never really had any coverage of the Mormon church, and the church had flexed its political muscle in a way that hadn’t happened before, helping to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment.”
Berkes moved to Salt Lake City and set up shop in a “tiny mining cabin” in Allen Park — aka “Hobbitville” — a small, eclectic Sugar House neighborhood across 1300 East from Westminster College that is now being cleared of renters.
“The first quote-unquote NPR bureau in Utah was in Allen Park,” Berkes said. “If people only knew that that’s where the work was being done.”
He covered American Indian issues, public lands and the so-called “Sagebrush Rebellion,” and multiple Olympic Games. He and a colleague broke the story of how engineers at Utah-based rocket-booster maker Morton Thiokol tried to stop the 1986 launch of the space shuttle Challenger that ended with an explosion that killed everyone aboard.
He spent 20 years covering the West, another 10 years covering rural America from coast to coast and another eight doing investigative reports.
“It didn’t matter where I was based for any of that. And I like it here, so I stayed,” Berkes said — despite his initial impressions.
“Frankly, I had a hard time when I first got here. No decent coffee. And no bagels. And I was a single male,” he said. “But I discovered powder skiing and I discovered the canyons and I imported my wife. And we’ve raised our daughter here, and I consider myself a Utahn. I absolutely love it.”
He’ll probably travel less than he has over the past 40 years, as assignments have taken him across the country. He’s been traveling back and forth to Appalachia working on his final story for NPR and PBS’ “Frontline” — “Coal’s Deadly Dust” airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. on KUED-Ch. 7. It’s a deeply disturbing dive into the resurgence of black lung disease among American coal miners that focuses on the tragic stories of two who have the disease, but Berkes interviewed more than three dozen who have been afflicted.
“It’s been both difficult and horrific,” said Berkes, who interviewed men in their 40s and 50s who don’t have long to live. “And the things that they describe — the kind of exposure they had to silica dust in particular — these are things that should not have happened.”
The report is an indictment of the mining companies and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, both of which knew decades ago of the precautions that needed to be taken to protect the miners.
“What's really tragic is that it shouldn't have happened if the system that was set up to protect them had worked the way it was supposed to,” Berkes said.
The radio story aired in December; Berkes delayed his retirement by a month to finish the “Frontline” report.
“A lot of people at the end of their careers — they’re sort of hanging on and/or they really struggle to find something new and exciting to do in their jobs. And, boy, have I been lucky, because I’ve done something I’ve never done before,” he said. “I’ve worked with some of the most talented people in film and documentary film. I got to narrate a ‘Frontline’ film, which is a great experience. And I’ve had a big investigation that, hopefully, will have some impact.
“So, yeah, I’d rather do it this way than have people wondering when I’m going to leave because I outlived my usefulness.”
And in retirement, Berkes isn’t going anywhere.
“We’re planning to stay,” he said. “I mean, I’m a skier. And I love southern Utah. I go in the canyons a lot. So I don’t have any intention of leaving.”