Howard Berkes | KUNC

Howard Berkes

Howard Berkes has been NPR's rural affairs correspondent since March 2003 focusing on the politics, economics, and culture of rural America.

Based in Salt Lake City, Berkes reports on stories that are often unique to non-urban communities or provide a rural perspective on major issues and events. In 2005, he was part of the NPR reporting team that covered Hurricane Katrina and in 2010, he reported from West Virginia on the disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine. Berkes’ reporting also includes the impact of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on military families and service men and women from rural America, including a disproportionate death rate from this community. During multiple presidential and congressional campaigns, Berkes has covered the impact of rural voters on those races. 

Berkes has covered seven Olympic games including the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing and the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. He was part of the reporting team that earned NPR a 2009 Edward R. Murrow Award for Sports Reporting for coverage of the Beijing Olympics.

In 1981, Berkes pioneered NPR's coverage of the interior of the American West and public lands issues. He's traveled thousands of miles since then, to every corner of the region, driving ranch roads, city streets, desert washes, and mountain switchbacks, to capture the voices and sounds that give the region its unique identity.

Berkes' stories are heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. His analysis of regional issues has also been featured on NPR's Talk of the Nation. Berkes has also been a substitute host of Morning Edition, and Weekend All Things Considered.

An easterner by birth, Berkes moved west in 1976 and soon became a volunteer at NPR member station KLCC in Eugene, Oregon. His reports on the 1980 eruptions of Mt. St. Helens were regular features on NPR and prompted his hiring. Berkes is sometimes best remembered for his story that provided the first detailed account of the attempt by Morton Thiokol engineers to stop the fatal 1986 launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Berkes teamed with NPR's Daniel Zwerdling for the report, which earned a number of major national journalism awards. In 1989, Berkes followed up with another award-winning report that examined NASA's efforts to redesign the Space Shuttle's rocket boosters.

Reporting by Berkes in 1998 helped transform the Olympic bribery scandal from a local story in Utah into a media firestorm and attracted international attention. His ongoing reporting of Olympic politics and the Olympic Games has made him a resource to other news organizations, including The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, MSNBC, A&E's Investigative Reports, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the French magazine L'Express, and many others. When the Olympics finally arrived in Salt Lake City, Berkes' coverage included rides in a bobsled and on a luge sled in attempts to help listeners understand how those sports work.

Berkes has covered Native American issues, the militia movement, neo-nazi groups, nuclear waste, the Unabomber case, the Montana Freemen standoff, polygamy, western water issues, and more. His work has been honored by many organizations, including the American Psychological Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, and the National Association of Science Writers.

Berkes also trains news reporters, consults with radio news departments, and serves as a guest faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Berkes was awarded a Nieman Foundation Journalism Fellowship at Harvard University in 1997.

 

Thirty years ago, as the nation mourned the loss of seven astronauts on the space shuttle Challenger, Bob Ebeling was steeped in his own deep grief.

The night before the launch, Ebeling and four other engineers at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol had tried to stop the launch. Their managers and NASA overruled them.

That night, he told his wife, Darlene, "It's going to blow up."

Kevin Schiller had no idea what hit him.

With 21 years on the job, the building engineer for Macy's department stores had been in and out of every nook and cranny of many of the retail giant's Texas stores, including the storage room in the Macy's in Denton, Texas.

One minute, the stocky, 6-foot-2 Schiller was searching there for a floor drain. The next, he was sprawled on the floor, stunned, confused and bleeding slightly.

Billy Doyle Walker loved working in the sky. He used to say he could see forever, perched high up communications towers as he applied fresh paint.

Three years ago, working halfway up a 300-foot steel tower at the LBJ Ranch, the panoramic view included the rolling green hills and meadows of the Texas Hill Country. The tower was used by former President Lyndon B. Johnson to communicate with the White House.

The nation's coal miners have lost an advocate — a pulmonologist who helped create a national movement in the 1960's that focused national attention on the deadly coal miners' disease known as black lung.

Dr. Donald Rasmussen died July 23 at age 87 in Beckley, W.V., where he spent close to 50 years assessing, studying and treating coal miners — more than 40,000 of them, by his account. His work documenting the occurrence of black lung helped trigger a statewide miners strike in West Virginia in 1969.

The tattoos on Dennis Whedbee's left arm describe what he lost when the North Dakota oil rig where he was working blew out in 2012. There's an image of a severed hand spurting blood, framed by the word "LOST" in block letters and the date: "9-23-12."

The message underscores Whedbee's frustration with a workers' compensation system in which benefits and access to benefits have changed in North Dakota and across the country.

"I lost a hand at work and this is workman's comp," Whedbee, 53, says at his home in Pennsylvania. "Give me what I deserve. I deserve a hand."

Frances Stevens could have been a contender. She was training to be a Golden Gloves boxer and working as a magazine publisher in 1997 when 1,000 copies of the latest issue arrived at her San Francisco office.

"I'd just turned 30. I was an athlete. I had a job that I loved, a life that I loved," she recalls. "And in a second my life changed."

At the time of their accidents, Jeremy Lewis was 27, Josh Potter 25.

The men lived within 75 miles of each other. Both were married with two children about the same age. Both even had tattoos of their children's names.

Their injuries, suffered on the job at Southern industrial plants, were remarkably similar, too. Each man lost a portion of his left arm in a machinery accident.

Workers injured on the job are supposed to get guaranteed medical care and money to live on. Employers and their insurance companies pay for that.

And in return, employers don't get sued for workplace accidents. But this "grand bargain," as it's called, in workers' compensation, seems to be unraveling.

Dennis Whedbee's crew was rushing to prepare an oil well for pumping on the Sweet Grass Woman lease site, a speck of dusty plains rich with crude in Mandaree, N.D.

It was getting late that September afternoon in 2012. Whedbee, a 50-year-old derrick hand, was helping another worker remove a pipe fitting on top of the well when it suddenly blew.

Among the mining executives that NPR investigated, one coal mine owner in West Virginia stands out. His mines owe nearly $2 million in overdue fines, while he, himself, is a prominent billionaire.

Jim Justice is West Virginia's richest man, with a net worth of $1.6 billion, according to Forbes. He owns 70 active mines employing 1,200 miners in five states. In addition to running his businesses, he has invested or given away more than $200 million in the last five years.

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