KUOW and Its Listeners

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Note: One month ago my 5-minute weekly weather segment was cancelled on the UW public radio station after doing it for 15 years. The reason--I would not absolutely guarantee never to talk about anything other than the weather forecast. I had an earlier blog describing the lead up to this situation: http://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2011/05/no-more-weather-on-kuow-weekday.html This blog provides more information. My next blog will be back to weather!

Its been a month since Steve Scher ended my weather segment on KUOW, so I thought it was time to provide some reflections on the incident.

As I will describe below, the importance of KUOW's actions extends far beyond the five minutes of weather information I provided each week ... the termination itself, the interactions before it, and the troubling reaction of KUOW afterwards says a great deal about the management of KUOW and their responsiveness to their listeners.

Some of you suggested that I simply forget about the whole thing---the few minutes I had each week were a relatively small part of my life, I have my
blog, and it will by easy for me to find another radio station to work with. But those five minutes were of importance to a great number of you (based on the reaction that still amazes me) and the actions of KUOW reveals so much about what KUOW has become. There are serious issues that need to be addressed, and I will discuss a number of them in this and subsequent blogs. I suspect one reason that the reaction was so substantial was that many intuitively sensed that there was something very wrong when a public radio station removed an individual for having a different view of the nature of public radio then a program host---public radio is supposed to be all about airing of divergence views and the program advertises itself as a venue for such animated conversations. And perhaps there were other misgiving about changes in KUOW that this incident gave people the freedom to discuss.

The whole situation is in many ways surreal---the initiator for the whole firing was my (a UW professor) defending UW admission's policy with facts agreed to by the UW Dean of Admissions on the UW's public radio station on an opinion show--Week in Review. Not math education as claimed by some KUOW press releases. Folks, it doesn't get more bizarre than this.

One of the most striking aspects of my situation with KUOW was the lack of interest in what listeners wanted and cared for. During my discussions with Weekday Host Steve Scher and his producer Katy Sewall they opined that my talking about math/science education (always with their permission I add) were somehow inconsistent with KUOW’s “journalistic principles” and that my segment would end if I ever talked about such subjects again. I countered with a number of arguments (like the fact that Rick Steves and many other regulars talk about all sort of things) but they were adamant. I asked them about the needs and wishes of the listeners, who obviously liked both the weather and other topics. They didn’t care. And I agreed never to talk about those education matters and never did again.

Now this disinterest in listeners wishes became even more obvious after the “firing.” Five thousand signatures, several thousand emails, and one-side polls by the Stranger (only 8% of roughly 1500 people agreed with the dismissal), and thousands of friends on Facebook pages asking for my return—it didn’t matter to KUOW. I talked to Jeff Hansen, the program director a few days after my release. I asked him explicitly—wouldn’t all that feedback be reason for us to sit down and figure out an approach whereby my weather segment could be saved, perhaps with another host. He said no—it did not matter (in fact he noted that explicitly on a statement he put up on their web site, which they changed a few days later!). I asked, if there were 10,000 or 20,000 signatures, would that change his mind?…..he said no. The number of listener supporters did not matter. That really took me aback—this from the Program Director of OUR local public radio station.

A day later I was interviewed by KUOW’s Debra Wong, who was doing a “news” story on my firing (this seemed really inappropriate to me—and the final story WAS highly skewed). During the interview we talked about the huge listener reaction to my firing and she asked---“Why should KUOW care?—a few thousand listeners are only a small proportion of our weekly audience” I was really shocked by this comment….and you could tell she really meant it.

She also told me something else--- an analogy given by Steve Scher when she interviewed him. Steve said the program was like a house---his house. When a guest acted badly, it was very reasonable to kick him out. (Its interesting that she didn’t mention this statement on her radio segment). But I think Steve's analogy was not a good one. This house is owned by the University of Washington. The people (renters) who live in the house and PAY ALL THE BILLS are the listeners and sponsors. Steve is more like the gardener, who is paid by the renters to keep one section of the house (the garden) pleasant to look at. He is an employee—someone who has been tending the garden for a LONG time and likes it a certain way. Now what about me? Originally I was brought in by gardener Steve to do something special in a section of the garden (for free!). The owners really liked it and befriended me. And when I wanted to alter my plot a bit in a way the old gardener was not comfortable with, well you know what has happened. Now how do you think the residents will take it when their EMPLOYEE ejects their friend and tills over the garden section they had grown to love?

I have learned that KUOW is an organization that does not answer to anyone. The UW has a hands-off policy and will not intervene. I know this, because I asked the relevant UW official to intercede before the firing and he said UW would not. I asked Wayne Roth's help (he is the CEO of KUOW), he refused. The KUOW board is a figurehead organization---emails to them by many listeners and myself were never answered.

KUOW doesn’t even have to worry about money. Did you know they had roughly one million dollar surpluses each of the past two years? (see their annual report) If KUOW needs more cash they simply extend the pledge drive or get more “sponsors” for program segments. You notice that some programs now have multiple sponsors and that they increasingly sound like commercials (“this program is sponsored by Joe’s Jaguar who is now selling the new 2011 model with the new hybrid engine and is available for leasing. For more information go to www.JoesJaguar.com). Sound familiar? And multi-week pledge breaks are non-stop commercials for KUOW. This is not commercial-free radio. And saying so is not being factual. As all of you know, the number of money requests on air, in the mail, by email, and on their website has gotten out of hand. They have very, very nice digs they built a decade ago and a very large staff.

Well, enough for this blog. My next blog on this topic (probably next week) will talk about KUOW's misinformation campaign and some suggestions on how KUOW can be changed to serve the critical community role it should.

Several community-created social media sites discuss some of these issues:



and of course there are the KUOW and Weekday Facebook sites

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