Where's the science at KUOW? Why public radio wants to mix things up.

NPR's 'Science Friday' host visits the station that dropped his show, and KUOW's program director explains why public radio would rather offer a little something for everyone than treat subjects at length and depth.
Radiolab's resident "genius," Jad Abumrad.

Radiolab's resident "genius," Jad Abumrad. Jared and Corin, Wikimedia Commons

Listeners want more science, says Ira Flatow.

Listeners want more science, says Ira Flatow.

If KUOW-FM host David Hyde noticed how the interview he was conducting last Thursday reflected back on the station where he works, he didn’t let on.

Hyde, subbing for regular host Ross Reynolds on KUOW’s midday talk show "The Conversation," spoke with another member of the public radio tribe: Ira Flatow, the longtime host of NPR’s "Science Friday," who would record a live show at the Pacific Science Center the next day. Flatow, irrepressible as ever, spoke passionately about the growing public interest in and need for good science reporting, and lamented the shrinkage space for it in mainstream media. CNN recently canned its science department, he recounted. Newspapers everywhere used to have science sections: “Now only a handful do.”

Flatow didn’t note that the granddaddy of those sections, The New York Times’ “Science Times,” is increasingly about personal health—news you can use—rather than the rest of the universe of inquiry, observation and experimentation. And, perhaps out of graciousness, he didn’t mention that KUOW itself dropped "Science Friday," together with its parent show "Talk of the Nation" from its main broadcast signal several years ago. (TOTN, which airs Monday through Thursday, will be replaced by a "midday newsmagazine"  in two weeks, but "Science Friday" continues: “We have 2 million listeners, a million-and-a-half by broadcast and a half-million online,” said Flatow. “We’re not losing listeners, and we‘re not going away.”)

At the time, KUOW’s decision was controversial, at least among science writers and other geeks. I remember the emails urging listeners to complain and vowing never to donate again. But the station didn’t drop "Science Friday" entirely; it continues to podcast it, stream it online, and air it on KUOW-2,  digital high-definition subchannel receivable on newer HD radios though probably not on most car radios on the road today. And it does air another weekly science show, the highly produced "Radiolab," at 7 o’clock each Friday evening.

Or overproduced. I find "Radiolab" an exercise in frustration: insufferably precious and contrived, its interesting and imaginative content swamped by a style that seems to derive as much from DJing as storytelling, with multiple voices stepping atop each other, repeating and restating the same banalities. But it does make "Science Friday’s" conventional conversation format sound stodgy. And some people think it’s the hottest thing on air since Marconi; two years ago, "Radiolab" co-host and creator Jad Abumrad received a MacArthur "genius" grant.

Flatow’s remarks made me wonder what led KUOW to make these choices, and how they’d worked out. I called Jeff Hansen, the station’s program director, to ask — and learned much more.

Hansen seems inured to the complaints that fly when KUOW drops a show: “Every single special interest topic’s fans get angry and complain. Whether it’s science, travel, food, cooking, humor, you name it. Sooner or later we hear from every group.”

But he says the station meant no disrespect for science or "Science Friday." As Hansen tells it, "Science Friday," like any other show focusing at length and in depth on a particular subject or field, just doesn’t fit any more in “the busy, active part of the day, from 4 in morning till 7 at night” — radio’s primetime, when people use radio to relieve their commutes and work. “You use radio to multitask,” he explains. Ergo, programmers should provide audio people can multitask to.

That means an experience that’s at once seamless and granular: a steady succession of stories, reports, and chats brief enough to be caught on the fly or, if compelling enough, in a “driveway moment” intermission. Kinda like pop songs.

And, perhaps most important, brief enough so listeners won’t turn the dial if they don’t care about sports or science or thed topic of the moment. Or if they can’t stand a particular reporter’s voice (this is me, not Hansen talking), or they already read that news in yesterday’s paper. “If you go longer than five minutes on one topic you start turning off listeners,” says Hansen. “You want to find the sweet spot — give people just enough about many different things so they stay tuned in. Public radio prior to the newsmagazine had almost no listeners, because everything was divided up into different topics."


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jun 17, 8:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Don't really listen to KUOW--I'm a KPLU person--but agree that losing more in depth reports on things like science is a real shame. Seems like every kind of media is switching to twitchy short bursts of info on many subjects rather than something really interesting in depth that I might not have known about otherwise. KPLU hasn't gone all the way to the dark side, but its broadcasting more and more sports stories, and I could NOT be less interested in pro sports. Plus, I am happy to see someone else mention my secret dislike of certain broadcasters' voices. Frank De Ford Weds mornings on KPLU -- UGH!! Some might find his voice friendly; I find it phony. His spot is the one I can't even listen to. I just turn the volume down till he's done. That's also the one time I am grateful for some shorter segments...

mspat

Posted Mon, Jun 17, 9:13 a.m. Inappropriate

For those intrigued and wishing to hear Ira's show from Seattle - podcast is here
http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/06/14/2013/seattle-mayor-mike-mcginn-talks-climate-and-carbon.html

jamesian

Posted Mon, Jun 17, 10:41 a.m. Inappropriate

"...a steady succession of stories, reports, and chats brief enough to be caught on the fly or, if compelling enough, in a “driveway moment” intermission. Kinda like pop songs."

This is why I don't listen to the radio any more. I can download a hefty book to my ipod and listen to gloriously in-depth information for hours while doing mundane tasks. The schizophrenic programming on the air currently is just superficial and boring. Why bother listening to it?

nwsrdr

Posted Mon, Jun 17, 11:02 a.m. Inappropriate

This is a great place to "debate" the issues this article raised about Public Radio, science, programming etc. Since I'm mentioned in the article I'd like to comment.

"'If you go longer than five minutes on one topic you start turning off listeners,' says Hansen." But KUOW has longer format shows: I was on "The Conversation." And there is "Weekday," a two-hour talk show. Both break the five minute rule every day. I was on both programs for a full 20 minutes. Both "The Conversation" and "Weekday" are the same format as Science Friday, multiple items in each hour. We cover a range of topics in each hour, like they do.

Where did the idea that listeners would rather "multi-task" to short, five minute stories rather than longer pieces come from? We haven't seen evidence of that. SciFri's experience is quite the opposite. Our listener mail from bikers, joggers, drivers tell us that longer pieces make for easier listening. Some don't think that even our 15 minute pieces are long enough. And new research is showing that as people increasingly listen to us at their desks, around mid-day which is becoming a "sweet spot" for "laptop listening," longer pieces make multitasking easier: no need to stop working, reset your thoughts to another topic, and then try to resume their work. It's seamless.

Finally, this is Public Radio. Not USA Today. Each has it's own audience, each it's priorities. Public Radio audiences value feeling more informed and better able to understand and cope with the massive flood of news and ideas peppering them each day. Even if it takes more than five minutes to explain. And as the mainstream news dries up, with more he-said/she-said political food fights, celebrity news and single topic, weeklong stories, we at Science Friday find our news mission even more important: covering -- in-depth -- the science, technology and environment stories other gate keepers don't value enough.

IraFlatow

Posted Mon, Jun 17, 11:31 a.m. Inappropriate

I have also become a bit disenchanted with the less than 5 minutes "stories" that creep closer and closer to shallow media blather. Frankly, and here I show my bias, I could care less about the struggles of some band leader who has overcome alcohol, drugs and sex to lead his current wonderful life. I really am interested in space probes, how things work, and what is going on in physics. Yes, I would also like coverage of the whole world we live in and not multitasking comfortable "opinio shows". Our science SAT scores show us what our multitasking has done for us.
MelBSea

MelBSea

Posted Mon, Jun 17, 12:56 p.m. Inappropriate

I've got to admin that KUOW has always been my least favorite public station (with the exception of "Music From the Swing Years"). Back when KUOW-2 was being broadcast on KXOT, it was my favorite public station. Funny how KUOW's also-rans are typically much better then their premiere offerings.


Now that KXOT has switched to TVW (C-SPAN's dullard little cousin) I can at least catch most of the shows I used to like from KUOW-2 on XM Radio. But I do miss Deutsche Welle, which KUOW-2 used to broadcast during evening drive time. They axed that with the opaque excuse that it was "No longer available" as if Germany had just given up on English language broadcasts.


All of Mr. Hansen's rationalizations for cutting back on non-ADHD programming sound like the kind of focus group pap that hyperactive programmers spout to soothe nervous sponsors. Why is he working in the "cathedral" of public radio, when he could be working in the "bazaar" of commercial broadcasting?

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Jun 17, 2:39 p.m. Inappropriate

First a disclaimer: I am WNYC listener at heart and one who has satellite radio so KUOW is a bit low on my list due to their programming. Like the UW itself, the station seems to have an aura of haughtiness that makes its programming often unattractive. Relegating it to a KPLU backup for my morning news.

The mid-day shows often have guests that lack self-awareness or simply having nothing to say that 1 minute on Google could fill in for me. (Today's show about Syria was a tremendous example of this). This is why Science Friday is fantastic. Once a week, there are folks explaining science that is beyond our current knowledge. They are actively expanding the listeners intellect, not clouding their political understanding of the world. Furthermore, shows like Radio Lab and This American Life are so successful because they push our boundaries of understanding. Sociology, philosophy, religion, neuroscience, are all topics covered at length on these shows not vast amounts of politics.

Note: For those who dislike Radio Lab you need to listen to the oldest of the shows. The fact they go as deep as they do into the metaphysical is amazing. It is even more remarkable that so many can understand them.

Upstate

Posted Mon, Jun 17, 5:27 p.m. Inappropriate

I would love to weigh in with my very strong agreement with Ira Flatow and other commenters here--I love in-depth pieces when they're surprising and informative, and "ADHD programming" (thanks, dbreneman!) is overabundant already and frankly irritating. But I'm a little worried that Jeff Hansen at KUOW will take all this criticism as somehow validating his position, as he seems to do in the quotes he gave Eric for this story.

Posted Mon, Jun 17, 8:20 p.m. Inappropriate

I much prefer KOAS, it's what a local radio station should be doing for it's listeners. Nobody I know takes the KOW seriously or pays attention to it.

Djinn

Posted Tue, Jun 18, 8:01 a.m. Inappropriate

The job only a mad person could want: PROGRAM DIRECTOR of a public radio or TV stations. The passions run high. Make one decision and the floodgates of fury are upon you. And there is no cushion in the "big bucks". Hey its public radio.
When 60 MINUTES began 40+ years ago (film in black and white), stories routinely ran 13-15 minutes. There were fewer commercials but there was also a longer attention span. Today 60 MINUTES stories run as little as under 10 minutes to a long one: 11 minutes. Howls from those who say the program has gone soft. Echoes of the hang Hansen tribe? Part of the answer is generational. Long time public broadcast listeners and viewers, in part because they invest money as well as time, feel like owners. And as any manager knows: "owners" want to manage, despite their denials.
My bias as a former 60 MINUTES producer is: time is not the issue. A well produced story flies by no matter how long it is. Conversely a weak short story seems to last forever. An interesting "talking head" is one you hope goes on and on.
Ira Flatow has the problem of keeping his subjects accessible. He succeeds more often than not, but single "area of interest" programs turn away those who do not have the basic interest.
But then there is the NEW YORKER. The power of its writers produces readers who find themselves consuming stories they never thought they would be interested in.
Its complicated. The best news is digital transmission of multiple channels. A chance to please more people. Aha, but an equal chance to anger more people. Its complicated.
Seattle should revel in its public broadcast riches. Two full throated primary public radio stations and their digital secondaries. Pity Chicago. One dominant public radio station. A good one, but only one. Patience one and all, head for the mobile and the internet and I defy you not to find more than you can possibly consume.

pherford

Posted Tue, Jun 18, 5:48 p.m. Inappropriate

I think you are saying that radio stars like Ira Flatow need to be recognized for what they are, very intelligent, articulate people who are good to listen to, and that perhaps they can play by rules that are hard to apply to KUOW. How long does Rush Limbaugh talk? I don't listen to him but I think his program is at least thirty minutes. Your mention of the New Yorker writers, at least the best of them, is perceptive; several of their essayists can make the mundane into the most intriguing subjects imaginable. Not many people can do that on the radio or on the page. Nice article Eric.

kieth

Posted Tue, Jun 18, 8:40 a.m. Inappropriate

This excellent story touches a nerve about KUOW and public radio generally. The success of the Morning Edition/All Things Considered format is now extending through the non-drive-time, mostly local shows. It is certainly changing Steve Scher's "Weekday" show, and I wonder whether it will even survive Scher's current short sabbatical.
The trend toward short, upbeat, slightly offbeat stories reflects another modern pattern on radio. The trend is for a station to sound just the same anytime you punch the button. Out comes classical music; out comes sports-talk; out comes Christian conservative messages. The thinking is that if a listener is in the mood for a certain brand and punches the button and something different comes out, they are permanently estranged. Hence KUOW is now "all-Morning-Edition" all day long. The fault, dear listener, lies in ourselves. We want it this way and have rewarded KUOW with very large and generous audiences.

Posted Mon, Jun 24, 11:08 a.m. Inappropriate

So impressed with the quality of writing here. Carole, your insight is right on. David, Ira... you have said it. Except for this.

Hansen does not represent the thinking of the thinking people of Puget Sound (i.e. KUOW supporters). He does not get us. We are not ADHD listeners. His obstinance in the face of criticism must go. He must go. KUOW retains its support because we as a populice are patient, but we are not pleased. The answer to David is action. Because he does not listen, that action must happen above his head.

I want Hansen gone. Period.

redcedar

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