Where’s the science at KUOW? Why public radio wants to mix things up.
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."
The operative models — and public radio’s enduring mainstays — are NPR’s daily news shows "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered," which have the largest or very nearly largest audiences of all radio shows nationwide. You can’t argue with success, and theirs after 34 and 42 years, respectively, is remarkable. So’s their ubiquity: KUOW and KPLU both air them repeatedly, with some local and syndicated cutaways, each day. The Northwest Public Radio network of smaller stations also airs them. Redundant, yes, but none dares do without them.
KUOW is trying to stretch that success through the day — to stitch the hours before 3 p.m., when ATC starts, into that seamless, granular whole under a perfectly generic non-title: “our afternoon newsmagazine.” As Hansen explains “the best way to reach many people with many interests is by a newsmagazine. What we really specialize in is….. everything.”
And so the locally assembled hour of the Afternoon Newsmagazine pulls in bits from here and almost anywhere — a station intern’s report on a local school, then a courtly author interview from the Madison-based ideas show "To the Best of Our Knowledge." Together with Ira Flatow, last Thursday’s hour featured a 2009 “lost interview” with Maurice Sendak, BBC reports on China and Afghanistan, a report from New York’s WNYC on businesses collecting personal data, one from Boston’s WGBH on human trafficking, local and Canadian featurettes on father-daughter relationships, and Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac.”
NPR has long vaunted its willingness to go long and deep in news stories, unlike commercial stations — commonly eight minutes, occasionally more than 20. But the push seems to be in the opposite direction at KUOW and, it seems, the rest of public radio. Witness NPR's replacing "Talk of the Nation" with yet another newsmagazine.
Such diversity of subjects, sources, and styles makes for something of a mishmash — kind of like the overstuffed newspapers of 50 or 60 years ago, whose pages were a dizzy scatter of short stories from AP, UPI, local desks, and mysterious sources (“Times news sources”). Likewise, KUOW’s website credits many selections to “Producer.” If you run into Producer, please say hi for me.
Again, no arguing with success. Newspapers were a dominant and highly lucrative medium then. Maybe we still want that grab-bag experience — plus multitasking.
KUOW, and NPR, still offer an escape valve: weekends that are the flipside to this mixed-and-mashed weekday programming. In the weekend ghetto, when listenership tends to be lower anyway, the revolution in radio storytelling and voice that This American Life supposedly launched, still rolls on (witness Radiolab), and “special interest” audiences can still get their full hours of culture, cooking, painfully earnest rock criticism, even news from Lake Wobegon. Perhaps that’s why Ira Flatow told Hyde, “We’re thinking of doing a weekend version of Science Friday.”
Jeff Hansen and I got to talking about one of the thematic shows KUOW does air, at 6 p.m. Sunday: "On the Media" from WNYC. Hansen thinks its lively reports on everything from official secrets to game apps would fit right into the Afternoon Newsmagazine: “I’ve encouraged them to give us modules throughout the week. They say they don’t have time. ‘Don’t have time? You’re already doing the work, you just have to pull them out.’ I guess they don’t want more listeners.”
Update, July 18:
To the question, "Where's the science at KUOW?" I should add this entry, which I wasn't aware of till one of its contributors wrote to point it out: KUOW recently added weekly Science News reports to the shorter features that have replaced hour-long interviews on its Weekday morning show (9 to 11am). These air on Fridays, as it happens, and feature some leading local science writers, including Xconomy's Luke Timmerman, MSN's Alan Paynter, and Sally James.