In late June of last year, the management of Seattle's KUOW public radio notified its news staff that it was going to make a substantial change in the station’s weekday programming. They were going to eliminate two signature programs — Weekday and The Conversation.
The newsmagazine show that replaced them, The Record, went live in early September, running from noon to 2 p.m.
For the majority of KUOW's listeners, the change was nominally disruptive — or so went the reasoning behind it, which had been discussed for years. For the news staff, however — particularly the hosts directly affected — the change was felt deeply.
“It’s a cultural change,” says KUOW’s managing editor Cathy Duchamp. “It’s going from working in independent pods to a much more integrated environment.”
Cathy Duchamp. Photo: KUOW
Weekday, hosted chiefly by Steve Scher and sometimes by Marcie Sillman, emphasized in-depth interviews. Scher was KUOW’s Charlie Rose, regularly putting aside an hour of his show for visiting authors, politicians, and actors. The Conversation, conceived as a call-in show, was hosted by Ross Reynolds.
The Record, now almost six months old, features the efforts of all three hosts, but spotlights none of them. The 20 weekly hours of Weekday and The Conversation have been halved, creating room for the addition of two national, newsmagazine shows – Here & Now and The Takeaway.
Some stories on The Record are clearly about local events and issues; others are localized angles on national topics. Local experts are interviewed, but so are outside sources. The show might also occasionally include a report produced outside of KUOW, giving it a more cosmopolitan feel.
All three hosts — Scher, Sillman and Reynold — are senior members of KUOW’s news staff, having worked at the station since the mid-80s. All three declined to comment for this article.
“There was a sense of loss,” Duchamp explains. “We’re still working through that. My job is to lead everyone through those changes, and help restore a sense of balance for people.”
Major changes are not casually entertained at KUOW. Listeners, many of whom are donors, feel ownership of the station in a way listeners of other stations do not. As one of the city’s three NPR affiliates, KUOW represents a cultural institution larger than itself.
Still, station management knew that the same old formula wasn't working.
“We’ve known for years we had very low listening midday,” said program director Jeff Hansen, “even though it was very high [at other stations] during that time period. We kept wondering how come we lose so many listeners. It was not really because people go to work… It became clear we were out of sync with how most people use radio.”
KUOW’s solution to their listenership problems reflects a broad trend in media, one that presumes people want to consume short and current (to the minute) content in real time. Longer, meatier, less time-sensitive pieces (whether a long article, documentary, or TV series), the narrative goes, will be streamed at the consumer’s convenience.
It also represents a departure from the traditional midday, public-radio format of static, slowly paced shows, usually local in scope, driven by one or few topics, and presided over by established personalities.
According to station leaders, it is about making the work-day programming more uniform in sound, covering more topics in fewer minutes, airing the strongest content (local or not) several times during the day instead of once, and relying more on content than the power of any one personality. In newspaper terms, it would as if a broadsheet reassigned its columnists to collaborate on a blog.
Some have interpreted KUOW’s shift as a major local media outlet shedding yet more local news coverage. And while that could prove true by some measure, the deeper meaning behind the change is more philosophical than geographical.
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