When the longtime and popular KUOW radio host Steve Scher up and quit suddenly last week, the rapidity and surprise of the event naturally raised eyebrows. Was he pushed? Got fed up over something? Is the radio station having an identity crisis?
The story of Scher’s sudden exit is less dramatic than it might appear. “Steve certainly could have stayed, and the decision to leave was his decision,” says the station’s new general manager, Caryn Mathes. That seems accurate, if incomplete. Scher was increasingly convinced that he wasn’t going to be a good fit in the station’s revised format. At the last minute, last Friday, he reached a decision point and suddenly departed.
The loss of Scher is a big one in local journalism. His departure is part of the steady loss of experienced journalists with lots of institutional memory. Among them recently would be, besides Scher, Brian Johnson and Dan Lewis at KOMO; Robert Mak at KING; Joni Balter, Emily Hefter, Lynne Varner, Bruce Ramsey, and David Boardman at the Seattle Times; and Pete Callaghan at the News Tribune in Tacoma (moving to Minneapolis). And this just in: Jean Enersen is announcing today that she will leave her anchor position at KING-TV this month although she will continue some other duties.
Scher, who was with the station for 28 years, was a maypole for many of these expert journalists, since he would have lots of editorial heavyweights on his long-running show, “Weekday.” It used to be on each weekday morning, 9-11 a.m. Format changes scuttled the show and relegated Scher to a relatively minor role on the new local show, “The Record,” now weekdays from noon-1. Scher, who was a steady, wise, wry presence in thousands of listeners’ daily lives, was gradually fading from air-presence. Gone was the rare interviewer who read the authors’ books, who used his slightly cumbersome style as a sly way to ask tough questions, and was the non-strident exemplar of Northwest progressive values.
He was also increasingly unhappy at the station he had long served and had come to exemplify. Public radio used to be about “shows” and habituated listeners. No more. It’s now about tightly produced segments, aimed at listeners who dart in and out of radio and want short fixes. Scher was instructed to cut back his 20-30-minute, in-depth interviews, to be more newsy, to have more “pace.” The station gradually took away his strengths. Once “Weekday” was canceled last fall, friends of Steve (myself included) thought it wouldn’t be long before he moved on, and Scher was privately getting gloomy about his future at the NPR station.
In an interview this week, Scher stressed that his decision, while seemingly signaling frustration, really was mostly a long-fermenting personal choice to leave radio and honor his “need to be a writer.” He has written a novel, “a romantic comedy that makes people laugh,” and wants to find time to polish it up for publication. He wants to continue his podcasts (on gardening and film) and possibly add a version of “Week in Review,” the regular Friday morning roundtable that Scher hosted with regular panelists Eli Sanders, Joni Balter, and Knute Berger. The Week in Review has now been placed “on hiatus” at the station. KUOW’s Mathes says the hiatus reflects the fact that Scher gave little notice of his decision and other likely hosts were temporarily unavailable. Mathes promises to “bring back the best possible thing we can” to carry on the very popular Friday morning news program.
Scher explained his decision to quit this way in a blog post: “I did a lot of writing during my sabbatical last year. It is something I have to get back to and complete. I turned 60 this year. I couldn't let another year pass without at least giving an honest attempt at the writer's life. After that, there are lots of opportunities in this changing media landscape. I look forward to the exploration.”
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