A staff departure ruffles Seattle's popular and public KUOW-FM

Longtimer Ken Vincent quit the NPR station and talked about it, and that touched off other complaints that KUOW is moving down the path of blandness.
Crosscut archive image.

KUOW-FM's studios in Seattle: Some announcers have left the building. (KUOW)

Longtimer Ken Vincent quit the NPR station and talked about it, and that touched off other complaints that KUOW is moving down the path of blandness.

Cutbacks have roiled commercial broadcasters and newspapers, but Seattle's public radio station, KUOW-FM (94.9), has long been a place of calm, quality, and financial stability. But that perception ended early this month with the departure of longtime host and reporter Ken Vincent, who publicly complained of compromises in station programming, inadequate compensation, creeping commercialization, and needless meddling in how announcers speak. Program Director Jeff Hansen "is totally taking the art out of it," said Vincent, whose career dates back to the legendary progressive commercial station KZAM-FM in Seattle. The departure of any one staffer doesn't necessarily mean much. But at least some saw signifiance in the fact Vincent's departure came after longtime morning host Deborah Brandt left last winter. Complaints tend to focus on Hansen's programming changes in the past couple of years. Neither Hansen nor General Manager Wayne Roth have been reached by local media writing about the episode. A station spokesman said comment would have to wait until they returned next week. Vincent detailed a number of changes under way – cutbacks to arts programs, elimination of The Writer's Almanac, a shift to more on-air comments from listeners rather than longer interviews, and a relentless effort to trim sentences. So it's no longer, "You're listening to KUOW. I'm Ken Vincent. It's 10:40. And the temperature outside is 54 degrees." It's now, "KUOW. Ken Vincent. 10:40. 54 degrees." To an ordinary listener, this may seem a trivial grievance. But to Vincent, it's part of a pattern of draining personality and intimacy from the broadcast. Some see an attempt at making different hosts interchangeable and shifting from longer treatments to quick takes on topics, weighted to listener call ins. If change is under way, it's coming slowly, at least to this listener, and it's certainly not driven by a sense of crisis. KUOW, by any measure, is a success. From a modern suite of offices and studios in the University District, the station enjoys incredible reach and influence, especially on political leaders who know its listeners pay attention and vote. Seattle newspapers might be losing readers, but KUOW is gaining audience, up 12 percent in 2006 for a total of 351,000 people who on average listen for eight hours a week. Last March, KUOW placed first in the winter radio ratings, the first time a public station has done so in a major market. Ditto with finances. Operating support grew by 12 percent to $8.1 million. While publications and commercial radio are trying to do more with less, KUOW acquired an AM station in Tumwater and an FM station in Tacoma. KUOW pushes content into HD radio, the Web, and iPods. The gains in audience and money also come with prestige. Each year, KUOW wins a slug of awards, including a Peabody in April for reporter Ruby de Luna. The staff has a number of stars, including Steve Scher and Marcie Sillman. So is there a problem? I love KUOW, but you can only take so many programs on rain barrels or obscure politicians in British Columbia. If changes are under way, a focus on listener call-ins and the elimination of adverbs seems wrongheaded. Better to focus on finding ways to inject more energy and ideas into the broadcast. Tell me about how Portland deals with growth and traffic. Get me a truck driver to talk about life without the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Make a point about challenging conventional wisdom in our one-party town. For the Friday journalists roundtable, too often a bland soup, how about a visit from a reporter with the Puget Sound Business Journal? So much about journalism is bad news. KUOW is the last best place. This listener is not looking for a revolution, just a surprise once in a while.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.