Why KUOW cut programming to build listenership

Leadership at the Northwest's flagship NPR station knew they needed to make a few tweaks to their secret sauce.
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“There was a sense of loss,” says managing editor Cathy Duchamp about the station's programming changes.

Leadership at the Northwest's flagship NPR station knew they needed to make a few tweaks to their secret sauce.

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.”

Crosscut archive image.

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.

“The sun is going to set on the show-centric model, because of the way people are using radio,” says KUOW’s new general manager Caryn Mathes. “In all aspects of our lives, we are creating custom media, whether that’s with Hulu or Netflix. Radio is no different.”

Crosscut archive image.Mathes took over four months after The Record debuted, succeeding former general manager Wayne Roth, who ran the station for 30 years. Before her appointment in late October, Mathes was the general manager of WAMU, an NPR affiliate in Washington D.C. that currently follows a more traditional format of host-driven interview shows. Mathes said she was drawn to her new job by KUOW’s innovative format.

In the public radio world, KUOW’s decision was innovative and edgy, perhaps risky. The station is an incubator of local journalism talent, counting NPR correspondent Robert Smith, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat, former Times reporter Alex Fryer, and ubiquitous radio personality Luke Burbank among its alumnae. (I also worked for the station in the 1980s as a broadcast engineer, under both Scher and Sillman.)

Fryer wrote a guest column in September for the Puget Sound Business Journal criticizing KUOW’s programming change as further erosion of local news coverage. Duchamp responded, countering that the station had added five editorial positions to the staff. Her news staff still produces just as much if not more local content, Duchamp said, not all of it short.

The move’s long-term success has yet to be determined, but initial indications are encouraging. “We have only three months of data, and we would seldom make any judgment based on so little data, because you can’t see trends,” says Hansen, KUOW’s longtime program director.

“What we know about the first three months is that listening has grown 13 percent between nine and two since we made the change, compared to four percent overall. It’s a good start, and we hope that will be the trend, but we know listening goes up and down.”

That same data has shown Hansen that listeners' optimal program is one KUOW already has — Morning Edition, which is also NPR's most popular program overall. So, KUOW’s new strategy is to extend its customized Morning Edition programming well into the day, the national programming cut up, rearranged and mixed with locally produced segments.

The station will still air long interviews, but is “deploying” them more smartly. Instead of airing a 35-minute interview with President Obama all at once, Hansen explains, the station broke it up into five, seven-minute segments, scattered throughout the day to reach more listeners. The full interview was posted, uncut, on the station’s website.

Producers did the same thing with former mayor Mike McGinn’s exit interview and a long report on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

The station still saves room for uninterrupted long-form programs at night or on the weekends. The hour-long Diane Rehm show airs weekdays at midnight; This American Life takes Saturday mornings; and Spotlight, airing Mondays from 9-10 p.m., features independently produced documentaries, performances of concerts or plays and interviews with librarian Nancy Pearl, who was a mainstay of Weekday.

As new manager Mathes see it, things are bound to keep changing. “In the next five years a lot of the most iconic personalities are going to be leaving the stage,” Mathes said, citing Rehm, who is 77, as an example. “There’s going to be this huge turnover in that iconic talent. It’ll be interesting to see what’s next. There are new people on the horizon, but they are not going to gain traction simply through dial twisting.”

“There are still a lot of questions,” she admits. “One great hallmark of ours is the joy of discovery, finding something you didn’t expect. We have to figure out that piece of it.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at hugo.kugiya@gmail.com.