2014's #6 Most Read: Steve Scher's KUOW disappearing act

Why did the public radio host suddenly pull his own plug? The answers say a lot about news, media and public broadcasting.
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KUOW will buy KPLU for $8 million.

Why did the public radio host suddenly pull his own plug? The answers say a lot about news, media and public broadcasting.

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.”

Still, why such an abrupt announcement, bound to raise questions? Sensing that he needed to make a decision he had long mooted, he just decided to get it over with. “I like to pull the Band-aid off fast,” Scher said.

Some important context here. Scher, who had been with the station since 1986, is a traditionalist about public radio. In this view, non-commercial radio should do things like long interviews of touring authors that commercial stations, bent on ratings, do not do. National Public Radio stations have a mission to be in-depth, to avoid crusading, to treat different and off-beat points of view with respect. “Let the interviewee finish the sentence” is the pithy motto for NPR reporters. In Scher’s case, guests and callers got to finish the paragraph.

Somewhere in the past decade, KUOW became fixated on ratings. Program director Jeff Hansen, Scher’s chief philosophical rival at the station, once told me that he took KUOW’s mission to be a simple one: “Get as many people listening to public radio as possible.” In this, Hansen has clearly succeeded, and KUOW is often the leading Seattle radio station, commercial or noncommercial, during drive time, and overall ranks among the top three stations in the market. GM Mathes reports that the station has been gaining listeners since the format shift last September, with midday (where the shifts were made) growing 12 percent, as compared to a 3 percent growth during the popular earlier show, “Morning Edition.”

Until last fall, KUOW continued to air modestly-rated talk and call-in “shows” during midday, Scher’s “Weekday” from 9-11 a.m. and Ross Reynolds’ “The Conversation” from noon-1. Hansen was convinced that the midday sag in ratings was not a normal pattern but something that should be fixed. His solution, adopted after three years of debate and prodding and over Scher’s objections, was to make midday on KUOW resemble the popular NPR drive-time shows, “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” That translates into shorter story segments of 4-8 minutes, interweaving both local and national stories; airing many international sources of such stories (not just NPR); and running national shows with that tempo in the 9-noon slot.

The local shows that used to take up three hours each day are now compressed into “The Record,” which recently dropped (possibly temporarily) from two hours to one each afternoon, mixing national segments into the local show and dropping the call-in format of the past. It’s the All Things Considered Formula All Day Long.

The upside of this new formula, aside from presumably higher listenership, is that the KUOW newsroom is freed from producing call-in and guest shows and able to do more original reporting. Moreover, such reporting is now sprinkled throughout the day, including during purely national shows, and the local segments repeated often across the broadcast day. On the other hand, the demands on producers for this complex weave of stories are taxing to the KUOW newsroom. This pressure is likely the reason for the reduction of the one remaining local show from two hours to one.

KUOW, despite its strong position and deep financial reserves, has always run scared. (Disclosure moment: In the late 1990s I served for five years on the KUOW advisory board, where I would hear such alarm bells.) First, it was worry about satellite radio competing. Currently, it is fear that listeners will shift from KUOW broadcasts to streaming and on-demand services, notably NPR.org. To head off such defections, Hansen argues that the local station needed to add features that the streamers or digital consumers can’t get, namely interspersing lots of local stories. Whether this increases loyalty, or ramps up irritation (“A.D.D. radio,” former city councilmember Peter Steinbrueck grouses), seems an open question in the early months of the new format.

Complicating matters, just at the time last fall when KUOW was implementing its new format, it was also suddenly in search mode for a new general manager of the station. The longtime, respected but cautious GM, Wayne Roth, unexpectedly retired in spring 2013 after 30 years at the helm, prompting the change. The station selected as its new leader Mathes, a highly regarded veteran of public broadcast who had previously turned around two troubled NPR stations, WDET in Detroit and WAMU in Washington, D.C. The D.C. station has one of the biggest public radio audiences in the nation.

So an obvious question for many loyal listeners as well as for Scher: Would Mathes buy into the new format?

I asked her, and she referred to implementing the current strategic plan, in place since 2011, and refining a new strategic vision, which has already gone to the board. She said among the goals were increasing listenership, particularly among minorities. She gave no hint of shifting from the controversial new format, and pointed out that ratings have gone up “more than expected.” Scher says he had concluded that the new format of varied segments “seems to be the consensus” around the nation and likely to stay in place at KUOW.

Another issue is how open Mathes will be to dissent, even loyal dissenters such as Scher. (Newsrooms are normally full of dissenters.) In an episode in 2012 at her previous D.C. station, news director Jim Asendio quit over a dispute concerning his requested attendance at an event with major donors to WAMU. Asendio, after initially helping plan the event, at the last minute protested that his attendance violated editorial firewalls. Mathes, according to Asendio’s account in Current, the trade magazine of public broadcast, “said that by not participating in a major station event I would be making a ‘permanent and irreversible statement about whether I was part of her management team.’ ” Mathes says that when Asendio also tried to get the rest of the newsroom to boycott the panel, which would have ruined the event after months of planning, she felt he had gone too far.

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Caryn Mathes (2011) Current.org/Flickr

Public broadcast stations are notoriously difficult to change: Listeners resist and staffers have lots of job protection. As it happens, all three major public broadcast stations in the market now have brand-new leadership. At KCTS-TV, a new leadership team has been installed, headed by Rob Dunlop, formerly a top executive at KOMO; and Paula Reynolds, a very dynamic business executive, is the new chair of the board of the station. At KPLU, a shake-em-up leader, Erik Nycklemoe from Minnesota Public Broadcast, ran into staff and board resistance and departed after just over a year; Joey Cohn is the interim GM, until at least well into next year.

So change is in the air at Seattle’s public broadcast outlets. The region has natural advantages for such stations, given the educated, civic-minded, and literate audiences. Doubtless Seattle will remain a very strong market for public broadcast. However, the Scher tremblor and all the new top managers will certainly shake up a media segment that had been contentedly coasting along.


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