Wednesday, June 18, 2014

KUOW: A Major Public Radio Station Stumbles

KUOW, one of Seattle's public radio stations, is in deep trouble.

KUOW has been transformed into a quasi-commercial, ratings-chasing, eternally fund raising shadow of its former self.  A station that no longer reflects the needs of its listeners or cares whether it deals with the issues of its community.  This needs to change.


The most recent issue has been the sudden resignation of KUOW's star interviewer,  Steve Scher, a situation I will examine in more detail later.  But this resignation is just one sign of a deeper malaise.

What is a public radio station about?

Public radio is supposed to be a different animal than commercial radio.  Rather than making a maximum amount of money or secure the biggest audience, public radio should serve the community by providing programming of importance to its listeners that commercial outlets would not consider.  Most important is covering issues of local importance and analyzing issues in depth.  Local public radio should act as an aural town commons, where ideas can be discussed and examined.  Call in programs are an important tool for creating such an environment, as is the use of online chats, blogs, and Facebook/Google+ environments.  A university public radio station can go further, by tapping into the vast intellectual reserves (lectures, faculty) of the school.

KUOW Abandons Local Programs for Nationally Syndicated Shows

Three years ago, KUOW had five hours of local programming each day.   This included the station's flagship program, Weekday, in which authors, politicians, and others would be interviewed by Steve Scher at depth (typically 20-30 minutes), with listeners calling to join the conversation.  Today, there is only one hour of local programming for a new show, The Record, that is broadcast at a time when few folks listen (noon). This show is an amorphous,hodge-podge of short local and national stories.  So 80% of KUOW's local programming has been cut.   This is unacceptable.


KUOW seems to think it is a commercial radio station and has begun using a lot of the irritating methods of the worst commercial outlets.   For example, over and over again you hear:
 "This story is one you will only hear on KUOW".  And they love to advertise stories ahead, particularly sexy ones.   "Want to learn about vitamins and health?  Story at 10:35!"
 Why does such hawking seem tone deaf for a public radio station?


The mastermind of the suppression of local programs is KUOW's programming director, Jeff Hansen (see picture below).  Mr. Hansen believes that Seattle listeners do not have the patience for in-depth, long-form segments and holds that we can only tolerate short (5-8 minute) pieces.   The  National Public Radio shows (like Morning Edition and All Things Considered) are like that, as are the national shows he has brought on to replace local content (The Takeaway, BBC Newshour, Here and Now).   The new local show, The Record is also limited to short pieces.

Jeff Hansen, KUOW Programming Director

I believe Jeff Hansen is dead wrong and will undermine KUOW if allowed to continue this policy.  First, it is insulting to Seattle listeners to suggest that we can't deal with long-form shows:  KUOW's successful Weekday program proved him wrong.  Second, some stories require more time than 5-10 minutes to handle properly.  Third, Mr. Hansen's approach excludes listener participation, and I would suggest that acting as a regional aural town square is important.   And finally, his approach makes no sense from a technological standpoint.    Most of the programs that KUOW offers are national/international programs available easily on the web.  You can get them on your browser or smartphone (with wifi or internet) at any time and choose what you want.  Many cars have satellite radio and in five years most cars will have internet.  Listeners won't need KUOW to get these programs and listenership will plummet unless KUOW creates programs that are unique, local, and interesting.  But that is exactly the kind of programs Jeff Hansen is stripping from KUOW's line-up.  An ill-advised approach guaranteed to damage a major local radio station.

If you peruse KUOW's facebook page you will find the overwhelming sentiment of  the comments/reviews is unhappiness with recent programming changes (see below) and KUOW's market share has dropped according to Arbitron (see stats).   KUOW used to be in first or second place in this market, now it is in tenth place.

But Mr. Hansen seems determined to run the KUOW train off the track.

I had some personal experience with Mr. Hansen three years ago.  As many of you know, I was on KUOW for nearly 15 years, but was "fired" by Steve Scher for speaking about a topic other than weather (I defended the UW's admissions policy when I was moved to the Week in Review segment one day).  You heard it right, I was ejected from the UW's public radio station for defending the UW from non-factual attacks by the Seattle Times.    But let me tell you some details not generally known.  On the Monday, following the "firing", Steve Scher called my office, obviously very upset.   He apologized for his email firing and admitted to me that he made a mistake.  He wondered whether he was going to be fired, particularly with the huge public outcry that ensued.  I told him I did not want to see him fired, that he lost his temper as everyone does at time, and that I would come back to the program if he wished.  He said he might be willing to do that and that he would call me back.

The next day, I called Mr. Hansen to see if the situation could be fixed.    By that time, a major signature campaign for my return was ensuring and KUOW had to shut down its call-in lines because they were overwhelmed.  I told Hansen about my conversation with Steve and Hansen replied that I was never coming back to the station.  I asked him whether the massive protests, emails (hundreds of them), petition drives and the like meant anything to him.   He told me he didn't care.  I asked him, what if there were 5000 or 10000 signatures (and there would be).  Again, he told me he didn't care...I was never coming back to KUOW. This tells you something about the guy, doesn't it?  He simply didn't care what listeners wanted and during the last few years he has proven that.

And then for the remainder of the week after my firing,  KUOW began a massive misinformation campaign about what happened, claiming that I demanded to talk about math education.   This was simply untrue.   I not only was not talking about math on KUOW (provable by listening to their archives), but had agreed with Steve  a few years before that I would avoid that topic (after the UW Colllege of Education complained about my talking about math in public schools).  Jeff Hansen played a major role in spreading information that was not correct.

Mr. Hansen has also played a major role in the loss of major KUOW talent such as Ken Vincent and it is clear that Steve Scher's sudden departure was related to the loss of Weekday and the move toward short-segment radio.


KUOW:  Fund Raising Gone Wild

KUOW management is fixated on money and in acquiring funds well beyond their needs.  The aggressive money gathering includes extended two-week pledge drives, in contrast to far shorter drives on other public radio stations like KPLU (always less than a week).  During recent years, KUOW's hawking for cash has extended outside of the pledge weeks.  For example, this week the KUOW web page is dominated by money asks, including irritating pop up windows (see below).


While pleading poverty and begging for money, KUOW is running large surpluses each year, occasionally running well over a million dollars (see below).  862,000 in 2010 and over TWO MILLION dollars in 2011. Then a decline in 2012 to 819,000 (could this be due to KUOW's firing of a certain weatherman???), and then up to 1.8 million in 2013.


KUOW has acquired huge stockpiles of money.  Its fiscal report in June 2013 noted 3.3 million in cash, 6.4 million in investments, and 1.6 million in endowed investments.   Fundraising encompasses 24% of KUOW expenses.


Compare KUOW to KPLU, whose expenses are about 75% of KUOW's.    KPLU lost $65,000 last year (nearly break even) and has only $470,217 in investments. KPLU folks are frugal.

KUOW's pledge drives are often deceptive.   How many times do they tell you that they are radically short of the goal a few minutes before the deadline and then magically they always reach the goal in the nick of time.  Right...

KUOW management is often less than careful stewards of its supporter's money.   Every year the station throws a big holiday party in the UW faculty club with a substantial buffet (yes, including a properly attired chef cutting roast beef) and only TWO free drinks per attendee.  Fifteen years ago, KUOW moved from the UW Communications Bldg. to a very large complex in commercial property off campus, far larger than the station needed.  The costs of this excessive facility was so high that KUOW management was forced to reduce listener's access to expensive national programs.


Finally, KUOW claims to be commercial free, but that is really a joke.  Dozens of times a day you hear something like this:  "This program is supported by Joe's Auto Repair, located at 1533 Spokane St, and offering a sale this month on Acme Water Pumps.  For more information call 206-548-3493 or the www.JoeAuto.com."  If this is not a commercial, what is?

Lack of Oversight

Although the UW is KUOW's license holder, it has little to do with management or policy at KUOW.  The Board of Director's just rubber stamp KUOW management's decisions, no matter what the listener's want.  I learned this first hand.   Before I was "fired" from KUOW, I was sent a threatening email from Steve Scher's producer;  the Chair of the KUOW's Board had no interest in even talking about it. Neither were any of the members.  And they have not intervened to stop the wholesale loss of local programming or the excessive fund raising.  Basically, KUOW management has a free hand to do what it wants and a source of virtually unlimited funds from pledge drives that get longer and longer or web-based begging.

Take Listener Money But Don't Give Them a Voice

KUOW management believes that its listeners should pledge but not be heard.   Ten years ago, KUOW had lots of call in shows, where listeners could interact with KUOW hosts and guests.  Today that is history. When KUOW hosts began experimenting with using blogs to interact with audiences, KUOW management nixed it.   When I was "fired" from KUOW, KUOW management cancelled all call in opportunities for days. I could give you other examples, but you get the point.  The folks who run KUOW believe communications should be a one-way street.  You don't have an information public commons that way.

What need to be done to turn KUOW around?

You will notice that this blog has provided no criticism of the current president and general manager, Caryn Mathes.  This is appropriate since she has only been at the station a few months and bears little responsibility for what has gone down.  But if the current situation continues through the end of the year, it will be her problem.

A few suggestions include:

1.  Replace the current programming director with someone with a different vision
2.  Restore substantial local programming.  Some ideas include:

  • Start by bring back Weekday in the old form with extended interviews and audience participation.
  • Take advantage of the enormous intellectual resources of the University of Washington.   Include a daily, one hour show that could include rebroadcasts of interesting lectures or in-depth discussion with faculty experts.
  • KUOW has several talented reporters ( such as Ann Dornfeld and Ashley Ahearn).  Dedicate one hour per day to their reports on important regional topics.

3.  Reduce the excessive fundraising by limiting pledge drives to one week and reducing web fundraising.

4.  The UW needs to take a far more active role in overseeing its radio station.

5.  KUOW needs to be more effective using social media, such as blogs.

If KUOW management does not deal with the growing crisis and the clear unhappiness of its listeners, there is one tool that would facilitate change: listeners should withhold their pledges until things change.  That would get their attention.

64 comments:

  1. Just do what I did many years ago.. JUST TURN IT OFF!!!!!

    As you stated in your article, there are many source of information that cover the content that used to be on KUOW. This internet content is flexible, comprehensive, all over the place (facebook, reddit, blogs, podcasts) and interactive. Can be accessed on phone, tablet, PC, even TV.

    There really is no need for KUOW and its ilk these days. All of their content is available online (NPR, etc).

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  2. In early April, KUOW reported on a fundraising effort by Arlington businesses for families affected by the Oso tragedy, which segued right into--you guessed it--a live update on the hour's pledge drive goal and 10 minutes of begging for donations. Tasteless.

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  3. Thanks for putting it in words I couldn't. Wasn't a big listener but lost my interest in the station, so I stopped listening. Will complain to those above and with my pocketbook.

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  4. Thanks for putting it in words I couldn't. Wasn't a big listener but lost my interest in the station, so I stopped listening. Will complain to those above and with my pocketbook.

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  5. Dear Dr. Mass,

    Thank you for this post, and please forgive my pedantry. I am assuming you speak of KUOW in the sentence "KPLU management is often less than careful ...". I am grateful for your presence on KPLU and the opportunity to support that station. Thank you.

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  6. Scher is terrible. Sorry, guy.

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  7. Honestly, I'm no fan of Steve Scher, but I'm even less of a fan of the way the station has gone almost entirely to canned/NPR programming. It's become quite terrible. I still listen a little to entertainment on weekends (Wait Wait, occasionally; A Prairie Home Companion once in a while; same for The Vinyl Cafe) but their news and issues coverage is simply a joke, and I've kind of stopped caring about their half-hearted efforts at it. If I wanted commercial radio news format, I'd listen to KIRO.

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  8. I'm through with KUOW for essentially the same reasons, but I take issue with some of the characterizations in this post. First, praising an annual operating loss and possibly inadequate reserves does a disservice to quality nonprofit fundraising and management. There is absolutely no reason to encourage nonprofits to operate on the edge of financial failure. Second, I have not heard KUOW cross the ethical and legal line of allowing specific sponsors to advertise discounts or sales, as you describe in your fictitious example. Third, please revisit your use of apostrophes.

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  9. The UW communications honchos showed their colors 20 years ago when they threw every programmer but one or two off KCMU (now KEXP) and then (effectually) sold the station to Paul Allen, although more recently it has been reemphasizing its purported (fanciful) connection to the UW. As went KCMU, so goes KUOW – to the hands of mid-level, noncommercial-radio careerists who have as much vision as many mid-level campus office managers, and as much gall as any. Noncommercial-radio bandwidth is granted so that: 1) noncommercial radio can exist in a predominantly commercial medium (but, as Cliff Mass says, KUOW now substantially sells its airtime; it has done so for a long time, as have virtually all other noncommercial stations (that's a boon for advertisers, who get air time cheaply for their disingenuous "support"); and 2) to act in the broadly defined educational interests of its possible listening population. This latter, it rarely does. As Cliff Mass says, its analytical programming has diminished, and its relevance to local affairs is now very little. I liken the current approach to a physics department teaching pre-Bohr and -Einstein theory and calling it good. Underlying the whole sorry scheme is the careerist self-interest of program directors who would face faculty revolt if in charge of any other university department. Pledge drives serve to keep them there. The old days of anarchic community broadcasting at least provided some worthwhile nuggets of programming (albeit among a lot of pap – KCMU was as guilty of that as anything today, including its successor KEXP). Doing away with longer-form radio is like setting no texts in an English course other than pamphlets from Cliff Notes. And while it is true that the Internet provides some respite from the drivel on public radio – through, for example, national broadcasters like the BBC, CBC, and Australian BC which, while also assailed by pinch-brained cultural flat-earthers, battle on with plenty of imagination here and there, and with relatively few apologies for pitching programming at audiences that crave what the FCC meant by broadly educational programming. The tragedy of the American public radio situation (the drivel of NPR included) is that it so hugely misses opportunities that could readily and even easily be seized – and that it is the responsibility of all the KUOWs and KEXPs to help provide rather than merely to consume and rebroadcast. But fulfilling the mission of public radio would require taking control out of the hands of the anti-educational middle managers who held on from earlier community radio mayhem, and now have no career prospects that don't require requiring programmers to beg for, on their behalf.

    You know the kind: the kind that take actions like those taken against the likes of Cliff Mass when they venture a completely harmless and reasonable opinion that differs from the tacit political and cultural messages and presumptions of program managers only in that it is honestly stated.

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  10. I happy that at least I can listen to podcasts featuring former KUOW talent being successful elsewhere. If I got a decent over the air signal from KUOW at home I'd care more about their decline over the last few years but I won't miss Steve.

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  11. Perhaps it would help if KUOW listeners knew that its board meetings are open to the public. I don't know if public comment is permitted at the meetings but I think if listeners showed up en masse at meetings, it would send a message to the board that folks are really unhappy with what's happening to local programming. Next board meeting is July 10th at 4pm. Apparently locations vary, so the KUOW website says to contact the station to find out more (the phone number is on their "About KUOW" page).

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  12. I do hope KUOW can change. The level of advertising has become annoying and the extended pledge drives painful. It may work to generate higher revenue in the short-term, but, in the long-term, it will drive people away.

    That's what it has done to us. We used to be major donors to KUOW. Now we donate to and switched much of our listening time to the other local NPR stations, KPLU, KING-FM, and KEXP.

    It's very unfortunate. We really could use more and better local news reporting in Seattle, including coverage of local events, companies, and politics. I would love to see KUOW do more local news. As it is, there is little reason to listen to KUOW rather than pick to any other way of getting access to the national NPR programming. It's all very disappointing for those of us that used to love KUOW.

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  13. I wouldn't know, Cliff. Our family quit listening to KUOW when they canned you. As far as I'm concerned they can circle the drain and get flushed down.

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  14. Hi there,

    I would like to add that KPLU has taken on its mission to serve the public in ways KUOW has not, even though I find it annoying that they are from PLU in Spanaway but their main offices are Seattle, and there are no student programs or opportunities as far as a listener like myself can tell. I moved to a rural part of Western Washington and all I get NPR-wise is KPLU. It is distressing that KUOW has all kinds of extra money in the bank but they are not expanding into rural areas. I'm not a big fan of Jazz, but getting the news and some of the programming is important to me, although you are right about local news. I feel KPLU has some excellent reporters and they get good stories even from Eastern Washington.

    Thank you for this call-out, and for helping me to rejuvenate my gratitude to KPLU!

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  15. Now I wish I hadn't just given them money.

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  16. Sounds like KUOW needs to be supplanted by a back-to-basics, more local and grassroots station.

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  17. Cliff- Great summary and totally agree. I would commend by contrast WNPR, in Hartford, CT. They produce an hour long show called "Where We Live". I was fortunate to be invited to participate in the April 3rd edition to discuss global air pollution (along with folks from Yale, the local EPA office and the state air regulator).

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  18. Three years ago I was both a supporter and listener to KUOW. Then, like you state, the station started dropping local programs and pledge breaks became longer. When the next fund riser came up I got interested in this facet. Do you notice they always talk about their goal, but never say how much it is. I started thinking about how everyone else was having to cut back on expenses in both the public and private sectors due to the economy. But not KUOW. From what I could glean was that their budget kept increasing. If they only acknowledged that everyone one else was cutting back and they were also, I might still be a supporter.

    I did still listen to KUOW until last week when I turned to the station on Friday to listen to Week in Review and It wasn't there. When I went to the website and the schedule it was gone without any explanation.

    I am still a supporter of NPR, but now I donate through KVTI, the Tacoma branch of Northwest Public Radio @ 90.9. And one great benefit of Northwest Public Radio is that their pledge breaks are only 1 day in the spring and fall.

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  19. I stopped giving to KUOW years ago because I could see from their annual reports that they were raking in a lot more then they were investing in their programming. Other than the short-lived Rewind show, what do they contribute to the national public radio scheme? Where is the PNW Fresh Air, To the Point, Marketplace?

    Where does the money go?

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  20. Jim French of KIRO until about 20 years ago had a great morning show. Typically he would book an academic knowledgeable about some big topic of the day. Jim and the expert would talk for just over half the show, and then take listeners question for the rest of the time. I suspect that the U of WA has people who could do that over almost any current topic. It was great radio, I miss it. Seldom listen to KUOW anymore.

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  21. Was a huge listener (and a member) of KUOW for years... until 2012. I followed you to KPLU and love the close-to-home feel of KPLU!

    I still tune in periodically to KUOW for some shows, but find myself channel flipping away - actually from boredom. I thought it was just me that felt the heart had gone out of the station.

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  22. It must be more expensive to have hosts, guests, and all the infrastructure needed to do more than just connect to an NPR feed, but I'm not sure simply going to more "local" programming as such would help.

    I can remember two examples of talkshows that I would listen to attentively. First, C-SPAN. Second, David Newman who was on WJR and earlier WXYT/Z in Detroit. He could make any topic interesting and would challenge a guest from any side of the spectrum. For C-SPAN, they are nonpartisan.

    I would also listen to podcasts from KQED because they had interesting topics rarely covered elsewhere.

    Today, much of the media is an antiphonal shouting match between groups dispensing vapid talking points. And there are a lot of very important topics. It is little more than cheers for the blue or red team. Or beauty contests for politicians - who cares about crumbling infrastructure when the mayor or some councilman has a juicy scandal?

    Universities were once the areas where all views were debated, there was free speech and that is why tenure was originally created.

    How about creating a great radio station.

    I could think of few things more interesting than you and say, Anthony Watts discussing Climate issues for two hours with a host-moderator that was neutral, or would even work to find the center of the arguments on both sides. Something where I would emerge smarter from.

    There are many sides to all issues, not just pro v.s. con. There are always third parties affected and side-effects to all policies, and too often they are dismissed or turned into a doomsay, and not really discussed.

    Another area is real investigative reporting. Without partisanship, but finding where something is going wrong and reporting on it no matter whose toes get stepped on.

    I would hope that there would be some at the university that would put honest discussion ahead of their bias, or that their bias/goal would be honest discussion and finding the truth via dialogue rather than finding good feelings through demagogue.

    That would be worth fighting for. There are outlets for local news and events. There are almost no places for rigorous but honest debate and discussion in depth on important issues.

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  23. "Finally, KUOW claims to be commercial free, but that is really a joke. Dozens of times a day you hear something like this: "This program is supported by Joe's Auto Repair, located at 1533 Spokane St, and offering a sale this month on Acme Water Pumps. For more information call 206-548-3493 or the www.JoeAuto.com." If this is not a commercial, what is?"

    It's called underwriting and is the main revenue generator for public radio stations.

    http://www.verticalradio.org/index.php?id=74

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  24. Ever since I moved here from San Francisco, I have been missing the amount of local programming I enjoyed on KQED. They have a daily 2 hour call-in show, which is devoted to only 2 topics (one per hour) with a guest (politician, local cultural figure, etc.). They produce The California Report every for 10 minutes per day and 30 minutes on Fridays. Then there is City Arts & Lectures and The Commonwealth Club, both based in San Francisco. They may be a very large station with a large budget, but we got great content from them. I always told myself I would donate if only it would stop the pledge breaks. A few years ago, they started offering a pledge-free stream for $50 that takes away all of the pledge breaks!

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  25. I have mostly stopped listening to KUOW except for a few shows like Says You and Vinyl Cafe. With the removal of local content, especially interviews with local experts on various topics (like weather!), the station has become characterless.

    Two other things bug me:

    1. By dropping the header and footer to shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered in favor of a mash-up with stories from the BBC and NPR, they have even made these vanilla-bland shows even more bland! I used to be able to time my morning routines around which segments came on when and with musical cues. I suspect a lot of people use morning radio to do the same. You can't do that now. So I have switched to KPLU; plus I like the jazz.

    2. I don't get why they have a second channel that they advertise on the first. "Here's a great show that we don't broadcast!" Huh?

    The final nail will be pounded in when they drop The Swing Years and Beyond -- the only local show they have that has a national rep.

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  26. Cliff, I left "membership" with KUOW (which only started because of you, anyway) when they got rid of you, and went to KPLU, bringing my small, $5/mo contribution with me. I don't enjoy jazz music, but listen to all their news programming to and from work each day.

    I like the short pledge drives on KPLU, I like the local flavor, and I like that they are frugal with the pledged money. It bugs me that PLU is a religious institution, but since that doesn't bleed over into the radio station, I can ignore it. I wish you and they could expand your segment to a daily one, but I get that everyone is busy and that might not work (but I'd LOVE to give you Bird Note's minute every morning)!

    The folks in charge at UW really should take more notice of what goes on at KUOW. I didn't realize that they were so disconnected and in my mind, the radio station has given the university some bad-reputation moments.

    +2 points for using "aural" properly :-) but please edit your usage of the grocer's apostrophe in sentences like this one (the first and third apostrophes are unneeded and incorrect): "The Board of Director's just rubber stamp KUOW management's decisions, no matter what the listener's want." Thanks for all you do!

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  27. Cliff,

    You are right on. Tell KUOW to stop focusing on money and limit pledge to 1 week. Invite their management to see your blog.

    We are tired of pledge "week" and the "commercialettes".

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  28. Well said Cliff.

    I gave up on KUOW years ago, and now when they send me pledge appeal letters I do not send them one red penny but I send them an abbreviated version of what you have written in this post.

    Even when they use national feeds, they do not even get that right. The best discussion panel (IMHO) on radio anywhere in the USA concerning international and national matters is The Diane Rehm Show. Yet that airs on KUOW at midnight long after it's early (PST) morning slot.

    If KUOW would only air that show in real time, and then perhaps follow up with a similar local show about local issues... but no.

    Scher's show seemed to be an attempt at that local show -but Steve lacked both Diane Rehm's ability to grasp the essential and get to the heart of things. He also lacked the ability to force power to answer direct questions-or to admit they willfully will not.

    Scher was a tumbleweed on all issues. In fact, KUOW has been a station full of tumbleweeds. When I quit listening it felt like a station merely pretending to be an NPR station, and it still does when I occasionally check in on it too see if any thing important has changed.

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  29. Cliff, I love your weather reporting. I even wade through the stuff on math standards, but dude, this critique of KUOW reeks of sour grapes. You complain the station spends too much time fundraising but yannow what, local reporting is very expensive. So in light of the massive cuts in state and Federal financial support just how should KUOW, and in the larger light, our community pay more than starvation wages to local journalists?

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  30. In case anyone is listening, I would love to see the return of long-form reporting.

    We dont need public radio stations to copy commercial formats. People are already doing that, and it gets more boring by the day.

    What we need are interesting alternatives that takes advantage of public radio's unique status and enriches our community with its presence.

    KUOW is uniquely positioned to become the source for informed and open-minded conversation about the issues that affect our community. The need for long-form journalism is greater now than it ever has been. Imagine public radio as a space that supports great reporting and opens the minds and the hearts of listeners.

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  31. I'll offer a dissenting voice. I listen to KUOW because it offers the programming I prefer to hear, when I want to hear it ~ All Things Considered, Marketplace, BBC News. I prefer programs like this to local offerings.

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  32. When I moved from the Bay Area to Seattle in August 2012, I was surprised that the city had two public radio stations, with a great deal of overlapping programming (there is little value to having two frequencies at which to listen to "Morning Edition" or "All Things Considered"), little local content, and at many off-peak hours a choice of either boring & repetitive jazz music or "B-List" NPR programming.

    I would prefer if, instead, Seattle had one really great public radio station (like San Francisco's KQED) that had the financial and personnel resources that are currently split between two. It might mean more local programming.

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  33. I'm fairly new in Seattle but since the time I started listening to KUOW, there've been changes I'm not too happy about. Some have been mentioned here already. In general, I support Tamara's comments above. It's frustrating to be listening to an interesting segment and in no time hear the interviewer say "We've run out of time."

    Perhaps, a more specific complaint of mine is the establishment tone that most programs about news and political/social issues have --NPR programs, without question, but also local ones. That brings them closer to commercial radio and TV which I stay away from.

    I like and still listen to Alternative Radio but it was recently moved to a less convenient hour. A Prairie Home Companion has run its course and it's two hours long. I love Jazz but Swing Years and Beyond but it's limited, repetitive, and it goes on all night. This American Life is great. --it would be nice to be able to listen to it at other times. There're a few other things I sometimes like.

    I've sent my comments to KUOW more than once.

    By the way, I wish KPLU, known as the jazz radio, had much more jazz music and commentary. Jazz is a national treasure!

    Thanks, Cliff Mass, for the opportunity to comment. Your articles are most interesting.

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  34. 89.5, the Nathan Hale radio station is all I listen to. Great dance music and no BS...

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  35. I agree with you, Cliff. I used to be an avid listener to KUOW, but for the last few years I think that they have generally lost their way. I now turn to KIRO for much better local news coverage, and listen to KPLU for the NPR coverage. I have also ceased to donate to KUOW; just compare their pledge drives with those of any other public radio station and you'll know why.

    There are only 2 shows left that I listen to on KUOW: Marketplace, due to broadcast timing, and The Swing Years, which is actually good.

    I hope someone with the will to make an improvement reads these comments.

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  36. Thanks for this post. I thought it was just me getting older and more crotchety. When they canceled Weekday I thought there was something fishy going on. I thought it was especially wrong that the change happened during Steve Scher's sabbatical. The longer pledge drives are out of hand.
    I'm also annoyed by the constant replaying of the locally produced pieces, in the morning and afternoon, and sometimes multiple times a week. I wouldn't put up with the Seattle Times reprinting their stories so why does KUOW feel like they can?

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  37. Years ago KUOW was great. Classical music and NPR/local news. Then they dropped classical music in favor of "talk radio." Now they have watered down talk radio. There's no reason for KUOW any more.

    We have KPLU for jazz and NPR/some local news. And the BEST THING TO HAPPEN IN YEARS is KING-FM becoming Listener Supported. Now we can mix KPLU and KING-FM as mood and need change.

    THERE'S NO REASON FOR kuow ANY MORE.

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  38. When national programs are so readily available, either on KPLU or streaming on a smartphone, there is no excuse for the lack of local programming.

    The huge surpluses and opulent studios of KUOW should be a scandal, and there is no reason for anyone to give a penny to the station until they get their priorities figured out.

    And yes, mid-level managers are the scourge of community radio everywhere. These sad people get caught up in the bubble of trade magazines and conventions, and think they know what is best for our city. The same sort of people have also ruined KBCS.

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  39. KPLU has a good signal, even in north Puget Sound. By the way (and off topic), what happened to once great KCTS?
    It's all infomercials.

    It seems that all public stations devolve into feed troughs for their management. What is Hansen's salary?

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  40. After being a subscriber and listener since 1982, I stopped listening to KUOW earlier this year, as I became fed up with the incessant "underwriting" advertisements, and the shallow sound-bite style local "reporting" that makes FOX News reporters look like penultimate examples of thorough and unbiased journalism.

    There are still some excellent public radio stations around and they can be found streaming on the Internet. That Seattle should be saddled with such a lame, unimaginative, commercialized version of public radio is a real shame.

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  41. I agree with the sentiment of this posting. I have noticed that my listening of KUOW has dropped substantially, especially since Weekday was stopped. Now I just listen to NPR podcasts and haven't donated to KUOW in 2 years (I used to donate regularly). "The Takeaway" is awful!

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  42. Something else I noticed: KUOW now "slices and dices" NPR content and (annoyingly) repeats these short segments 3 times a day in their programming mash-ups. I could almost set my watch to them: one in the AM, same one mid day and ditto late afternoon. I switched to the online NPR feed and other local public stations, which carry stuff like Thom Hartman and Democracy Now....

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  43. I listen to one show on KUOW and that is "Week In Review" on Fridays. Everything else I get directly from the source (WNYC, KCRW, etc) and give directly to them. If KUOW wants me to listen, then they need to provide a "value add" to the national NPR content.

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  44. Recently met a former All Things Considered producer and program director who feels that that show too has become "sound bitey". She now works in community radio. That is likely the future for local programming.

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  45. I've only began recently listening to NPR on a daily basis for hours at a time while doing course work for about a year now and am curious why KUOW's move to more national news away from local segments is such a bad thing. I can understand why one can be aggravated on the shortened segment lengths, and I myself would love if more afternoon segments ran longer, but I'm curious why people are upset about the ebbing of local segments.

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  46. My challenge with both KUOW and with you is your quote, "public radio should serve the community by providing programming of importance to its listeners that commercial outlets would not consider. ... where ideas can be discussed and examined."
    Commercial outlets typically go where the interest (and therefore money) is. The trouble with your quote is that public radio tends to be a left-side echo chamber. True, it discusses ideas important to the few remaining... left-wing... listeners, but not to the population as a whole. Progressive ideas can be discussed, but other than to be dismissed, moderate and conservative ideas are not.
    As with any echo chamber, this is largely a self-selection problem. It's not just that alternative ideas get screened out, but that people with those other perspectives don't go near the place. So I'm not saying it's really KUOW's or your problem. But maybe public-funded radio is no longer a valuable, at least compared to the resource cost, service given the apparent inability for it to be useful to much of the community.

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  47. As a listener for decades, I long for the in-depth discussions and listener participation that brought me knowledgeable voices on important topics. Some of those discussions changed my life. Now KUOW teases with short pieces that can't cover issues comprehensively and replays these short features ad nauseum. I am a print journalist. I was not impressed with Steve Sher's interview skills, but his shows brought important local and national voices and offered listeners the chance to question and to contribute. The new format doesn't challenge the brain. Please bring back the KUOW that fed us and engaged us.

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  48. We are witnessing the end of a paradigm. Local radio is getting too expensive to produce, and all the sour grapes over how this station is trying to survive financially will not change that. Also consider that being non-profit does not mean that they can't make money - in fact they must. If they fail to make more than they take in, they will die. Then you have two stations competing against each other for the same diminishing audience, and you have a perfect storm.

    In the end, you must support your art. Pay for it or lose it. Expecting people who will never listen to the station to pay for it is another failing paradigm. Add in the crazy rules that "public" stations must obey in their on air advertising (they can't even call it that) and you can see the sinking ship that is public radio in Seattle. Listen to it while you still can, if you can stand to watch the death throes of a once great idea that turned out to be a terrible business plan.

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  49. I was at a KUOW board meeting several months ago when Mr. Hansen gave his presentation to the board on the programming changes. Apparently they hired a consultant to help revamp their programming. One of the things they discovered is that you really can't increase the amount of time spent listening per occurrence. The vast majority of listeners only listen for a few minutes at a time. That's what drove the format change. What stations CAN do is get people to listen more often. This is why they tease upcoming segments 20 minutes or so in advance. Mr. Hansen was pretty optimistic that the programming changes would increase their ratings.

    Of course, in the back of my mind, I wondered if ratings was really the right measure of success for a non-commercial station like KUOW. On the one hand, RF spectrum is a finite resource, so it makes sense to try and serve as many people as possible. On the other hand, if everyone tries to do what's popular, you end up with shallow programming. I'm sure NPR could easily boost their ratings with more celebrity coverage.

    What non-comm stations should do is try to maximize public benefit. Ratings do not necessarily reflect this, but until there's a way to measure true public benefit, stations will be lured by the quantitative attractiveness of ratings.

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  50. Unknown and Michael,
    Jeff Hansen has made the mistake of thinking that public radio is all about chasing ratings. That is fundamentally wrong. And both public radio stations are getting plenty of financial support from its listeners..that is really not the issue. The question is about their role and how they serve the community.

    I really can't believe the stats that everyone is listening for a few minutes. That is obviously not true. Many of public radio on in their cars, while they do errands around the house, while they take a walk, etc.

    ..cliff

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  51. I recently sent a letter to KUOW in response to their request for feedback about "Week In Review". It wasn't my first critique of their format change. The following is part of what I wrote:

    "Dear KUOW programming staff:

    I didn’t know about Steve Scher’s resignation until I read the article about it in Crosscut. Week in Review was one of the few local programs left that I enjoyed. That and Vaughn Palmer, but since KUOW shortened his segment, when I want to hear “news from Canada”, I listen to them on the web, when it’s convenient.

    Since your format change which eliminated Weekday, To the Point, and The Conversation from your morning/early afternoon lineup, I hardly listen to KUOW anymore; this after being a compulsive morning listener for over 15 years.

    'The Takeaway' and 'Here and Now' seem like more “churn” of stuff I’d just heard about on Morning Edition or All Things Considered.

    KUOW has no substantive “local voice” in the morning anymore, so there’s little reason to tune in. “The Record” at noon is a poor substitute for 2 hours of Weekday.
    Blowing up your morning programming (and The Conversation) for The Record’s format and content was a mistake, IMO ... your format and content now seem geared to people with ADHD ... you’ve claimed that 'people listen differently' now, which sounds like trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. If you weren’t meeting your pledge goals, I could understand it.

    One of the reasons I valued KUOW’s morning programming is that I could always count on meaty info. I valued the great guest interviews; the regular topics on certain days (Week in Review, the gardening segment, News from Canada etc); even the pre-emptions for live extended coverage – like elections and the supreme court confirmation hearings. During election time, the interviews with local candidates were priceless. The Conversation’s topics also helped me think through a lot of local issues.

    I feel we’ve lost a community resource. Most of the time, unless I happen to tune into KUOW at a time which matches my syndicated broadcasting preferences, I just tune in to their websites directly, including NPR.

    I think you need to poll your listenership to see if you should be re-thinking a lot more than what to do about Week In Review.

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  52. A very simple step KUOW could take would be one that'd cost pretty much nothing: interview and/or prepare short, medium-length, and long items about UW research: talk to faculty members about what they know, and would be happy to tell listeners about.
    That would be something that could readily extend beyond UW, and could be emulated around the country by stations in the region of the 3800 other universities and colleges of North America.
    But don't hold your breath. Part of the syndrome of the cadre that has installed itself in community and nonprofit radio management is that its member "know best." One famously said "No one knows jazz radio better than I do" as a justification for abusing one of the rare cultural institutions that claims to represent the art form and that fraudulently claims to its not-necessarily-discerning or -jazz-conversant audience that "this is jazz, and whatever anyone else tries to tell you, they don't know what I know."
    Such is the arrogance – and terminal misuse – of a valuable cultural resource whose end approaches unless revitalized and cleansed of the self-satisfying and -prioritizing drones who predominate in running and ruining it now.
    But, to repeat: They won't listen. That's just not part of the sorry mentality.

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  53. Unknown said: "I feel we’ve lost a community resource. Most of the time, unless I happen to tune into KUOW at a time which matches my syndicated broadcasting preferences, I just tune in to their websites directly, including NPR."

    Exactly. Websites. The cost of producing web content is an order of magnitude less that producing the same content and broadcasting the same to the air. Radio - at least local radio - is dead. Sorry, but the fans of local radio have failed to support it. Combine that with public radio rules that limit the ability of these stations to monetize their content with ads, has sealed their doom.

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  54. I wrote this email to KUOW's management last September and got no response Subject: The take away, here and now and nowhere in particular

    Sadly, I'm no longer a morning listener to KUOW. I have tried, but it's over.
    Way too much national news, regurgitation of the national news and serving up cold portions of the soup du jour of world news and politics.

    I miss Weekday and particularly Steve Scher. In my opinion Weekday was the heart of KUOW and local broadcast in Seattle from the perspective of Seattlites and the greater Puget Sound. You obviously have killed the goose after a slow death over the last two years of changing up the structure to work in 10-20 minute fragments.

    There is nothing wrong with an hour discussion with the same guest. It's all moving too fast and going nowhere. You are pacing yourselves into irrelevancy. Look at what has happened to CNN. I fear that KUOW and NPR are making the same mistakes.

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  55. Listeners are to be congratulated for being hesitant to support stations that use so much of the money to employ more and more people to do less and less that is thoughtful, and more and more that is fed them by the loathsome national community broadcasting associations, their reductive and inappropriate market research, and the mind-shrinking workshops in which they train the yahoos in the provinces to emulate their statistical absurd use of polling whose margin of error > the stations' listenerships. Middlebrow. Middle-class. Middling inane. If a university as a whole adopted such approaches, it would risk losing its accreditation.

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  56. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  57. It may or may not be true that people only listen for a few minutes at a time. That's certainly what Arbitron reports, but there might be some sampling bias there.

    For those who aren't aware of how radio ratings are measured these days, in major markets they're done using what Arbitron calls Portable People Meters. These are pager-sized devices that you wear all day. They pick up imperceptible codes embedded in radio programming. There's a gamification aspect to it to encourage people to wear them continuously. Still, people using headphones might not use them properly, there might be some bias in how Arbitron picks their panelists, etc.

    What's really needed is a new way for non-comms to evaluate their success, preferably in a value-neutral way. You could imagine defining "success" as some sort of political change, but that would make conservatives even more irate , and really the goal should be to inform and encourage discussion, not persuade. There's been somewhat related work out of UW on value-sensitive design, such as consider.it. But I'd really like to see someone come up with a way for public radio stations to evaluate their contribution to their communities that don't depend solely on ratings.

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  58. I just want to quote and applaud what Anonymous said at 12:12am on June 19: "...praising an annual operating loss and possibly inadequate reserves does a disservice to quality nonprofit fundraising and management. There is absolutely no reason to encourage nonprofits to operate on the edge of financial failure." You may be right about many of KUOW's failings, Cliff, but I am disappointed by your perpetuation of the stereotype that nonprofits are irresponsible if they aren't constantly on the verge of financial disaster.

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  59. Thel's objection makes sense, but perpetuates another myth: that nonprofits are under some sort of mandate to operate at as large a budget as they possibly can, as a priority. That's a sign of having been sucked into the commercial model (which pervasively pollutes nonprofit radio management thinking). Nonprofit managers' always face an optimization challenge, where budget size is variable along with other factors. In general, they need to manage a manageable level of activity, one that may entail a smaller budget rather than larger, with a smaller or less-expensive staff rather than larger. KUOW and other public/community stations based at (and answerable to) (and dependent on the patronage of) educational institutions might include, in their optimizations, such factors as serving a broadly educational role. But, as anyone who looks at operations can see, empire building (although of a petty variety) almost always tops radio managers' priorities, albeit generally self-unawares – they seem to forget they are managers, not directors, so indulge themselves, as Cliff Mass observes may be occurring at KUOW now. Alternatively, they might minimize on-air pitching and advertising in favor of maximizing the kinds of factors educational institutions should. That might mean reaching a smaller audience more richly, rather than a larger one more cravenly, indulgently, and self-indulgently. It might mean being managers rather than directors. That would not be "elitist," merely educational and responsive to having been granted public airspace for a particular purpose.

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  60. I see many interesting comments, capsulizing the condition of media in the US. I wound up here from the KRAB Radio Facebook page. That was my background in radio. For those of you who do not know, when all is said and done, the licensee is responsible for their broadcast stations, and your donations for radio are ultimately to the benefit of the licensee, in this case, as the UW Board of Regents. They own KUOW (AM) Tumwater, and KUOW-FM Seattle. UW also operates UWTV which you can see via free to air satellite dish and on many cable systems. UWTV has the lecture and local content many of you crave. Besides the existing radio stations mentioned in the above comments, I see you will soon enough, have even more FM band options. Seattle University has a permit to build a new LPFM on 102.1, and find a few other new Seattle LP community stations are on target for FCC permits, such as Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority for 98.5. All that said, I do note the comment about consultants. Over the last few years I have heard a lot of nasty things said about those CPB sanctioned consultants. And from what I read, complaints about KWOW fall right in line. Do your own fact checking if you wish. I do not consider myself sufficiently informed to comment further.

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  61. Thanks for this detailed post. My wife and I were unhappy when you were "fired" and we're both more unhappy having now read this post. We no longer listen to KUOW for all the reasons you and some commentators have mentioned. We financially support KCBS, KPLU and King.fm. KUOW always seemed over staffed and over anxious in their pledge drives. I just don't know what to make of them. We haven't listened in ages. Thanks.

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  62. I'll agree that KUOW has taken a turn for the worse, but for different reasons. The Record is a HORRIBLEAND THEN AGAIN THE NEXT DAY!!!

    I listen to NPR stations for impartial insight and some background on what's going on in my country and my world. I don't give a s#!t about some young-adult novel author or what she read when she was 15, and I certainly don't need to hear 30 minutes of her.

    Bring back To The Point during the day! I know Warren Olney leans to the left a little (so do I), but at least he gets informative guests and has informative and substantive topics.

    And I don't really mind the pledge drive stuff. I'd rather hear that than advertisements any day. I'm a KUOW member and proud of it.

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  63. Cliff, I sympathize with your frustrations but I have to ask: as a scientist, you expect decisions to be made based on data. Do you really think Hansen's decisions are not based on data?

    When people talk about ratings, they usually just imagine the overall "#3 in Seattle" stuff. But TV and radio stations have much more information than that. For example, I expect Hansen knows how popular or unpopular Scher's program was, and among what demographics, and that he made a decision on that basis. If Scher's ratings were declining faster than the station's average decline, that would make it a notable outlier that deserves redress.

    Likewise, when he describes the short-segment listening habits of their audience, I would also expect that to be based on data. Your counter to that is entirely anecdotal — because it doesn't match with your personal listening habits, you reject the idea.

    This is bad science, Cliff. You may disagree with Hansen's response to the data. But you should be open minded enough to consider that his decisions are made for good reasons and that your preferences may simply be a minority viewpoint among the KUOW audience. Certainly the number of people complaining on Facebook is about as unscientific as you can get.

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  64. John Tynes,
    KUOW programming decisions should not be ALL about ratings. This is not a commercial radio station. KUOW should be serving the interests of the local area and the UW. Ironically, by chasing ratings, Jeff Hansen has made decisions that has in the end alienated listeners and reduced the ratings....cliff

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