June 22, 2011

KUOW and Its Listeners

Note: One month ago my 5-minute weekly weather segment was cancelled on the UW public radio station after doing it for 15 years. The reason--I would not absolutely guarantee never to talk about anything other than the weather forecast. I had an earlier blog describing the lead up to this situation: http://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2011/05/no-more-weather-on-kuow-weekday.html This blog provides more information. My next blog will be back to weather!

Its been a month since Steve Scher ended my weather segment on KUOW, so I thought it was time to provide some reflections on the incident.

As I will describe below, the importance of KUOW's actions extends far beyond the five minutes of weather information I provided each week ... the termination itself, the interactions before it, and the troubling reaction of KUOW afterwards says a great deal about the management of KUOW and their responsiveness to their listeners.

Some of you suggested that I simply forget about the whole thing---the few minutes I had each week were a relatively small part of my life, I have my
blog, and it will by easy for me to find another radio station to work with. But those five minutes were of importance to a great number of you (based on the reaction that still amazes me) and the actions of KUOW reveals so much about what KUOW has become. There are serious issues that need to be addressed, and I will discuss a number of them in this and subsequent blogs. I suspect one reason that the reaction was so substantial was that many intuitively sensed that there was something very wrong when a public radio station removed an individual for having a different view of the nature of public radio then a program host---public radio is supposed to be all about airing of divergence views and the program advertises itself as a venue for such animated conversations. And perhaps there were other misgiving about changes in KUOW that this incident gave people the freedom to discuss.

The whole situation is in many ways surreal---the initiator for the whole firing was my (a UW professor) defending UW admission's policy with facts agreed to by the UW Dean of Admissions on the UW's public radio station on an opinion show--Week in Review. Not math education as claimed by some KUOW press releases. Folks, it doesn't get more bizarre than this.

One of the most striking aspects of my situation with KUOW was the lack of interest in what listeners wanted and cared for. During my discussions with Weekday Host Steve Scher and his producer Katy Sewall they opined that my talking about math/science education (always with their permission I add) were somehow inconsistent with KUOW’s “journalistic principles” and that my segment would end if I ever talked about such subjects again. I countered with a number of arguments (like the fact that Rick Steves and many other regulars talk about all sort of things) but they were adamant. I asked them about the needs and wishes of the listeners, who obviously liked both the weather and other topics. They didn’t care. And I agreed never to talk about those education matters and never did again.

Now this disinterest in listeners wishes became even more obvious after the “firing.” Five thousand signatures, several thousand emails, and one-side polls by the Stranger (only 8% of roughly 1500 people agreed with the dismissal), and thousands of friends on Facebook pages asking for my return—it didn’t matter to KUOW. I talked to Jeff Hansen, the program director a few days after my release. I asked him explicitly—wouldn’t all that feedback be reason for us to sit down and figure out an approach whereby my weather segment could be saved, perhaps with another host. He said no—it did not matter (in fact he noted that explicitly on a statement he put up on their web site, which they changed a few days later!). I asked, if there were 10,000 or 20,000 signatures, would that change his mind?…..he said no. The number of listener supporters did not matter. That really took me aback—this from the Program Director of OUR local public radio station.

A day later I was interviewed by KUOW’s Debra Wong, who was doing a “news” story on my firing (this seemed really inappropriate to me—and the final story WAS highly skewed). During the interview we talked about the huge listener reaction to my firing and she asked---“Why should KUOW care?—a few thousand listeners are only a small proportion of our weekly audience” I was really shocked by this comment….and you could tell she really meant it.

She also told me something else--- an analogy given by Steve Scher when she interviewed him. Steve said the program was like a house---his house. When a guest acted badly, it was very reasonable to kick him out. (Its interesting that she didn’t mention this statement on her radio segment). But I think Steve's analogy was not a good one. This house is owned by the University of Washington. The people (renters) who live in the house and PAY ALL THE BILLS are the listeners and sponsors. Steve is more like the gardener, who is paid by the renters to keep one section of the house (the garden) pleasant to look at. He is an employee—someone who has been tending the garden for a LONG time and likes it a certain way. Now what about me? Originally I was brought in by gardener Steve to do something special in a section of the garden (for free!). The owners really liked it and befriended me. And when I wanted to alter my plot a bit in a way the old gardener was not comfortable with, well you know what has happened. Now how do you think the residents will take it when their EMPLOYEE ejects their friend and tills over the garden section they had grown to love?

I have learned that KUOW is an organization that does not answer to anyone. The UW has a hands-off policy and will not intervene. I know this, because I asked the relevant UW official to intercede before the firing and he said UW would not. I asked Wayne Roth's help (he is the CEO of KUOW), he refused. The KUOW board is a figurehead organization---emails to them by many listeners and myself were never answered.

KUOW doesn’t even have to worry about money. Did you know they had roughly one million dollar surpluses each of the past two years? (see their annual report) If KUOW needs more cash they simply extend the pledge drive or get more “sponsors” for program segments. You notice that some programs now have multiple sponsors and that they increasingly sound like commercials (“this program is sponsored by Joe’s Jaguar who is now selling the new 2011 model with the new hybrid engine and is available for leasing. For more information go to www.JoesJaguar.com). Sound familiar? And multi-week pledge breaks are non-stop commercials for KUOW. This is not commercial-free radio. And saying so is not being factual. As all of you know, the number of money requests on air, in the mail, by email, and on their website has gotten out of hand. They have very, very nice digs they built a decade ago and a very large staff.

Well, enough for this blog. My next blog on this topic (probably next week) will talk about KUOW's misinformation campaign and some suggestions on how KUOW can be changed to serve the critical community role it should.

Several community-created social media sites discuss some of these issues:



and of course there are the KUOW and Weekday Facebook sites


  1. Just think what would happen if Nancy Pearl started talking about illiteracy? Or reading comprehension in our schools?

  2. Cliff, I hate to say this, but follow the money. Where's the money coming from, and just as importantly, where is it going. Just from what you've said, Something is Going On over there, and folks deserve to know about it....

    Also, document, document, document. (you're a prof, you're already doing this, but somebody else might be, too...) Who knows, you could do like Woodward and write a book on it.

  3. Wow. Seeing it laid out like this brings the word hubris to mind. Maybe the KUOW mgmt needs to sit down with other station managers and get a sense of how challenging it can be without an audience as generous and loyal as KUOW's. Million dollar surpluses are probably not all that common in the public radio space. And to think how little original programming comes out of KUOW, with the Seattle art scene and the UW right at hand, is perplexing.

    What's really behind all this? Who makes the decisions and who, at KUOW, pays the consequence, besides the listeners?

  4. We used to be large donors to KUOW, but have now stopped, in part due to the large number of commercials on their broadcast and in part due to concerns about mismanagement of the organization.

    We do continue to donate to other public radio stations including KPLU and KEXP.

  5. I'm sure your weather commentary is unsurpassed on radio, and the listeners in general strongly want your views on an even broader range of topics than you offered them.

    However, your slash-and-burn approach of blasting KUOW from individuals, to the influence of UW, to public fund-raising, to corporate sponsorships, to impugning declining support (but surpluses, and how are other radio stations doing?) seems out of proportion for what looks to me a toxic personality conflict, particularly as you have alternative venues and the capability to ratchet up your influence with these new and popular podcasts.

    We've all run into apparently irrational situations that are extremely frustrating, but most forestall destructive public attacks, here on a valuable institution for our campus and town. Many would like to eviscerate public radio, separating it from its public and its funding sources, but we are not similar to most such people.

    Move forward - talk of rapproachement after these fusillades are likely unproductive.

  6. Anyone who is an adult might want to think about why you need the news read to you anyway. This seems a very passive way to take in information about the world. Same for TV news of course.

    KUOW seems to be about lulling its listeners to sleep with righteous liberal outrage (the safe kind that leads to no action). When has a story ever sparked social change that came out of public radio?

  7. I was a long time donor to KUOW until this recent SNAFU with the Professor. It was the last straw for my wife and I. KUOW has essentially stagnated for the past decade. Their orginial content are basically low-cost call-in shows. The more entertaining hosts ( talent) like Bill Radke and John Moe have moved on and we are left with the worst of the "Seattle Consesus Coalition", a tepid center-left, corporatist echo chamber.

    I am saving my money for KPLU, KEXP, C-89, and heck even now the newly-Public KING FM. These stations, to me, serve the public interest better then the pledge-sucking NPR relay station on the Ave...

  8. Theoretically, since KUOW is part of the University of Washington, isn't it also supported in part by Washington taxpayers as well as listener subscribers?

    The only thing worth listening to on KUOW it seems are the NPR programs (mostly the comedy ones) - and many of these can be simply streamed from elsewhere or downloaded as podcasts from iTunes. I rarely tune in KUOW now. It will be interesting to see how they do during their next pledge drive after all of this!

    It was great to hear you on KPLU the other day! Also, great podcast!


  9. When I receive a solisitation from KUOW noq I will write across the form "Bring back Cliff Mass" and send it back with out a contribution.

  10. Nice. Scher and Company will particuarly appreciate the bit about KUOW being $1 million in the black each of the last two years. I'm sure they want that information easily available to the donating public....

    I've become a KPLU guy, myself. Less chaff.

    But from time to time I tune in to KUOW, only to hear things like "This program brought to you commercial free by Jaguar, who invites you to try their new XJ sedan...."

  11. Although this is disappointing, it is not surprising. The UW holds two very rare and valuable things in the radio frequencies it allows KUOW and KEXP to broadcast over - but it seems completely oblivious to the responsibility it holds in owning them.

    When I was a student I was involved in the real student-run radio station Rainydawg.org. Why .org? Because there are no frequencies for the station to broadcast over, and instead it is stuck online only. Meanwhile KEXP uses the UW's frequency with nary even an acknowledgement that they owe their entire existence to the UW (except of course when they are sending out pledge requests and they use the UW stationary). And recently the UW voted to extend KEXP's use of the frequency for another 30 years, leaving their real constituency - the students - completely out of it.

  12. Agree with the money comments, but more along the lines of voting with my money. If Cliff's separation is the only thing you disagree with in the running of KUOW, reduce your pledge by whatever amount of utility they've removed. If you have more issues with them than that, vote with your feet/money.

    I wish there were more options in the area for primarily news radio, but the pickings in the region are slim.

  13. What an unfortunate circumstance. If the arrogance of KUOW doesn't amuse, the irony sure does... Direct from Steve Scher's bio on the kuow.org site:

    "About Steve Scher: Steve Scher came to KUOW as a graduate work–study student in 1986... Over the years, as a producer and host, Steve has had the opportunity to talk with senators, poets, presidents, a princess and a duke, but no one has taught him as much about human nature as have the KUOW listeners.

  14. Cliff, I have followed you for years on this blog and the radio. I greatly appreciate your educational weather forecasts. I bought your book.

    I understand your frustrations, but I also understand Steve's perspective and the termination. This blog post quickly turns into KUOW bashing, and in my opinion gets away from the relatively simple differences in journalistic opinion. You risk sounding a bit whiny and somewhat of a sore loser. I hope you can move forward, find a new station for your forecast, and continue to educate the public about our weather.

  15. What an unfortunate situation for everyone. If the arrogance of KUOW doesn't amuse, the irony certainly must... I wonder what Steve must be "learning"...

    From the KUOW.ORG site bio for Steve:

    "Steve Scher came to KUOW as a graduate work–study student in 1986. He stayed because of the quality of stories being produced and the intelligence of his peers and the listeners. Over the years, as a producer and host, Steve has had the opportunity to talk with senators, poets, presidents, a princess and a duke, but no one has taught him as much about human nature as have the KUOW listeners."

  16. Saw a good bumper sticker: We don't care, We don't have to- we're KUOW!

  17. Dear Cliff,

    The KUOW ?

    Let. It. Go.

    This is a change and therefore an opportunity.

  18. John,
    I appreciate your advice of letting it go, but my goal now is not returning to KUOW, but join a growing group of people who would like to change it. If I let it go, it remains the same and it should not...cliff

  19. I appreciate the clarity with which you've described your relationship and interactions with KUOW.

    However, nothing you've said - and nothing said by KUOW - explains why your segment was terminated.

    Sure, I've heard the explanations about mixing editorial commentary on education with weather commentary. It's impossible to give credence to these claims - really, they're just goofy.

    I'm not prone to conspiracies, but surely there's something else going on that has not been revealed...personality clashes, UW politics, or something. Who knows? But things aren't as they seem.

    And since things aren't as they seem, and since KUOW has repeatedly led listeners astray on this issue (describing your termination as a "departure," for example), I plan no longer to support KUOW. And I will follow the lead of an earlier commentator and return printed solicitations with an appropriate sentiment.

    In the meantime, I encourage you to report on this blog about the real reasons for your termination. Thank you.

  20. You are so right, Cliff in everything you described so clearly and it is important to fight on to get some change from the arrogant behavior of KUOW.

  21. From what we can read here and on facebook etc. there seems a high correlation of the ones least understanding the issues siding with KUOW and it's incompetent board - and the better informed people siding with your cause.

  22. "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."
    - Orwell

    Sic semper ex "progressivism"...


  23. "And I agreed never to talk about those education matters and never did again."

    This is new information for me; Barry is on to something, something we don't yet know about.

    Some years ago a new ratings-crazed King-TV Big Kahuna fired Jeff Renner. But later on, a Poobah weighed heavily in and Jeff returned after a decent interval. King-TV is a business. KUOW is Plutocracy of Intolerant Seattle Liberals, the same ones who just voted to lease the state's liquor wholesale monopoly as a legislative emergency. I thought Cliff was getting blown away when his analysis of math gradients in public education became radioactive among the plutocrats. Really, a weatherman of all sorts should be able to forecast without ever being wrong the result of relieving himself into a very strong wind. Perhaps the nomenklatura reasoned Cliff would remain unreformed and critical of public education. Galileo bowed to the Inquisition when the Church found heliocentrics was heresy but some years later he defended his thesis, was tried by the Inquisition, was forced to recant, and then entered lifetime house arrest. I guess Galileo had tenure, just like Cliff.

  24. One could also sum it up as:

    KUOW wanted to JUST have a weather segment.

    You (Cliff) wanted to have a weather segment, but could not guarantee to keep it at that.

    KUOW did not want that, dismissed you, and got a new guy who JUST does the weather.

    Honestly, Friday's aren't that different. A guy comes on and talks about NW weather. A little education mixed in. Done.

    I think the way KUOW went about handling the whole situation (too informal, trading emails?) exposes some of the more important weaknesses in their operation. As you point out, they're a big, psuedo-corporate operation. Not some dog-and-pony local radio station. There needs to be a formal process for this kind of stuff. Maybe that would include some sort of public commenting period, or whatever, but at least a place to properly work through the issues each party has.


  25. I have to agree with Barry that it seems like something else may have spurred this on, Cliff, but you may never find out what it is.

    As a former journalist, I had to lock horns with some education "professionals" in this state (school superintendents and ESD superintendents). Some of these people were the most petty, rude, manipulative, insecure, and unprofessional people I have ever met. I have been hung up on, screamed at, and threatened.

    I have to wonder if that culture of insecurity might be partially responsible for what happened to you. Lots of money and lots of jobs are involved in any big curriculum changes, as you know. And, frankly, you are the worst kind of enemy--a charismatic, knowledgeable speaker who already has a wide and loyal audience. You'll forgive me the expression, but "perfect storm" comes to mind.

    I teach English at a community college now, and I'm shocked at how low my students are--I can't even use three-syllable words with most of my students. You folks in the math and science fields are right to sound the alarm. We all should be.

  26. Seems quite ironic that a private corporation is making the decisions on this, it may be "public radio" but it is not publicly controlled radio. Well that is unless the self appointed board actually decides to take a good look at what's going on. My guess is as long as the station brings the money in no one will do anything to upset their echo chamber at KUOW.



    FYI: There is a public board meeting on July 7th.

  27. Well I must tell you when my anual pledge envelope came today I told them no more till Cliff is back on...a small effort but I felt it needed to be made.

    Cheers Cliff

  28. While I salute your desire and intention to make people aware of what's behind the curtain at KUOW, I hope you'll reach a point where you can say "'nuff said" and move on. KUOW supporters should have the info you have conveyed so they can knowingly choose where to put their money. But I and so many others long ago gave up on what was once a really good station. Steve Scher and the rest of them have dumbed it down so badly that it's pitiful, and even embarrassing to listen to. You need to be welcomed and fully appreciated in a setting where you can speak to the issues that are important to you (and many of us too). We need your voice on these issues, Cliff! Please don't waste your energy trying to change what isn't going to change, at least for now.

  29. I've worked for public radio. Whenever a program is discontinued or a favorite commentator leaves, there is a predictable uproar from the most vocal fans (in the management's eyes, a miniscule percentage of the station's listenership).

    Management's attitude is to let these fans vent and express their outrage and then put the episode behind as fast as possible. Soon the uproar subsides and the everyone moves on.

    The bottom line is that the station controls the content of its local programming. That being said, KUOW handled this whole affair in a remarkably poor way, leaving behind a lot of ill feelings. It's a sad commentary on the state of KUOW, but it's important to keep one's sense of perspective.

  30. J, Puffin and a few others giving me kindly advice---
    The question is not me wanting to go back to KUOW...it is too late for that. What I am interested in is changing KUOW. Some commented that this is not possible...well, I would like to give it a try. And the key to that is not simply going away like Puffin notes...that is what they expect and hope for. Several of us will have to keep it up...for years if necessary. If we don't do that KUOW will remain the same...that is pretty much guaranteed...cliff

  31. Just a thought...

    Maybe consider contacting Lars Larson? He lives in Vancouver, and has more pull when it comes to radio than anyone around here. Maybe, he'd give you a spot on his show, or get you help getting your own show? Best of luck and hope to hear you back in the radio business soon...

  32. I'd just as soon hear Cliff's side of things. I don't see any bashing going on, just some plain speaking. Truth will out. Name names. Folks can skip the commentary if they don't want to know what people care about behind the weather reports. But they really should want to know where their weather reports come from.

    There appears to be no radio station to serve either students OR faculty at UW. Instead we get radio by administrators for administrators. Weather is just one tiny piece. What a loss.

  33. A perfect elucidation of the topic. It's obvious that they are doing whatever they can to cement their decision in the minds of the public. I have to agree with others here: no matter how popular your segment was, or how right you are, or how many complain, there doesn't appear to be any solution that involves reinstating your segment. Someone at the top has decided to cut you out and is not going to change their mind. By reporting publicly on the topic, you have burned the bridges too, and have left no real avenue for reconciliation that doesn't involve an executive admitting they made a mistake and swallowing their pride. People in power do not do that.

    I don't think this battle is worth fighting anymore. By closing the door on this whole episode and using that energy to find new avenues for your talents, you retain your dignity and reveal them to be small-minded jerks. Instead of thinking of it as a defeat, think of it as an opportunity, even if has been forced upon you. Your listeners will follow, but more importantly, you might find thousands of new fans too.

    Personally, I only know you through this blog, where I receive an ongoing education in PacNW weather and don't mind if you stray off topic. Thanks for maintaining it!

  34. Reading your response about trying to change KUOW makes me wonder whether that battle is worth it. It sounds like the station has degraded and lost educated listeners--do you really want to make it your job to try and change it? What is the true likelihood that you can make a difference in that fight? Would it be better to spend your energy trying to improve science education and pursuing avenues for reporting on weather and climate? The decision is personal, obviously, but the former sounds like a bitter, discouraging battle where your efforts may be perceived as sour grapes, and the latter two options sound more meaningful, fruitful, and more likely to produce good results. Just my two cents :)

  35. Moveon.Cliff Trying to reform KUOW is like King Canute trying to reform the tide. KUOW is very corporate. It is not KBCS, with volunteer student hosts playing music they like. Comparing oneself to Rick Steves extolling the virtues of pot is a non-starter. Rick is a commodity, with his own show, and appears regularly on fund raisers. Knock out at the bell. Carl Sagan did not deign to wrestle with pigs (You both get dirty). Find a venue for your always entertaning and educational views on weather, climate and education, that tolerates contrarian viewpoints. The Masses will follow you.

  36. Cliff, I guess the deeper question is, Do you have some concrete ideas about what you want to do to try to generate change at the station? Do you have a specific strategy in mind that would attract other people in support of the effort?

  37. After reading Cliff's posts on this topic, and reading some of what KUOW has written, as well as their recent financial statements, I think this is a worthwhile fight. The station is partially funded by UW, which means that's our tax dollars being wasted, and that really makes me angry. I say we boycott the station (how long do you think the sponsors are going to stay interested if the audience disappears?), start attending the board meetings, contact our legislators to complain about the misuse of tax funds, and anything else we can think of to try to force the station to make some much-needed reforms.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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