Last weekend I sat down for coffee with newly-former KUOW host Steve Scher. He told me all about his plans to finish a romantic-comedy novel. He told me all about how turning 60 earlier this year helped focus his perspective, motivating him to quit the job he held for 28 years and strike out for “the writer’s life.” He told me all about how the decision was more about him than the direction of the public radio station he’d become synonymous with.
Still, it was clear that the direction KUOW had taken under KUOW Programming Director Jeff Hansen - moving toward shorter, more digestible programming, akin to what listeners have come to expect from the station’s morning shows - had at least helped his decision. (Over at Crosscut, David Brewster referred to Hansen as “Scher’s chief philosophical rival at the station.”)
“I didn’t say ‘This is the day’ until I said, ‘This is the day,’” Scher told me of his decision to leave KUOW. “There’s a little bit of immaturity in that, but that’s what it was. I just realized that, ‘This is the day [to leave].’
“I’ve been doing daily deadline radio journalism 28 years,” he continued. “Every day we had a show to do, and we had to fill that time. And I wanted it to be good, and interesting and informative. That was our goal every day. That’s a long time to be doing that.”
How did Scher feel like he fit in under KUOW’s revised approach.
“Over 28 years, you build a skill set in one direction,” he explained of his desire to do more long-form, thoughtful local programming. “It wasn’t a fit for me. [Pursuing writing] became more important - that push to get the work done that was in my heart. ... That just became the most important thing.”
You believe Scher when he tells you he left Seattle public radio because he’s getting old and wants to try writing before it’s too late. It’s also easy to believe Hansen when he tells you rating indicate listeners tune in more to “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered”-style content.
But you at least have to listen to someone like meteorologist Cliff Mass - who was famously (and controversially) fired by Scher after putting in nearly 15 years at KUOW - when he publishes a lengthy blog post proclaiming that the station is “in deep trouble.” Mass calls the path for KUOW charted under Hansen an “ill-advised approach guaranteed to damage a major local radio station,” and says the programming director “seems determined to run the KUOW train off the track.”
(Having spoken with Hansen on background prior to my interview with Scher last week, I can say with certainty that he’d strongly disagree with Mass’ assessment. He’s adamant that all programming decisions are being made at KUOW in response to “what listeners are telling us.”)
Mass simply offers one well-known meteorologist’s opinion, of course, so do with his blog post - which started bouncing around the Internet yesterday - what you will. But it’s worth noting that he does take the opportunity to describe his firing by Scher, and Hansen’s subsequent reaction to it - using the interaction to paint a picture of a stubborn station willing to risk relationships with known on-air personalities in pursuit of a new vision and ratings goal.
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 admission’s 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. ...
What to make of all this? While it’s not yet clear whether Hansen’s approach will pay off in the end for KUOW, it’s becoming increasingly clear that many in Seattle - Cliff Mass now included - aren’t particularly keen on it.