The Best TV Station You're Not Watching

The motto of UWTV’s new line-up could be ‘Produce locally, broadcast globally’
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It’s not that people didn’t want to watch The State of the Prostate (Parts 1, 2 & 3) or Clearing up Controversies in Ankle Fracture Management. It’s just that that’s not all they wanted to watch when they tuned in years ago to Channel 27, the University of Washington’s noncommercial, educational TV station. The UW has been broadcasting since 1988, when it launched CableLearn, a station that allowed current and continuing-education students to catch up on missed classes or attend classes from home. It also offered scores of medical videos for laypeople as well as professionals, for those who have a more than a passing interest in root canals, say, or those who like to pass the time watching other people have knee-replacement surgery. This was a fine model at first; a top-tier local university sharing its wealth of knowledge with the community via cable television.

But this was before broadband and the Internet blew open the possibility of broadcasting more content to more households in the region. Suddenly, the university had a means of reaching out to the community; to use UWTV to help sing the praises of its faculty and programs to interested viewers not only locally, but all over the world. Now the university could easily blend academic content with an entertaining format in order to share its resources and tell its story.

“UWTV was seen as an underutilized asset,” says John Haslam, general manager at the station and a former media consultant and communications executive who worked on developing Comcast’s on-demand service, among other things. He was brought on board in 2009 as a consultant, then hired to help steer UWTV in a new direction. Haslam’s strategy—to help UWTV better connect with community—seems to have worked: Viewership has nearly doubled in the past three years, to 245,000 viewers per week. The station is now available to 1.2 million households in the state, via Comcast, and around the world, via satellite and online.

Compare this to other university-run TV stations, which may run as part of student coursework and not necessarily as a professional station. Stations that offer comparable programming, such as those at Brigham Young University (BYU-TV) and the University of California (UCTV) also put up strong audience numbers, but UWTV’s numbers are impressive relative to state population.

Haslam credits the jump in viewership to a few simple changes: “We established a more predictable schedule, and we worked hard to make people aware of UWTV.” It putting advertising on bus boards.” It used to be that a viewer tuned in and had to watch whatever medical procedure or collegiate sporting event was showing at the time, but now shows air in predictable slots, and the online archive allows viewers to catch up on missed programs. “The university tried to be more strategic in the type of program it produced,” says Haslam, by learning about viewer preferences and developing programs based on audience data, as mainstream television networks do.

One popular show that airs at Sundays at 9 p.m. (and then reruns; find show times and view back episodes of all programs at uwtv.org) is UW 360, a news magazine hosted by Carolyn Douglas, the former KING-TV anchor. This show features people and topics from the UW community—everything from scientists studying how to protect the local oyster industry to a profile of RAVEN, a new surgical robot. UW 360 was picked up in syndication by KOMO-TV and aired for 13 consecutive Saturdays in a prime 4:30 p.m. slot last spring, which Haslam says potentially puts it in front of 10 times more viewers.

Also added based on audience data were more live Husky sports events that were not being broadcast on other stations. For example, last year the station a more predictable schedule, and we worked hard to make people aware of used to be that a viewer tuned in and had to watch whatever medical procedure or collegiate sporting event was showing at the time, but now programs air in predictable slots, and the online archive allows viewers to catch up on missed programs. “The university tried to be more strategic in the type of programs it produced,” says Haslam, by developing programs based on audience preferences and data, as mainstream television networks do.

“UWTV is yet another opportunity to engage people in a dialogue,” he says. “It’s a virtual watercooler.”

One popular show that airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. is UW 360, a news magazine hosted by Carolyn Douglas, a former KING-TV anchor. This show features people and topics from the UW community—everything from scientists studying how to protect the local oyster industry to a profile of RAVEN, a new surgical robot. UW 360 was picked up in syndication by KOMO-TV and aired for 13 consecutive Saturdays in a prime 4:30 p.m. slot last spring, which Haslam says potentially put it in front of 10 times more viewers.

Also added based on audience data were live Husky sports events that were not being broadcast on other stations. The popular “Husky Classics,” an archive of classic games, was created to fulfill the public’s desire for more sports feature programming as a way to draw more viewers. Other new programming based on audience input include Fostering Leadership (Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m.), which presents interviews on business strategy with local business leaders in partnership with the Foster School of Business; and Backstory: The Filmmaker’s Vision, which invites local independent filmmakers to submit films. When films are chosen for broadcast, the filmmakers are interviewed on camera by Andrew Tsao, an associate professor in the School of Drama. Backstory (Saturdays at 9 p.m.) offers the kind of exposure most independent filmmakers can only dream about, and offers viewers the chance to see films that might not be available even at a film festival, such as Ellen Frick’s Another Side of Peace, a documentary about a bereavement group for Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost children in the ongoing conflict; or George’s Bag, a feature comedy written, produced and shot by UW students.

These successful new shows are a direct result of the station’s interest in airing what people want to see. “Some of our initial audience feedback noted that we did not have much programming in the way of arts and humanities,” says Tory Hernandez, UWTV’s communication and marketing specialist. “In response, we created both Backstory: The Filmmaker’s Vision and Chamber Dance (a presentation of past performances of the popular Chamber Dance series at Meany Hall). In addition, our business-focused programming was lacking, and we noticed a positive response after the Fostering Leadership program aired.”

Four Peaks, a monthly current-affairs show (first Tuesdays at 7 p.m.) that brings area activists, visionaries and storytellers together to discuss topics of local and global interest, is in many ways the most emblematic of the shift in thinking at the station. “Four Peaks is one of a number of shows that, together, have raised the awareness and popularity of the station,” says Hernandez. “As we bring in more programs that move away from the lecture format, we bring additional audiences who are curious about those subjects and more engaged with the station.”

Hanson Hosein, director of the UW’s Master of Communication in Digital Media Program, formerly with NBC News and MSNBC.com, began hosting the show in 2010 when it was known as Media Space, with programming specific to media and technology. That show was hugely successful, Hosein says, but the university wanted to widen its scope, to go beyond technology and look at the future of the region. The new Four Peaks format began airing in October 2011, bringing together innovative thinkers to encourage viewers to think more broadly about the region and its impact on the world. It’s like a televised version of the “idea sharing” gatherings popularized in Seattle by groups like Four Peaks, TEDxSeattle (Hosein is a co-organizer) and Ignite. Sometimes recorded in front of a live audience, Four Peaks encourages people to join the discussion via social media and periodic roundtable discussions. Recent topics have included “Hacking Edu,” which explores the relevance of the traditional university model in a time when so many classes are available for free online; and an exploration of the phenomenon of “Seattle nice.” “In the past three years, we have started showing compelling content that you can’t get anywhere else,” says Hosein.

Next up for the station is a Native American film series, Voices of the First Peoples, slated to begin this fall (Sundays at 7 p.m.). This will feature contemporary Native American films and interviews with their creators, produced in conjunction with the UW’s Department of American Indian Studies.

Also on the horizon—for those who still want to dive deep into academic territory—UWTV will offer a “cabled observatory” from the Ocean Observatories Initiative; footage from an axial seamount that has been installed on the ocean floor on the Juan de Fuca Plate. This will allow viewers access to all the data collected by UW geologists, biologists and environmentalists as they monitor climate change, ocean currents and changes to the sea’s ecosystem.

Both Haslam and Hosein agree that the UW’s support of Channel 27 not only presents the university in a favorable light, it engages the community and reaches out beyond local borders. Haslam points to the reason the programs have seen such a boost in viewership: “It’s local, it’s independent, the university is integral to the region, and there are thousands of people with connections to the area,” he says. Hosein points out that television continues to be a conversation leader, especially among young people who carry out those discussions via social media. “UWTV is yet another opportunity to engage people in a dialogue,” he says. “It’s a virtual watercooler.”

Are High-Rise Wood Buildings in Seattle's Future?

Are High-Rise Wood Buildings in Seattle's Future?

Is Seattle ready for high-rises built of wood after 80 years of concrete-and-steel buildings?
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When architect Joe Mayo walks into his office, he’s steeped in Seattle history. Mahlum Architects is located in Pioneer Square’s 1910 Polson Building, which served as a warehouse for gold mining equipment during the Klondike Gold Rush. Over the past 100 years, the building has also housed offices and artists’ lofts, and survived two arson fires. So it’s remarkable to see the original old-growth Douglas fir columns still rising from the floor and spanning the ceilings. “It creates a pretty amazing environment,” says Mayo.

Large buildings framed with wood from big trees were commonplace in Seattle and in other parts of the country in the early 1900s. But changing building codes and diminishing availability of large timber put an end to this style. Today, wood buildings are usually one- or two-story houses, while our apartments, hotels and office buildings are nearly all built from concrete and steel. The six-story Bullitt Center on Capitol Hill, which opened in 2013, is the first mid-rise building in Seattle constructed of wood in the past 80 years.

With the advent of a new wood building material called cross-laminated timber (CLT), it might one day become one of many such structures. Proponents say the benefits of building with CLT could be significant. CLT can be used to create buildings that are as tall as 30 stories (and beyond, some architects say) that are better for the environment and aesthetically pleasing, and can be quickly built, help create jobs in economically depressed regional timber towns and are as long-lasting as other buildings. Some research even suggests that wooden buildings offer health benefits for occupants.

Mayo says the material makes sense for our region. “Architecture should feel like it’s a part of a place,” he says. “We’re in the great Northwest, with some of the tallest trees in the world and the best timber in the country, and we have a long history of building with wood.”

But while building codes in Europe and in some other countries have changed to embrace the new material, and CLT buildings as tall as 10 stories are in use in Australia and London, U.S. building codes lag behind. Seattle recently became the first city to allow the use of CLT in construction, but that use is currently limited to five stories for residential buildings and six stories for office buildings.

“The City is open to proposals on larger buildings, but we do have to verify that fire safety and seismic issues have been addressed in the designs,” says Bryan Stevens, spokesperson for the City of Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections. That’s because, while these issues have been resolved for buildings in other parts of the world, the U.S. requires domestic testing if building codes are to change.

Washington State University is one participant in a multi-institutional program with the National Science Foundation and the Network of Earthquake Engineering Simulation that is testing how mass timber systems like CLT fare in earthquakes. Hans-Erik Blomgren, a structural engineer in the Seattle offices of the international engineering firm Arup who is a participant in the research program, believes engineers can solve this puzzle. “There’s no technical reason we shouldn’t be designing a building with this material,” he says.

U.S. fire codes have also long prevented the use of combustible materials such as wood in mid- and high-rise buildings, but engineers say code changes to allow for the use of CLT are also achievable. To understand how resistant to fire large pieces of wood can be, proponents suggest thinking of how hard it is to start a bonfire with really big pieces of wood. Not only are such pieces hard to light, but they burn slowly.

In theory, developers could propose larger CLT buildings before codes are changed, but they would have to invest time, money and coordination to get this new building type through Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections, with no guarantee that their designs would be approved. “It takes a very special project and specific client and certainly a very ambitious design team to take it on,” says Mayo.

Unless that client steps forward, builders will be waiting for the International Code Council (ICC) to work through the fire and earthquake issues and develop the necessary code changes before mid-rise and higher CLT buildings spring up in the city. 

“We know there’s been a lot of interest in this construction type,” says Stevens, “so we’re trying to be responsive to the demand without giving up safety.”

As with so many innovations, another problem for developers is that material costs for CLT can be high because there are so few North American CLT manufacturers. Developers wait for the price to go down, but manufacturers need more demand for a product. To alleviate this problem, some businesses and legislators are working to help bring CLT mills to Washington state. An Oregon lumber company, D.R. Johnson Lumber, in Riddle, Oregon, recently became the first certified manufacturer of CLT for construction material in the U.S.

Clt was developed in the 1990s by researchers in Austria and Germany who were looking for a use for pieces of surplus wood. The material is created by layering smaller pieces of wood together into a kind of sandwich that offers the strength and insulation found in the massive timbers of the past, and that can be used for the walls, floors, roof beams and posts that make up a building. 

One of the most touted aspects of this material is its role in fighting carbon emissions. Trees absorb carbon and use energy from the sun to grow, which makes them a lower carbon choice than concrete or steel, which not only don’t absorb carbon, but require much more carbon-emitting energy to manufacture. Trees are also a renewable resource, as long as they are harvested from a sustainably managed forest. And CLT can be made from otherwise underused or damaged woods, such as the vast forests of domestic pine that have been killed by mountain pine beetles.

Another selling point, particularly in urban areas, is that CLT panels are prefabricated—bring them to the building site, and your building goes up quickly, with less noise, pollution and traffic delays than with other materials. The eight CLT stories of London’s nine-story Murray Grove apartment building went up in nine weeks.

But building with CLT is not all about practical considerations, says Susan Jones, who owns the Seattle architecture firm Atelierjones and designed her family’s home as the first (and so far only) CLT home in Seattle’s Madison Valley in 2015. The material itself—in the case of her house, CLT primarily from white pine and left unpainted—is a sensual pleasure, from the quality and patina of the wood to the subtle pine smell in the house.

“It’s been incredibly satisfying to live with it,” Jones says. “That’s what architects are asked to do—we create beautiful spaces for people. What’s better than to immerse yourself into this incredibly rich natural environment of wood?”

Here in Washington, there’s enough raw material to immerse us all in that environment. But only a handful of projects in the state have used the material so far—for example, in Jones’ CLT house, in the walls of the Bellevue First Congregational Church sanctuary designed by Atelierjones and on a building project at Washington State University in Pullman. In Oregon, Joe Mayo recently worked on the design for what is to be the first use of U.S.-made CLT on a two-story building project, using panels manufactured by Oregon’s D.R. Johnson.

There are a few other regional CLT building projects in the design process now. In June, Washington state granted design-build contracts to several architects, including Susan Jones of Atelierjones and Joe Mayo of Mahlum, for 900-square-foot classrooms at several elementary schools in western Washington, to be constructed by the end of 2017. 

Another building, Framework, a 12-story building with retail, offices, and housing in Portland, Oregon, is currently in the design process, after a team, which includes Blomgren as its fire and earthquake CLT engineering specialist, won a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tall wood building competition created to encourage innovation with the material. Winners for 2015, including the Portland team and a team in New York City, each received $1.5 million for the research and development phase of creating buildings using CLT and other engineered wood materials.

At the University of Washington, associate professor of architecture Kate Simonen is leading another USDA-funded study to determine the relative environmental impact of using mass timber in commercial office buildings in Seattle, which follows on other studies indicating that this kind of building will have a lower carbon footprint than other building materials. 

While she’s cautious about reaching premature conclusions in her study, Simonen thinks it might not be a bad idea to start working now to get the structures built in our region. 

“We don’t have all the answers now, but in order to get those answers we need to help lead innovation,” she says. “It makes sense to take some risks in our region to advance a building material that supports our region.”