Last October, the morning rituals of stay-at-home parents, telecommuters, taxi drivers, students and everyone who regularly relied on KUOW-FM 94.9 to anchor the day were disrupted. The extended caller-driven confabs on gardening and home maintenance were gone. No more long-form, meandering conversations with public officials or winding interviews with poets, authors, artists and historians. No more tangents from 9 to 11 a.m. Instead, two national programs, The Takeaway and Here & Now, started filling the midmorning window with crisp, modular news of the world.
In addition to canceling Weekday, KUOW eliminated the locally produced afternoon programs The Conversation and KUOW Presents, and launched a new program called The Record (from noon to 2 p.m.). This mix of local, national and international reports and interviews, aired in segments of no more than 10 minutes, is anchored by former Weekday host Steve Scher, former Conversation host Ross Reynolds and KUOW veteran Marcie Sillman. The only segment from the old Weekday left untouched is the popular political roundtable with local journalists, now its own show called Week in Review, airing at 10 a.m. on Fridays.
No one likes change, least of all, it would appear, public radio listeners. There have been complaints about the changes, especially from those who like to listen consistently and for long stretches (a minority, but a vocal one). Who can blame them? Unlike commercial radio, public radio pretty much promises to stay the same. All Things Considered, the most listened to afternoon drive-time news radio program in the country, started in 1971 by taking virtually the same approach it does today. Even Weekday had been around for 20 years before it was axed.
So what’s behind the biggest change in decades at Seattle’s largest public radio station? Not surprisingly, a steady drop in audience share. Since 2010, the weekly average has fallen from 8.4 percent to 7.3 percent. “We can’t just sit on our hands and do nothing,” says Jeff Hansen, the 13-year KUOW program director who has spearheaded the transformation. He sounds like a man used to defending his choices—and often, he has had to make his strongest case to his own team, which includes some of the biggest resisters, members of the cadre of old-school public radio junkies.
Hansen hauls out a 1930s photo of a well-dressed family huddled around an old radio that’s about the size of a small refrigerator. (The snapshot looks to be part of a PowerPoint presentation setting forth the principles behind the recent change.) But families deliberately tuning into a particular radio program pretty much disappeared when televisions took over the 1950s living room.
Since then, commercial radio switched to formats and found itself trying to fit into listeners’ schedules. A picture of how that looks exactly, especially in public radio, has emerged in the past five years, thanks to something known as the Portable People Meter (PPM).
Developed by the consumer research company Arbitron, PPMs are electronic sensors, like pagers, that detect signals embedded in radio transmissions to record when people are exposed to different radio stations, which might include radio playing in a store or on an elevator. The PPMs reveal that the average radio listener—no matter the anchor or the show—tunes in and out for “occasions of listening” that last five to 10 minutes at a time. KUOW’s goal is to create a stream of bite-size content for those grazing listeners. Crosscut’s Eric Scigliano described the approach as programming “audio people can multitask to.”
Hansen wouldn’t disagree. He says the public radio value proposition has always been: “We’ll educate you while you are driving, walking, cooking, cleaning.” The news magazine format pioneered by All Things Considered is the gold standard.
Veteran talk radio watcher and former BlatherWatch blogger Michael Hood says, “It’s about more than creating info snacks; it’s about trying to grab a listener who wasn’t weaned on radio.”
For Hood, the adjustment is a sad sign of the times. “A former KUOW producer friend of mine describes the current crossroads as nothing less than a battle for the soul of public radio,” he says. “NPR earned its chops giving airtime to programs not originally intended to draw mass ratings, but because they served the public or were just great—such as classical music or old jazz, the news from Lake Wobegon or Kazakhstan, or those verbose, funny, overeducated mechanics from Massachusetts.” Will the listeners who grew up on the public radio that took deep dives and offered extended, quirky and niche coverage stick around for the new model?
Hansen is betting yes. And early feedback indicates he may be on to something. The period from October to December 2013 showed a 13 percent increase in the midday share of radio listeners, although Hansen stresses that these measurements are driven by a lot of factors and it’s too early to say if the shift will help retain, or even build, listenership.
Others see the cancellation of three of KUOW’s locally produced programs as part of a worrisome trend of reduced local news coverage that includes KING-TV canceling local public affairs program Up Front; the cancellation of KCTS 9 Connects; KOMO-TV reducing the staff of local news websites; and AOL ending community news websites. Alex Fryer, director of public affairs for The Fearey Group, a Seattle public relations firm, called out KUOW for reducing local news coverage in the fall. “It’s time to affirm that community news has value beyond Arbitron reports, click ratings and circulation figures,” he wrote in a guest column for the Puget Sound Business Journal.
Hansen argues that KUOW’s local coverage is increasing in terms of the quantity and quality—if not actual time-share, although he can’t say with any certainty since he’s not tracking the minutes. The current program shift was years in the making and included hiring a full-time dedicated investigative reporter for the first time in the station’s history and hiring more producers to create many more, shorter local news segments as well as breaking more local news.
But creating pithy, local news programs we can multitask to may not be enough to save KUOW. All these efforts might be the media equivalent of rearranging the furniture on a slowly sinking Titanic. Perhaps the biggest threat to the current model is something known in the industry as “disintermediation.” For decades, local public radio stations have served as intermediaries for popular national programs. In other words, these stations were pretty much the only place listeners could hear public radio’s top programs, including All Things Considered and Morning Edition (launched in 1979). These programs anchor KUOW, KPLU and other stations by providing a loading ramp for listeners. Today, listeners can go directly to NPR.org for what they want, when and where they want it. There’s also satellite radio, program streaming and podcasts—hence disintermediation.
“Technology has long been nibbling at radio’s market share, from the days of cassette and 8-track players in cars to iPods and music streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora,” says Bill Virgin, Seattle Business magazine columnist, who used to cover radio for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “The radio industry has tried some technology itself to stem the losses—its own streaming channels, HD radio to provide multiple channels, satellite radio. None has had much impact, except in some cases to cannibalize radio’s own audience.”
Radio watcher Michael Hood points out that NPR and American Public Media may be furthering local public radio’s demise with the new Swell Radio app, a Pandora-like public radio and commercial news aggregator. “It’s a dagger aimed at the hearts of stations such as KUOW, which have intermediated their programs since the beginning,” Hood says.
Hansen returns to the importance of local coverage and the KUOW brand in retaining listeners in this era of disintermediation. But like a classic, long and meandering interview on the old Weekday, it’s hard to know where and when this story will end.