KUOWhat? Steve Scher's Sudden Departure

Steve Scher’s sudden split from the station raises some interesting questions about Seattle public radio.

By Erica C. Barnett August 1, 2014 Published in the August 2014 issue of Seattle Met

Image: KUOW; Shutterstock

"I like to pull the Band-Aid off fast.” 

That’s the way Steve Scher described his conscious uncoupling from KUOW in June, and  it was an apt metaphor. After nearly 30 years with NPR’s Seattle affiliate, the 60-year-old host of Weekday marched into president and general manager Caryn Mathes’s office on a Friday and, with a swift rip, announced he was done, effective immediately. 

But it wasn’t so much the fact that he left that raised eyebrows. (“Steve and his listeners needed a change of pace,” a commenter at quipped.) It was the way he left. What could possibly force an institution like Scher to bolt without so much as a formal on-air goodbye? And—maybe more important—could whatever it was that pushed him out the door be a symptom of bigger problems within the station?

Publicly, Scher said it was time to try something new. And according to a post on his Facebook page, he planned to make “an honest attempt at the writer’s life.” Behind the scenes, though, he’d made it clear to coworkers that he was unhappy with management’s decision in summer 2013 to kill three long-running shows—one of which was Weekday—and replace them with The Record, a quicker-paced, two-hour newsmagazine. Scher still cohosted the show, but it was made up of quick, five- to 10-minute segments that felt more All Things Considered than The Diane Rehm Show.

The idea behind the changes, says program director Jeff Hansen, is to give listeners what they say they want: shorter shows they can have on in the background while doing something “less interesting” in the foreground, like driving to work or doing the dishes. What they didn’t want, apparently, was Scher’s slower-paced, old-school public-radio style.

But what of the longer-form storytelling in programs like the geeky-cool Radiolab and journalism-as-entertainment This American Life? Doesn’t their rabid following refute KUOW’s changes? No. “They’re not that popular,” Hansen says. (Even reruns of Car Talk pull better numbers than This American Life.)

As it turns out, the very thing that alienated Scher may be the station’s saving grace: Ratings have increased by 12 percent since last summer’s schedule shuffle. Which means the question may not be What’s wrong with KUOW? It could be Why didn’t they do this sooner?

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