Last week, my regular weather segment on KUOW's Weekday was canceled. As the whole incident has unfolded, I've realized it isn't about Northwest weather or my occasional comments on math or science education. It is about the essential nature of public radio.
The facts are clear. For 16 years, I have contributed to KUOW, mainly through a five- to six-minute spot on the station's Weekday program. I volunteered my time because I loved doing it and thought it was important. From the beginning, I insisted that it be more than a weather forecast; my segment had to provide the "whys" behind our local weather and reveal the technology underlying weather prediction. It was meant as scientific outreach, patterned (in a poor way) after the work of my mentor Carl Sagan.
Because KUOW listeners appreciated this approach, the segment continued under a variety of KUOW Weekday hosts. Over time, my topics expanded naturally to include advocacy for new coastal radar (which we got!) and even evaluations of the skill of local TV weathercasters. Based on my day job—teaching thousands of University of Washington students—I became increasingly concerned about the lack of math skills of students coming out of high school. Hundreds of my colleagues felt the same way. And I talked about that on a handful of occasions on my radio segment.
But problems started to develop a few years ago. By that time, Steve Scher was the only host on Weekday and a new producer had taken over as his aide. At first, my rare forays (perhaps twice a year) into talking about math education were no problem, but everything changed on a program when I discussed the role of "discovery" math (not direct instruction but students having to "discover" the principles, lots of group and calculator work, etc.) and the need for better math standards than the "discovery" approach in our state. Advocates of such teaching approaches at the UW College of Education and a separate math-education group in the math department bombarded KUOW with complaints. I was told by Scher and his producer never to talk about educational issues again. They said I was essentially part of KUOW news since I was a regular, and thus they had to present both sides. I countered that it was ridiculous to consider me a KUOW news staffer (after all, I had never been paid by them) and, besides, they had many regulars advocating issues without "balance" (like Rick Steves and his push for pot legalization).
This debate between us went on for a while, and then they laid out an ultimatum—talk about education even once and I was off the program. I caved, considering that if I quit, the Weekday listeners would lose out on quality weather coverage. Scher and his producer never seemed to care or consider the listeners. A year or so passed, and last month, the Seattle Times had a front-page article about strong straight-A students being rejected by the UW in order to secure high-paying out-of-staters. I am an undergraduate adviser with access to student records, and after a discussion with the dean of admissions, I knew the story was deceptive and inaccurate. (As confirmed by the dean of admissions, the only straight-A students who were being rejected were those with cream-puff classes, poor SAT scores, or some other significant deficiency. He also confirmed, as I had found out, that out-of-state students accepted were generally stronger than in-state students—e.g., higher math SATs). Furthermore, the previous discussion of this topic on Weekday's "Week in Review" session was misinformed.
The next week, when my segment was moved to the second hour, I mentioned the facts.
That sealed my fate. Shortly after, the Weekday producer sent me an e-mail saying I was forbidden from talking about issues other than weather. I waited a week to respond to this provocative e-mail and tried to be conciliatory, yet principled. I wrote back to say that while I was not looking to talk about other issues more than a few times a year, I could not agree to self-censorship and such restrictions were out of keeping with the nature of public radio. The next day, in a note from Steve Scher, I was fired.
The reaction by the public stunned me. My blog has received almost 300 comments, my e-mail inbox was filled with over 400 supportive comments, a Facebook page was created with more than 1,500 supporters, and KUOW's Facebook site and e-mail inbox were inundated with hundreds, if not thousands, of critical comments. People really cared, and the discontent extended well beyond my situation.
The huge reaction to my firing reflects the importance of public radio to so many and the isolation of many public radio staff from those they should be serving. Thousands of Northwest residents clearly care about public radio and its role as a "community center" for discussing the major issues facing our region and nation. Furthermore, beyond my situation, all the comments and e-mails suggest an unhappiness with many aspects of KUOW's offerings and a feeling that this public radio station no longer reflects the public's interests or cares about their needs.
It appears to many that when a KUOW host has control of a public radio show for decades, he comes to feel that the program is his to do with what he likes, rather than the public's. It is his show, not theirs. Increasingly, local public radio has become isolated, rigid, and unresponsive to those it serves, even as it requests increasing public support. The rise of social media has shown that other modes of creating an intellectual commons are possible, and the contrast with an aging and inflexible local public radio enterprise has become stark and obvious.
I would love to return to KUOW to continue to talk about the amazing weather of the region, but I don't want to do it with a muzzle—unable to discuss my concerns as an educator. Weather is important, but our society's failure to properly educate many of its youth is a crisis, and both deserve open discussion on the public airwaves.