Phyllis Fletcher's housewarming party Saturday, August 18, had a sad subtext. When the KUOW reporter's colleagues gathered in her new Phinney Ridge home, most of the conversation was focused on the news that KUOW's longtime on-air host Ken Vincent quit on Friday afternoon after a heated argument with KUOW Program Director Jeff Hansen.
According to Vincent, a 50-year-old news reporter and radio vet who started with the station in 1984 when he was a Morning Edition host, he was frustrated with Hansen's "edicts to dumb down the air sound." Vincent also says he was bitter about compensation issues and was looking to leave, "although not like this."
"It's pathetic," Vincent says, "that KUOW management won't pay its award-winning, nationally acclaimed air staff anything better than the industry median salary while it socks millions of dollars into reserve accounts."
Assistant General Manager Marcia Scholl acknowledges that KUOW salaries were below industry standards and says adjustments have been made. Vincent, who worked the longest shift at the station (9 am to 4 pm), engineered daytime programming, fielded calls, and linked the station's programs together, editing and reading news updates and some intros. He made $50,000, but notes cynically that his workload remained the same while his job title was downgraded from host and producer to "announcer." His conspiracy theory: KUOW won't get caught paying below the median again because "announcers" will be getting paid host rates.
At the Phinney Ridge party on Saturday, Vincent's now-former colleagues crowded around him and asked if they could salvage the situation by calling an emergency meeting on Monday morning. Vincent—whose frustration has been building since Hansen started tweaking show "formatics" earlier this year—told his colleagues that Hansen's remodeling of noontime arts show The Beat was the "final straw." Hansen is giving the show a new name, Sound Focus, and expanding its editorial scope in an effort to make it more "magazine feature-y," according to KUOW staffers. And, most annoying to Vincent, Hansen added to Vincent's workload by requiring him to design and perform the show's "billboard" (the regular intro) rather than having the show staff do it.
It was over, Vincent told his friends, who lovingly describe him as a "perfectionist" and a "drama queen." As longtime KUOW personality Marcie Sillman says, Vincent is "a consummate host: smooth, funny, and irritating. It's a big loss for the station."
"I'm not going to bend over and let him continue screwing me with simple cost-of-living raises," Vincent says. Vincent's visceral and bitter feelings toward Hansen came through loud and clear as he recounted the story. "I'm not going to introduce Soouuuund Focuss!" he says, putting on a booming, mocking voice. "That just sets off the gag reflex. It turns my stomach." Vincent reports that Hansen said he'd put Vincent on probation if he didn't do the job. Vincent then told him: "You can't. I quit."
Vincent's issues with Hansen's edicts are shared by the other KUOW vets. Hansen has been program director at KUOW for seven years and, according to people at the station, is taking the intimacy and personality out of the shows by enforcing a clipped, robotic speaking style. To give an example, here's an old-style KUOW station identification break: "This is Steve Scher. You're listening to Weekday. It's 10:15, and you're listening to KUOW at 94.9." Hansen's new style: "Steve Scher. Weekday. 10:15. KUOW. 94.9."
"I don't know the reasons behind the changes," says Sillman. "There might be less resistance from us long-timers, more buyoff, if they [management] articulated the rationale."
"It sounds like shit," another KUOW staffer grouses. "You feel like you're listening to the atomic clock."
Says another longtime staffer: "It's about control. [Hansen] wants the on-air personalities all to be predictable, interchangeable, to be invisible. It's odd. It's contradictory to why we're successful in the first place. The on-air personalities are what people like about us."
Another complaint of KUOW staffers is Hansen's push to prevent hosts from mentioning the time during their shows because he wants to be able to cut-and-paste segments into other broadcasts—further streamlining the once-unique programming into a depersonalized sound.
The push for a less personal tone may have tripped up popular Conversation host Ross Reynolds. Reynolds was reportedly itching to start a personal blog but was shot down, says one colleague, because management wanted total control over the station's "editorial voice." Then management sent out an e-mail, according to staffers, introducing their notion of blogs, co-opting Reynolds's proposal. Reynolds was reportedly angry, firing off an e-mail himself, saying, "Hey, wasn't that what I said?"
After Scholl's initial comments, KUOW decided not to answer any more questions for this story. "Ken's resignation is a personnel matter. We're not going to comment further," Assistant Program Director Arvid Hokanson said in an e-mail. Hansen himself was on vacation and was not available to comment on stylistic or programming changes at the station. Some staffers did credit Hansen with making some controversial and bold decisions that have benefited the station. He dropped Fresh Air, for example, and helped get The Conversation on the air. Those were both successful moves.
KUOW is a big success (it had $8.3 million in net assets according to its latest financial filing)—which, Sillman posits, may be responsible for the more institutionalized feel. According to its 2006 annual report, it has 351,200 listeners each week, listeners who, on average, spend eight hours a week listening to the station. KUOW, with a $6.7 million budget, ranks tenth among public radio stations across the country, an impressive feat for a medium-size city.
Of course, a big part of this success can be credited to the station's popular personalities—Ross Reynolds, Steve Scher, and Marcie Sillman.
"Marcie, me, and Steve—it's through our work," Vincent says, "that they've been able to succeed [and build] their millions in reserves."