The Progressive Decline and Politicization Of Public Radio Station KNKX

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During the past decade there are few things that I am more proud of than the role I played in saving public radio station KNKX.

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And there are few things that I find more disturbing and disappointing than the failure of the station to fulfill its promise to the community, its declining listenership, and the increasingly partisan tone of its news coverage and station management.  And yes, the fact they ended my weather segment because of the anti-violence stance in one of my blog posts.

This blog describes the progressive decline of the station, its embrace of cancel culture, and its rapid loss of listeners.  And I ask your help in persuading station management to change direction.

The Real Story of How KNKX Was Saved

In November 2015,  Joey Cohn, station manager of public radio station KPLU, told his staff that they should find other jobs.  That the station was finished.  Pacific Lutheran University (PLU), owner of the station’s license, had secretly made an arrangement to sell KPLU to the University of Washington (PLU was in financial trouble and needed to raise cash).  KPLU would be terminated, and its audience and valuable transmitters would be subsumed by KUOW, the public radio station owned by the UW.

There were several of us who found this backroom deal very disturbing.   The KUOW program manager felt in-depth coverage was unnecessary, listener call-in shows should be ended, and killed the popular Weekday morning program hosted by Steve Scher.  KUOW wanted a local monopoly on public radio in the market, which would reduce the already plummeting number of news outlets in the Seattle area.

I went to Joey Cohn and told him that we should try to save the station by building public support for an independent public radio station. That people wanted diversity of viewpoint.  He doubted anything could be done, but allowed me (and others) to try.

So a bunch of us started a movement– including Keith Seinfeld and Stephen Tan– putting up a web page and organizing community meetings.   But the key was the University of Washington and the essential person was University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce.  Could the UW be persuaded to give KPLU a chance to raise the funds and “purchase” its independence from PLU?

UW President Ana Mari Cauce Decided to Give KPLU a Chance

I was friendly with President Cauce and emailed her about the issue.  She agreed to meet me at the U. Village Starbucks to talk it through.  

And after about an hour of discussion, a miracle occurred:  she agreed to give KPLU an opportunity to raise the money.   

Ana Mari Cauce is someone who understands the importance of diversity of information in the public sphere.  She was unsure whether KPLU could raise the huge amount needed (about 8 million)–but she gave KPLU six months to try.

During those six months many of us worked hard to raise the funds.  You may remember I had several blogs about KPLU, and I was the speaker for a large fundraiser at Kane Hall.  And amazingly, we succeeded.  KPLU became KNKX and an independent public radio station was born.

Why did so many people want to save KPLU?  It wasn’t the jazz–KUOW had already established a jazz outlet and was ready to expand its jazz offerings.  The key reason the community acted so powerfully was to protect diversity in the western Washington news market, which had hollowed out during the past decade (e.g., the effective loss of the PI, reduction in news staff at the Seattle Times, and more).

So by summer 2016, the new KNKX was at the top of the world. 

Many public radio listeners were unhappy with KUOW, and KNKX listenership had almost caught up to KUOW.  KNKX station management had an opportunity serve the community in an important way, providing an aural town square for the region.  

And they threw the opportunity away.

I and others suggested to station management that a new morning news/public affairs show be added during weekdays, while maintaining strong jazz programming. KNKX has an experienced  and savvy news director (Erin Hennessey) and some excellent news/special feature staff (such as environmental reporter Bellamy Pailthorp).  But the new weekday programming never happened.  


And then something worse occurred:  the politicization of the station’s news coverage and the move to partisanship and active identify-politics advocacy.


Slowly the material presented over the air changed and this transition accelerated when a new news director was appointed in September 2019.  

The director of content hired at the end of 2015, Matt Martinez, had strong views that would greatly influence the direction of KNKX.  In a stunning interview this year, he described the “uncomfortable truths” about the racial makeup of the KNKX staff, announcers, and “very white” audience.   There is a term for being uncomfortable about an individual because of their race.  Needless to say, such an attitude is inappropriate for a leader of a public radio station.


The online content, as well as on-air material, drifted away from news and analysis to social justice and equity issues, while at the same time KUOW doubled down on news coverage.  To provide one illustration, here are shots of the KNKX and KUOW web pages on the same day (during the past month).  One headlines diversity issues, the other the pandemic.  I could show you a dozen more like this.

Listeners to the station noticed the political drift and complained online, for example, here is a recent comment on Yelp:


Or these on Facebook (removed the names)

From my viewpoint from inside KNKX, the changes in the attitudes of station management were obvious.  In 2019, Joey Cohn invited me to lunch. He told me that he had gotten flack about my opposition to I-1631, the carbon fee initiative, particularly from some well-off financial supporters of the station (note: I was a strong supporter of the previous carbon initiative-I-732, but thought I-1631 was highly regressive, hurting low-income people and was poorly designed). 

He asked me to clear with him my participation with such initiatives in the future.

But things were to get worse for me.  Some of the uber “progressive” supporters of the station were unhappy with my communication of peer-reviewed science on my blog and my occasional discussion of climate issues with Bellamy Pailthrop.  They were pushing to get my segment cancelled.  To censor the information available to KNKX listeners.  Some of these “climate advocates” were on the KNKX advisory board and accused me of taking money from “big oil.”  I asked them what science I got wrong….no answer.

Then a group of Seattle social/climate activists (Seattle350), started a petition to get me removed from KNKX.  KNKX station management, to placate the mob, decided to commission an analysis of my on-air and OFF-AIR writings, and gave the responsibility to a MEMBER OF SEATTLE350.  Unbelievable.  And they spent donor money to have my segment evaluated by the past ombudsperson of NPR.  

Not surprisingly, I was “cleared”  by both reports, but the whole activity was designed to satisfy the “cancel culture” mob that did not want truthful statements on climate and weather to be aired.  KNKX management could not, would not, stand up to the activist mob.

Then in July, I did a blog about the destructiveness to democracy of political violence in Seattle, including the destruction of property, intimidation of politicians and our chief of police, and the hurting of individuals.  It was not popular among the activist crowd, who demanded that I be punished for it: from termination on KNKX to my expulsion from the UW.

KNKX management, under pressure from the mob, immediately terminated my weather segment.  They gave in to cancel culture,  which is totally inappropriate for a public radio station.


The Collapse of KNKX Listenership and Web Interest


As KNKX progressively retreated away from news towards social activism, its listenership declined rapidly.  To illustrate, here are the “cume” numbers (from the Nielsen ratings company) that illustrate the listenership of both KUOW and KNKX over the past few years. KUOW listenership has remained nearly constant in the low 400,000 range.  KNKX has lost a third of its listenership, from roughly 310,000 to approximately 200,000 today.

The collapse of interest in KNKX can be confirmed in other ways.  Consider the internet searches for both KNKX and KUOW in 2016, 2018, and 2020 (available from the Googletrends website).   In 2016, KNKX searches totaled about 75% of those of KUOW.  But by 2018 it had dropped to around 45% and by 2020 only about 30%.  Huge decline.

A key aspect of this collapse was that folks were no longer going to KNKX for online news, which is not surprising consider the lack of news coverage on the KNKX website.  This is easy to prove.

Below are the online search numbers for KNKX and KUOW during the past year.  KNKX searches are generally less than KUOW and declining over the period, while there is a slight rising trend for KUOW.  

But there is something more important….the ups and downs of the searches.  When there are big news stories, KUOW searches go up sharply (for example, the big surge in March during the COVID crisis).  But there was little change for KNKX–folks do not see it as a place to go for news.  

There IS one major spike for KNKX, where it temporarily exceeded KUOW.  That corresponds to the period after I wrote a blog on my firing from KNKX.  In fact, as confirmed by the Alexa rankings site, my blogs on KNKX and cancel culture have driven searches regarding KNKX.  Not the attention I suspect KNKX management is looking for.

Perhaps most devastating analysis is a comparison of Seattle market share for KUOW and KNKX during the past year (see below)… from the period where COVID became news to the election (again from the Nielsen ratings company).  Right in the middle they ended my segment.  

A disaster for KNKX   In April, KUOW was only about one percent ahead of KNKX, but by November, KUOW quadrupled its lead to nearly 5 percent, with the gap accelerating after my weather segment was ended.

What now?

I can’t tell you how many people have told me to give up on KNKX. 

That they are not worth it, considering their stunning levels of ingratitude, surrender to woke thinking, and lack of concern for their listenership.  Let them fade out.

But I am not going to give up on the station…and you shouldn’t either.  Listeners and financial supporters have a lot of clout that they can and should use to turn things around.

KNKX is now the poster child for cancel culture in public radio….and this should not stand.   KNKX management has undermined the reputation of the station.

KNKX was saved to promote viewpoint and media diversity in our community, and that diversity is still needed.

Cancel culture is all about power: those with power thinking they can silence those with differing viewpoints.  Let’s show them that they can not succeed.

So let me ask your help to address the situation:

1.   Money talks, particularly in public radio.  One of the reasons that KNKX has tilted to activism and cancel culture is the left-leaning attitudes and pressure of their major donors.  Trust me, I know these people and have interacted with them for several years.

If you are a KNKX donor, pause your contributions with a note to the station telling them what you expect:  an end of biased and limited news reporting, no more canceling of diverse voices, the restoration of the weather segment, and new programming that fosters discussion of regional issues. 

2.  Email station management and the KNKX Board, expressing your concerns about poor online and on-air content and their “canceling” of segments based on political pressure.  Tell them freedom of speech is important, as is respect for viewpoint diversity in their staff and contributors.  Tell them that racially inflammatory statements among senior management is not acceptable.

3.  Email major corporate donors (view here), asking for aid in making the station an important venue for the many voices and that differing viewpoints should be heard.

Let me end by noting an important statement of Dr. Martin Luther King:

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people” Martin Luther King

_____________________________________________

KNKX Contact Information

If you want to help,  please contact KNKX management and ask that they reverse their decision:

Station phone number: 1-877-677-5659

Public Radio Station KNKX and Cancel Culture

If you are interested in learning more about public radio station KNKX and cancel culture, check out my new blog/website on the issue: https://knkxcancel.blogspot.com/2021/02/knkx-and-cancel-culture.html

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