Office of External Affairs

June 4, 2021

From the VP: When the pandemic separated us, KUOW and KEXP kept their communities connected, informed and entertained

Randy Hodgins

Photo credit:KEXP- Renata Steiner, KUOW

Fifteen months ago, the world dramatically changed when the first COVID-19 case in the U.S. was discovered right here in the state of Washington. Nearly every industry was disrupted as our nation struggled to contain the virus. In this unimaginable year of a public health crisis, upheaval in society and assaults on our democracy, I have renewed my appreciation for those who provide us with news, information and entertainment. As a former co-host of a one-hour show on KAOS-FM who has picked up podcasting during lockdown, I am particularly interested in how the pandemic has shaped and challenged the broadcasting industry.

Longtime Huskies will know there are two local stations with strong ties to the University – KUOW and KEXP. KUOW is one of the nation’s founding NPR member stations, broadcasting from the Puget Sound region continually since 1952. Initially, the station served as a training ground for UW students interested in careers in broadcasting and programming consisted of classical music, classroom lectures, local news and Huskies sports. Over the years, programming shifted to be more news oriented. In 1999, KUOW moved off campus and became operated by Puget Sound Public Radio although the FCC license is held by the UW Board of Regents and I serve as the license officer.

KEXP also began its life as a student run radio station, KCMU, in 1972 in the basement of the Communications building. Due to budget cuts, the station moved to a listener support model in the 80s and in the mid-2000s after a transformational gift from the late Paul Allen, the station was renamed KEXP-FM. Friends of KEXP, the nonprofit arts organization that operates the station, now also holds the FCC license although the station remains a self-sustaining affiliate of the UW. I serve as the station’s designated University contact.

Like businesses in nearly every industry, KUOW and KEXP had to pivot and innovate to continue to fulfill their missions during the pandemic. With far fewer people making their usual daily commute, radio drive-time listening was replaced in large part by digital listening and both stations had to adapt to this increased demand. At KEXP, they found listeners were tuning in nearly all day as the average with time spent listening increasing from 4 hours to 7.5 hours. Listeners were looking for ways to connect with others and found music to be a grounding force in a very uncertain time. At the same time, bands were canceling tours and staying home. Recognizing the artistic community was hurting, KEXP DJs got creative. Since they couldn’t have local bands in the building, KEXP created “Bands on the Lawn” and “KEXP at Home” to showcase local talent.

Listeners were also hungry for information. The progress of the virus and tactics to combat it changed rapidly, especially early on. Three days before Governor Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order took effect, KUOW started the “Seattle Now” podcast, a 10 minute wrap-up of the news of the day. To meet the public’s desire to stay abreast of the latest information about COVID-19, this program quickly pivoted to be all about the pandemic. KUOW was able to provide a quick recap of what public health officials and researchers knew that morning and deliver it quickly and accurately to their audience.

As they kept listeners informed and connected, DJs, reporters and staff faced isolation, anxiety and overwhelming uncertainty. While both organizations sought to provide stability and flexibility for staff in several ways, KUOW was particularly innovative in this space. In addition to ensuring flexible work schedules and encouraging the use of mental health days, KUOW organized guided wellness sessions and group counseling for staff members.

Staying afloat financially was another hurdle for both stations. In March 2020, even after cutting $1.2M from their operating budget, KUOW was still facing the prospect of a 10% reduction in force. However, due to an overwhelming outpouring of support from listeners in the community last spring, they avoided any staff layoffs or furloughs. KEXP also faced financial hardship, primarily from a $1.2M reduction in expected revenue, which was mitigated through budget cuts, modest layoffs and executive furloughs. Like KUOW, KEXP benefitted from generous support from the community which helped cushion the immediate impact and strengthens their long-term stability.

Along with the pandemic, 2020 brought a long overdue reckoning with systemic racism in the U.S. KUOW journalists elevated the voices of citizens calling for change here in Seattle and across the nation, while KEXP’s programing provided space to help listeners process and make sense of this moment in history. The upheaval of last summer also shined a spotlight on inequities within public media and KUOW and KEXP are committed to transforming into anti-racist organizations. Living out this commitment is an essential and ongoing work in progress. So far both stations have taken thoughtful, initial steps to better serve our community.

KUOW and KEXP are two of the most listened to stations in the Puget Sound radio market. Their association with the University of Washington is a point of pride for the campus and I continue to be amazed and proud of their broadcasting accomplishments. As more and more Washingtonians get their COVID vaccines, a post-pandemic future begins to feel reachable and I can’t wait to see what these two radio stations do next.