KUOW’s Steve Scher steps away from the mike
After 28 years at KUOW, popular “Weekday” host Steve Scher abruptly quit on June 6. Nicole Brodeur sits down to find out what drove him away and what’s up next.
Seattle Times columnist
Steve Scher’s desk was already packed up, so his exit was pretty quick.
“I thanked a few people right away, told them I loved them, got on my bike and said, ‘Well, I guess I did that.”’
He let out a little laugh the other day, recalling the afternoon of June 6, when he left KUOW-FM after 28 years.
Scher was the longtime host of “Weekday,” which followed NPR’s nationally distributed morning programming.
The show’s format — until recently — allowed Scher two full hours to stretch and muse, to not only ask questions of visiting authors, scholars and other personalities, but follow wherever the answers led.
It was enjoyable to some, indulgent to others, and ended last fall when the station changed its approach. Scher became part of a one-hour local show called “The Record,” which runs from noon to 1 p.m.
And almost as soon as Scher could, he quit.
He had taken five months off in May 2013 to work on a novel. He returned to KUOW on Oct. 1, with the agreement that he had to stay for six months. He stuck it out for eight.
So what happened? Was it boredom? A falling out with station brass? Frustration?
Scher looked out the window of Roosevelt’s Sunlight Cafe on a recent afternoon, and thought for a second. He was keeping his cards close.
“I will give you frustration,” he said, finally. “The station was going in one direction and I wanted to go in another direction.
“I have spent a lot of time getting good at long-form journalism, and there’s not an opportunity at the station for that anymore,” he said.
But it’s not just that. There’s also a bit of mortality at work.
“Turning 60 has had a sobering effect on me,” Scher said, recalling a conversation he had with a close friend on a recent hike.
“I think I have 15 summers left,” said the friend, who is 63.
“Fifteen summers,” Scher repeated. “That weighed on me. But in a good way. It gives me a little urgency.”
Scher started to consider life beyond radio during his leave last year.
“You find out there is other stuff in the world,” he said of that time.
Stuff like writing a novel, something he has always thought about — and was inspired to do through conversations with writers like Sherman Alexie, Richard Ford and Ann Patchett, who urged him to do something with the stories, plays and poems he had stuffed into a drawer at home.
“You want to be a writer, you want to do something,” Scher said. “It’s like having a contract with yourself and you want to fulfill the contract. It was a crystallizing idea for me.”
He finished his first novel, which he called “a romantic comedy with explosions,” and plans to spend some time polishing it.
He will also care for his 97-year-old mother, Libby Scher, who moved in with him and his wife, Delia Mulholland, just over a year ago. His sister has been doing the lion’s share of that duty. It’s his turn to pitch in.
(He and Mulholland, the wardrobe mistress for the Seattle Theatre Group, have two grown sons, Adam, 28, and Max, 24.)
“I’m still having these moments of self-doubt,” Scher said. “Not about leaving, but about, ‘Will I be able to write anything worth reading? Did I just take my career and tank it? Probably.’ ”
He laughed, but there was something in there. Maybe it was the way Scher left.
On his last day, he was cagey on-air, never letting on to listeners that this was it.
“I said something oblique, like: ‘I learned a lot from you, I loved spending time with you. Thanks.’ And that was it.
“It would have been better to say a more formal goodbye,” Scher said. “I’m a relatively shy person. I just felt that I should just say to myself, ‘Be done.’ But that was not emotionally mature of me.”
Response was, shall we say, mixed.
“If I stay away from The Slog,” Scher said, referring to The Stranger’s blog, “the feedback was positive.”
Most surprising were the listeners who wrote to him with their own stories of transition.
“There were a number of people who understood what I was saying and wished me luck,” he said. “Sometimes you have to make a leap of faith and are drawn to something else.”
His departure wasn’t just a leap, but a chance to step back and review the media landscape, where daily journalism is going.
“There’s this shortening, fragmenting and chopping up,” he said. “Some people think readers and listeners don’t have the attention span, but I don’t agree. We know there’s enough interest. The New Yorker exists. The Atlantic.
“When we elevate readers and listeners, they elevate us in return.”
But that “fragmenting” is just what KUOW did not long ago, when it made format changes that basically eliminated Scher’s “Weekday” show, but kept his Friday “Week in Review” round-table with local journalists. (That show took a brief hiatus until last week, when Bill Radke took over hosting duties.)
“I didn’t storm out of there,” Scher said. “I just left.”
Now that he’s free, he has more time for other things. Biking and kayaking. Taking slow walks with his old dog, Cosmo. Volunteering with The Nature Conservancy and other groups focused on protecting land.
The next day, he had a meeting with a local radio station to talk about sitting in. Maybe a podcast.
“There are so many opportunities, so many things,” Scher said. “I think it’s pretty cool.”
The reporter is becoming his own brand. So what is that brand about?
“I listen to people,” he said. “I think about the beginning, the middle and the end. I go where the answers take me. It’s hard sometimes. I have my questions, and I don’t always read my questions.”
He will miss interviewing people like Gloria Steinem and Annie Leibovitz, and sparring with Seattle mayors from Norm Rice to Mike McGinn.
And he will miss engaging listeners with the kind of questions that connect us all.
“Everybody had a good story to tell,” he said. So he threw out questions like: What was your first prom like? What would you bring to a Christmas party? What was your song of the year?
So what would Scher’s song be?
Joe Strummer’s “Johnny Appleseed” always captured him well, he said, especially the line, “If you want to get the honey, don’t go killing all the bees.”
Now it’s another Strummer song, “Silver and Gold.”
“I’m going out dancing every night,” Scher recited. “I’m gonna see all the city lights. I’ll do everything silver and gold. I got to hurry up before I grow too old.
“That’s the anthem for the stage I just entered,” he said. “That would be a fair one.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Every Sunday, I bring you a conversation with a local who is doing something great, or a great who is doing something local: media personalities, big thinkers, visiting artists, colorful characters and doers of all kinds.
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