Station break

In the usual way when big corporations swap and shuffle their little divisions, the people who operate KCMU-FM, the University of Washington's alternative music station, were the last to find out about the techies' plans to take it over. And they found out only through an anonymous tip. On June 18, as KCMU and sister station KUOW were holding an on-air fundraiser, a caller said he worked in the U's technical operations and warned that a plan was afoot to, as station manager Wayne Roth recounts, "take over the station and have Paul Allen do the programming." Roth asked upstairs and was told this was still just an idea. "We didn't see anything in writing till about 10 days ago," says Sturges Dorrance, the ex-KING TV manager who chairs KCMU's advisory board. Last Friday, what acting UW vice president David Thorud calls an "advanced prospectus" for KCMU was presented. Roth says he was told the takeover is "a done deal," though he still hopes to delay and perhaps change some aspects of it.

The deal, as spelled out in the one-page prospectus: KCMU will be split off from KUOW and the University Relations office and put under the wing of Ronald Johnson, the U's vice president for computing and communications and chief techie. This will "maximize the University's ability to experiment in the new world of digital radio, satellite and web broadcasting, demand distribution, content authoring and digital library tools, and multimedia technologies."

One of many things the prospectus doesn't explain is why a traditional broadcast station is a necessary or even useful testbed for experimentation with all these new media and transmission modes. "It would be better to work with streaming media," contends Dorrance. "The Internet opens up all possibilities." He adds that when "things go digital [in broadcasting], it'll all go digital at once"—so KCMU needn't try to blaze its own trail. But Johnson argues that broadcast digitization is still an "extremely complex" and unsettled subject. "We thought it would be cool"—he pauses—"and important for the university to try to get ahead of the curve. You need a radio station to do the digital testbed stuff."

Johnson also insists, in the prospectus and in an interview, that testbed status would preserve, even augment, KCMU's distinctive character and passionately demanding audience. Programming "is to remain essentially unchanged," reads the prospectus. Don't count on it, warns Roth: "When you bring in new managers, you get changes." And can freewheeling, imaginative, committed programming coexist with Newspeak terms like "content authoring"?

The takeover comes at an awkward time: KUOW and KCMU were about to move into new off-campus studios, which they built for $4.5 million (half of it borrowed) after the U announced it wanted their current campus studios for classrooms. Johnson says that plan might not change, even though one of the stations would be under his authority. Thorud says current KCMU board members would continue to serve. But the prospectus says ambiguously that "a new advisory board would be established . . . and expanded to include representatives from the technical sector."

The prospectus' most telling phrase comes at the end, expressing the hope that KCMU's "influence and resources can be expanded both through technology-oriented partnerships" and partnerships with other "local, national and international entities." Translation, according to the broadcast grapevine: KCMU is a natural addition to the far-flung media and technology empire of Paul Allen, a UW alumnus and major donor. Thorud confirms that "the Experience Music Project [an Allen effort] has expressed interest in collaborating with the university on this." Representatives of the Experience Project did not return calls requesting comment. "We don't comment on speculation," says Susan Pierson Brown, a spokesperson for Allen's Vulcan Northwest.

And Johnson says he's never dealt with the Experience Project: "My dealings with Paul Allen's people have been on the technical side—with Starwave, Asymetrix." He adds that the radio testbed has a number of potential, but undetermined, other partners, from "Microsoft and Real Audio" to "Sub Pop and One Reel."

But if an outside moneybags is driving the plan, Roth warns that "it could set a very dangerous precedent for public radio, that the largest donor gets to set the programming." And if Allen does want a station, Dorrance asks, "Why doesn't he just go buy one?" (He did, last year: Portland's KXL.)

The takeover itself "seems a little bizarre," adds Dorrance. That seems like an understatement.

Another veep who won't eat his broccoli

If scanning a supermarket cart is the quickest way to check out a prospective date, what can we learn from a candidate's lunch? Here's the customized menu prepared for Vice President Al Gore at a Port of Seattle confab hosted by Senators Gorton and Murray in July, uncovered and annotated by a sharp-eyed watchdog trolling the Port's archives:

16-ounce New York steak, medium rare

Steamed vegetables (no carrots or broccoli)

Green salad (no tomatoes or croutons)

Fresh-baked rolls and butter

Salt, pepper, steak sauce, Tabasco

Decaffeinated Starbucks coffee, tea, Diet Coke, Calistoga water, Perrier

Gore's supporters may take heart, despite Friends of the Earth's endorsing Bill Bradley over the author of Earth in the Balance last week. The last vice president to scorn broccoli, George Bush, won his presidential bid.

 
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