Ron and Don host a talk radio program every day from 3-7pm on 97.3 KIRO FM sharing their opinions on news and sports and current events. Left, Don O’Neill, right, Ron Upshaw. Photo by Daniel Berman

The Maddening Allure of KIRO Radio

The radio station makes a sport of flouting liberal pieties. So why can’t we tune out?

January 18. 3:30 p.m. Seattle: The inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States is a short 13 hours away. Protesters are gearing up in Seattle and across the country for massive demonstrations. El Chapo, the notorious Mexican drug lord, has just been extradited. The ACLU is suing the City of Seattle over its homeless sweeps. Crews are digging Snoqualmie Pass from a crush of wet Cascade snow that has closed the highway. A King County health board has just green-lit two sites in King County where people will be able to use illegal drugs under medical supervision without fear of being arrested.

This is the news, and in the humming newsroom at KIRO Radio’s studios on Eastlake Avenue, it is grist for the mill. From 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. each weekday, a rotating cast of radio hosts—all of them local and supported by some 60 full- and part-time newsroom employees—will poke and prod and opine and mock it to churn out KIRO’s valuable end product: news talk radio.

The guiding philosophy of 97.3 FM can be summed up as this: Don’t be boring. There’s a word that gets used around the station, “stentorian,” and it’s a bad one. It’s how people describe what KIRO doesn’t do, which is to simply read people the news over the radio in the voice of a practiced broadcaster. It’s an approach meant to reflect the modern state of the news on a medium—FM radio—that is decidedly old-school.

“When I first came to KIRO in 1978, our role was to tell people what happened that day,” says Dave Ross, who hosts the station’s morning drive show from 5 to 9 a.m. and is the unofficial dean of KIRO radio. “Now, everyone knows what happened. It’s on their phone. So what we have to do is help people understand it. We have to basically deliver more than we used to. We have to deliver perspective.”

As Ross himself helps illustrate, there is no firm consistency to what kind of perspective that will be—unlike, say, the conservative talk-radio stations you’ll find on the AM dial, or for that matter some liberal blogs around town. Ross himself is a Democrat—he ran for Congress on the party’s ticket in 2004, challenging Republican Dave Reichert for the 8th District (he lost). Soft-spoken, almost professorial, Ross’ morning commentary often deftly picks apart conservative micro-hypocrisies while never approaching the histrionics common to modern political discourse. But, again, that’s not the norm on KIRO, because, really, there is no norm.

Over the course of the day, that microphone will be taken over by an avowed libertarian, fed-up populists, and a young gay Republican. They will all be local voices, mostly white men, and often each will take their own crack at the same news. If done right, it will never be boring.

As Luke Burbank, the host of NPR’s Live Wire and a former KIRO host, points out, this sort of mixed-format radio is rare in today’s media market, where news radio is typically broken into two camps: NPR and conservative talk radio, both of which rely heavily on national shows. At its Eastlake headquarters, KIRO shares office space with the latter. A conservative AM station owned by the same parent company, Bonneville International, KTTH promises all conservative talk all day, mixing in local conservative voices like Michael Medved with syndicated shows like Rush Limbaugh in an established formula that a large chunk of the radio industry lives by.

“One thing I was taught about radio is that you want to have the same voice throughout the day. You want people to be able to turn off their car in the morning, go to work, turn it on to go home, and hear the same thing,” Burbank says. “People don’t want to go into a Pizza Hut and find teriyaki.” Yet that’s precisely what listeners get with KIRO, he adds. Burbank is liberal, and played one on KIRO (he hosted in various time slots, including a mid-morning show with Ross, whom he calls “arguably the best broadcaster I’ve ever worked with”). But he says he was never told to rein in his opinions or have a certain take on things. The only thing that was asked of him is that he be interesting.

Which isn’t to say certain trends don’t emerge from KIRO’s hours and hours of local broadcast. While it’s incorrect to use any blanket term to describe the station’s politics, a certain conservative worldview comes into focus if you listen to hours of its programming—which I’ve done, voluntarily, for years. Bike infrastructure—which interferes with KIRO’s prime demographic, people listening to the radio while stuck in traffic—is viewed with heavy suspicion; Mayor Ed Murray is usually cast as a soft-headed liberal getting played by homeless ne’er-do-wells and their self-interested providers; Kshama Sawant … well, they don’t really know what to make of our twice-elected socialist, but they don’t like her. Here’s a sampling of headlines from MyNorthwest.com, the station’s online counterpart, which is largely populated with news stories based on KIRO’s on-air commentary: “Kshama Sawant’s Office Flooded With Hate Emails,” “Data Shows Kshama Sawant May Be the One Who Is Out of Touch,” “On Trump School Protests, Kshama Sawant is Wrong.”

This kind of conservative commentary can be anathema to the bastion of progressive piety that is Seattle. And indeed KIRO hasn’t gone unnoticed by Seattle’s liberal commentators. A quick lap around Twitter shows its hosts have been called “troll” (Jason Rantz, by feminist and urbanist blogger Erica C. Barnett), “hateful buffoon” (Dori Monson, by activist, performer, and Seattle Weekly contributor Brett Hamil), and “shock jocks” (Ron and Don, again by Barnett).

“They view themselves as being mixed-format, but just because they’re not conservative talk doesn’t mean they’re not conservative,” says David Goldstein, a well-know liberal journalist and gadfly who had his own talk show on KIRO from 2006 to 2008. The station’s ownership—Bonneville is owned by the Mormon Church—has also led to conservative conspiracy theories. But even Goldstein is dubious of this story line, saying that he never got pressure from Salt Lake City to tone down his rabidly liberal programming.

Despite this penchant for transgressing Seattle’s progressive norms—or perhaps because of it—KIRO has proven a ratings hog in the Seattle market. The only publicly available ratings show KIRO coming in third in the Seattle-Tacoma market, behind two stations that follow the reliable, and canned, music formulas of Contemporary Hits (Bruno Mars on loop) and Adult Contemporary (Adele on loop). In December, the station clocked at 5.5 market share, according to Nielsen Ratings, which means that on average, one of every 20 radios turned on in the city were tuned in to the station. This puts the news station ahead of KUOW, which splits the public-radio audience with the area’s other NPR affiliate, KNKX. With these strong ratings—which have remained fairly steady over the past three years—the station has been able to avoid the newsroom purges recently experienced by other media outlets.

“The fact that KIRO is as robust as it is, it’s just unbelievable,” Burbank says. “I don’t think there’s anything like KIRO anywhere else in America. What’s happened to talk radio is they’ve had to go really, really conservative. KIRO has hung in the middle, doing [local] radio from 5 a.m. to 10 at night.

“KIRO is a minor miracle, that you’re not hearing 11 hours of satellite and ads for hair-growth treatment. I’m proud of them, and kind of amazed.”

On the Thursday afternoon when Trump is about to be inaugurated and El Chapo is about to meet his fate, Ron Upshaw and Don O’Neill are just digging into their four-hour time slot, 3 to 7 p.m, which covers the all-important afternoon drive time.

The manner in which the two approach the show in the studio is classic broadcast-news chaos—precisely timed cuts to ads, producers whizzing in and out with updates and schedule changes—with an injection of improv comedy. The key to the Ron & Don show is the banter, which they’ve developed through decades of friendship that go back to childhood.

“People sense that chemistry,” Upshaw says before the show. “There’s a willingness to keep it real. When you feel a connection, when you couch it in a certain way, you reveal something that has some real consequence to it. The reason TV news banter is so terrible is that it’s completely inauthentic. They don’t want to offend anyone. And the irony of that is it turns everyone off.”

Upshaw and O’Neill are generally less political than other hosts, but on this day, early in the show, they air a segment by KIRO reporter Rachel Belle about Seattleites who were planning to attend the women’s march in Washington, D.C., the day after the inauguration. Underscoring the fact that KIRO isn’t devoted to the conservative red meat that some think it is, the segment amounts to three straight minutes of Trump-bashing. After politely referring to the ubiquitous pink pussy hats as “p-word hats” (kids may be listening, Belle explains), Belle plays audio of one woman quoting what her friend’s sign is going to say: “Keep your oligarchy out of my vagina.” At this, O’Neill’s face lights up, clearly happy with the little jolt Belle just sent into thousands of cars across the region.

When the segment ends, the three launch into what sounds (and looks) like unscripted banter about, among other things, whether the use of pussy hats excludes transgender women, and how various marginalized groups have reclaimed words, like pussy, over the years. That inevitably leads to discussion of the n-word, which seems like a minefield for three white people to wander into (“When I’m in the car and I sing, I change the lyric to ‘n word’,” says Belle). But they make it through unscathed. Inside the studios, the piece feels like it played well.

While no one at the station is interested in talking bad about the competition, they will say that one advantage KIRO has over, say, NPR is that at its best it can feel very loose and conversational. As Ross puts it, “I’ve come to the conclusion that people tune to radio because we are the last truly live spontaneous media.” Little off-topic comments can draw out local insights, relatable foibles, or ironies in the news. Shortly after the pussy-hat feature, Upshaw and O’Neill turn their attention to Washington’s fairly strict online gambling laws, which hold that it’s a felony to bet on poker or fantasy football. As Upshaw reports the story, O’Neill interjects, sarcasm welling in his throat, “We’re talking about safe places where you can do heroin, but you better not play poker.” Intellectually, one could take issue with the comparison O’Neill draws. But as bar banter it’s pretty good.

On the other hand, the station does have a grumpy populist streak that can encourage some of the city’s more—shall we say—unproductive rhetoric. KIRO hosts, particularly Dori Monson and O’Neill, can boil over into the earsplitting rage that is a hallmark of the conservative radio from which KIRO tries to distance itself. As we wrote in this paper in a 2012 profile of Monson, he “has a reputation as someone who often runs hot and shoots from the hip” (“Dori Monson: A Tempest of Outrage,” Dec. 12). Likewise, O’Neill can get worked up into a screaming lather when it comes to local homeless policy, which he finds too weak.

This is where you can see liberal Seattle bristle. O’Neill and Upshaw caught the ire of Mayor Ed Murray, who seemed to refer to the hosts during a special address on homelessness delivered in January 2016. At the time, O’Neill and Upshaw were urging their readers to call the mayor’s office—giving out the direct line repeatedly over the airwaves—to pressure him to do more to clean up unauthorized encampments and RVs.

Earlier that month, O’Neill did a radio segment on his canvassing of derelict RVs on Queen Anne. In summation, he told listeners: “They are not the homeless. The homeless are at Mary’s Place. These are criminals… . There’s not enough cops, the mayor’s asleep at the switch and now the City Council wants to provide a camping ground? We have lost our minds!”

In his speech, less than a week later, Murray shot back: “The most painful part of this discussion has been the vilification and degradation of homeless people—at public meetings, on the radio, and in social media—as filthy, drug-addicted criminals. Often these attacks have gone unchallenged.”

O’Neill acknowledges that those comments were directed at him and Upshaw, but says they were misguided. Like it or not, he argues, their viewpoints reflect a significant swath of Seattle’s population, a segment that many media outlets—including Seattle Weekly at times—are at odds with. As one KIRO staffer noted to me off-hand, “We speak for the forgotten Seattle.”

“We want to be the voice of the people, and the people are fed up,” says O’Neill. He says that last fall he and Upshaw “took our feet off the gas pedal” on the homeless issue, meaning they stopped raising the issue as much on their show. He says neighborhood groups continued to turn out in big numbers at community forums to oppose the mayor’s policy. “When you start seeing piles of garbage everywhere, when you see it spilling into the neighborhoods, the rise in petty crime. That’s not coming from our agenda. That’s coming from every neighborhood.” (The two are also not single-note on homelessness; earlier this year they used their media presence to hold a donation drive for Union Gospel Mission).

It is unclear, though, whether KIRO’s more conservative voices, for all their strong ratings, move the needle on Seattle politics.

From noon, when Monson gets on the mic, to 10 p.m., when Jason Rantz and his co-host Zak Burns sign off, anything approaching a compliment toward the mayor or the City Council is rare on KIRO. And yet, though it’s early in the election season, the Council seems poised to become yet more liberal, what with Tim Burgess not seeking re-election and a strong slate of progressive candidates lining up to fill his spot; meanwhile, Murray appears to be in a strong position to win four more years as mayor. In December, his re-election campaign released polling data showing a 60 percent favorability rating.

KIRO picked up a story about those figures, with City Hall reporter Mike Lewis giving a straight report on the lack of challengers stepping up to run against him. Mike Salk, who was filling in for Ron & Don—on Martin Luther King Day—weighed in. “I’ll admit to being a little surprised by this. I’m surprised the homeless issue and what’s happened with the jungle and just driving through the freeways of Seattle and seeing the amount of homelessness that you do … that hasn’t reflected more negatively on him.”

Of course, KIRO’s signal beams far beyond Seattle city limits, and while geographic ratings are not publicly available, it’s certain that a large portion of KIRO’s listeners live there. “My sense is there is probably a really strong listenership with the suburban areas. For those people, ‘Look, the politicians screwed it up again’ resonates out there better than it does in Wallingford,” says Burbank. “I think there are a lot of people who live in the suburbs and exurbs of Seattle, and they have to drive into Seattle, and when they come into Seattle they encounter the challenges of big-city life, and they have a lot of thoughts and feels.”

In searching for the reason Seattle tunes in to KIRO radio, I am also searching for the reason I tune in. There are ads, and Lord knows I could go to my grave happy never hearing Tom Shane’s nasal bray try to sell me diamonds. The commentary can feel light on facts and heavy on conjecture. And there’s a fine line between populism and pandering, to which its hosts sometimes seem oblivious. Yet I consistently choose to listen to KIRO over KUOW or KNKX. My idle theory had been that it is always local, or at least from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., when Coast to Coast radio takes over. As someone who makes his living reporting on what’s going on in Seattle—who, as Dave Ross said, has already read the news—I’m always curious to hear what other people have to say about that news, even if it’s a bit out-there. But in talking to Ross about a certain kind of Seattle listener’s obvious enjoyment of even the most conservative voices on the station, he touched on a more visceral explanation: sheer human connection. “It’s hosts that are local, that are sitting in the same traffic as you are. One thing people forget about Dori is he’s funny, he’s an entertainer. I think people understand that he’s having fun with a topic.”

Indeed, for all the serious news happening the day before Trump gets sworn into office, Ron and Don seem intent on keeping things light. As the second hour of their show charges along, the two men turn their attention to Obama’s final day in office. Don works in an extended bit about what presidents have typically done on their final days. The segment might verge on the dreaded stentorian news reading were it not packaged tightly in banter, which includes some pretty wild speculation about what Obama might be up to.

They then turn to the letters presidents have left their successors in the Oval Office. Starting with one penned by Ronald Reagan, Don reads several in full, and the extended monologue, combined with the somewhat stuffy language presidents seem to use when writing each other, makes the segment feel sluggish.

But then, just when listeners may be losing interest and reaching for the “scan” button, Ron finishes with the letters and the two launch into some back-and-forth about how Trump might react to the letter Obama leaves him. Falling back into their boyhood repartee, they bat around the idea.

“I would imagine Donald Trump will probably take a picture of the letter, then tweet it out at all of us,” O’Neill prompts.

Upshaw picks up the thread, mimicking a possible tweet: “This letter is a total fraud!”

O’Neill, now practically yelling as the routine climaxes: “This letter is fake news!!!” It’s quick and it’s funny. The segment feels saved, and now it’s time to check in on traffic.

dperson@seattleweekly.com

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