Eyewitness weather: Cliff Mass and KUOW


An ingenious instrument which indicates what kind of weather we are having.

— Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary


There used to be a sitcom on TV titled WKRP in Cincinnati. Les Nessman, the weatherman, was heard on-air bringing the "Eyewitness Weather" report. On being questioned, he admitted: "well, I look outside and see what the weather is."

On the other end of the spectrum we have Cliff Mass, local luminary, meteorologist and UW faculty member. Cliff has been presenting weather on our local NPR station, KUOW, not just as an animated map (try that on radio) but incorporating a peek behind the curtain, letting the gentle listener hear the lingo as the big weather dogs speak it, gaining a small understanding of The Big Picture behind our local weather.

No longer. Cliff has been canned.

Cliff made a mistake. Not by predicting a sunny weekend in error, or by referring to a Cirrus cloud as a Cumulus (terms few people would ever have heard on the radio if not for him). He didn't cause thousands of people to leave their umbrellas home for The Big Game somewhere.

No, Cliff dared to discuss science and mathematics from time to time on his show. That's right, math. This became indigestible for KUOW, who know how math people can get out of hand from time to time (math riots in particular can be quite, er, problematic). Going further, Cliff deigned to discuss the state of math education, veering into the politically thorny territory of UW admissions criteria. This seemed to prick both the UW Admissions folks and, more importantly, KUOW management.

As happens with anything political, swirl ensued, mud flew. A few interesting bits:

UW admissions policy regarding in-state and out-of-state students, GPA, and tuition levels. Or grade inflation in local school systems and "when does a 4.0 really mean a 4.0?" Ironically, it seems like Cliff might actually have been defending UW admissions policy against a story in the Seattle Times when he crossed the meteorological line.

Or public radio management drawing boundaries around acceptable topics for those presenting on air. College admissions shenanigans appear to be less of a hot potato than legalization of marijuana.

Or how a public radio station can hope to remain fresh and relevant when the management roster hasn't really changed in a decade. I've wondered for years now when I'll hear more than the same four voices on KUOW. Has the station become a club where the main operational goal is to preserve the places of those few in power rather than, as is their charter, provide information for the public good?

In the end, KUOW (specifically Steve Scher and Katy Sewall) fired Cliff. By email.

You can read Cliff's account on his blog.

It may be that the only way we'll continue to hear Cliff's voice in the future will be through podcasts: "Canned Cliff".