Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Washington say they are open to considering a bid from an outside group for the public-radio station KPLU, which was set to be sold to the UW.
Supporters of KPLU are celebrating a potential reprieve for the public-radio station after Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Washington confirmed they are open to considering a bid on KPLU from an outside buyer.
The news means the UW, which was set to purchase KPLU’s license from PLU, would back away from the deal if a community-based group were able to make a successful bid.
“This is very good news,” said Stephen Tan, chair of KPLU’s advisory committee — which, he said, was not informed of the proposed acquisition until a surprise vote by the UW Board of Regents approved the purchase in November. The two universities, he said, were “moved by the public outcry about the loss of KPLU, a station that is very much respected.”
PLU had signed a letter of intent to sell KPLU — a news, jazz and blues station — to the UW, which owns the license to KUOW, another public-radio station with an all-news and talk format. Under the terms of the original deal, KPLU would have become an all-music station with new call letters, its news operation would have been dropped and KUOW would have acquired its transmitters, increasing its broadcasting footprint around the region.
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Any sale of KPLU, whether to the UW or an independent entity, would have to be approved by the Federal Communications Commission, which could take several months.
PLU stands to gain $8 million from the transaction, which it says will go toward the university’s endowment. (At $84 million, PLU’s endowment is above average for its size, but the university also faces challenges, including several years of operating deficits and a recently downgraded bond rating by Standard & Poor’s.)
If the sale goes through, PLU will also have full access to the Neeb Center, a campus building that houses one of KPLU’s broadcasting facilities, as well as the university’s office of development. The construction of the center, Tan wrote in an open letter protesting the sale, “was funded primarily through donations by KPLU supporters,” who gave $6 million to the station’s capital campaign, as well as the sale of a KPLU broadcast tower.
“It’s interesting that people donated money (to pay for the building) thinking that it was going to a KPLU facility and now PLU is taking it over,” said Cliff Mass, a UW professor of atmospheric sciences and KPLU commentator. (Mass was a commentator at KUOW until 2011 when his weather segments were discontinued.)
Because KPLU would lose its news team under the proposed agreement with UW, news employees at the station were told they could apply for jobs at KUOW, though there would be no guarantees.
The next step in the proposed deal is to sign an asset-purchase agreement, which the two universities plan to finalize by Jan. 15, said PLU spokeswoman Donna Gibbs. But in the past week, PLU and the UW have begun negotiating an addendum to allow what she calls “an alternative-buyer scenario.”
Gibbs said PLU administrators were surprised by the extent of community dissent over the proposed sale. “We had studied other public-radio sales and community reactions,” she said. “We were prepared that there would be some concerns and outcry … but the tone has been very critical.
“People clearly want to be given the opportunity to raise funds to carry KPLU on as an independent, community-licensed station,” she added. “We say, ‘fine.’ ”
Since the initial announcement of the proposed acquisition, Gibbs and PLU President Thomas Krise have argued that the station’s overlapping National Public Radio programming is redundant, though each station has its own news team.
“We believe public radio can be better served by consolidating the audience and not competing for the same finite dollars,” Gibbs said.
The UW, said Associate Vice President Norm Arkans, is happy to “step aside” if a community-based group submits a competing bid. “But,” he added, “they’ll need resources.”
Mass is confident that KPLU supporters can find those resources. “KPLU has to raise the money to buy their freedom,” he said. “I’ve had dozens of people contact me about giving large sums of money. I do not believe there will be any difficulty at all getting the funds together.”
A new nonprofit called Friends of KPLU registered with Washington state on Dec. 10 and, Tan said, would likely spearhead any community-fundraising efforts to purchase the station. “We’ve been hamstrung by the fact that this movement is only a month old,” Tan said, adding that he is not formally involved with Friends of KPLU. “It was a major grass-roots effort.”
Both Tan and Mass say they’re heartened by the outpouring of public support for keeping KPLU an independent news station. “It’s just extraordinary that the community can say ‘no’ to something like this,” Mass said. “It’s a very encouraging story in that way.”
“But,” he added, “the deal isn’t closed yet.”