Nine weeks ago, KPLU learned it might be sold to the University of Washington — so the public-radio station started a fundraising campaign to buy its autonomy.
Nine weeks after a surprise announcement that the University of Washington intends to buy KPLU, employees and supporters of the public-radio station have launched a fundraising campaign to try to buy the station themselves.
Donna Gibbs, a vice president at Pacific Lutheran University — which owns KPLU’s broadcasting license — says the two universities began negotiating the sale in the early months of 2015. That came as a surprise to the station’s staff, listeners and advisory board, who first heard about the deal when UW regents publicly voted to approve the acquisition on Nov. 12.
During an emotional KPLU community meeting Nov. 23, longtime listener Lan Mosher described the acquisition as “a kick in the teeth” to the local media landscape.
Under the terms of the proposed sale, KPLU — which has a split format of news plus jazz and blues — would change its call sign and become an all-music station. KUOW, which is owned by the University of Washington, would retain its all-news programming.
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The UW regents’ vote didn’t finalize the sale, which is subject to approval by the Federal Communications Commission.
After weeks of public outcry after the vote, the UW decided to allow an independent community group to make its own bid for KPLU, effectively giving the station a chance to buy itself out of the deal — if it can raise enough money to match UW’s offer.
“We have a huge challenge in front of us,” said KPLU general manager Joey Cohn.
The station has to create an independent nonprofit and raise at least $7 million by June 30. So far, the campaign — which began Jan. 11 — has raised $150,000.
“Two percent in,” Cohn said, “98 percent to go … Right now, time is our enemy and urgency is our friend.”
Station supporters are confident they can raise the funds. “They’re going to get the money together in a dizzyingly short period of time,” said Cliff Mass, a UW professor of atmospheric sciences and KPLU commentator. Mass had been a commentator at KUOW until his weather segments were discontinued in 2011.
“Many, many hundreds of people have lined up to give money, and some of those donations are very, very big,” Mass said.
Stuart Rolfe, president of Wright Hotels and the former CEO of the Space Needle, is one of those prospective donors. “I’m a particular fan of the KPLU staff,” he said. “I like the mix of news and music. I think KUOW is a little less imaginative.”
KPLU’s effort to become independent, he said, will require more than just fundraising; it will also present logistical challenges.
The station partially operates out of the Neeb Center, a building on PLU’s campus whose construction was largely funded by KPLU listeners. Some of the station’s equipment has been funded by government grants that will remain in effect until 2019.
“There’s a lot to analyze to figure out what the terms of this transaction will be,” Rolfe said. “It’s a complex deal that will require some scrutiny.”
KPLU supporters say there’s more than just a radio station at stake. Journalism in the Puget Sound region has faced contractions and cutbacks in the past few years, from the shuttering of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s print edition in 2009 to recent layoffs at The Seattle Weekly and staff reductions at The Seattle Times.
Sam Fleming, director of news and programming at WBUR in Boston, said the dissolution of any newsroom, whether in print or radio, is cause for concern. “Think about the tens of thousands of journalists we’ve lost in the past 10 years,” he said. “It’s important that we work as a united front to create a model that winds up working.”
Critics of KUOW say it has scaled down local reporting and increasingly relies on syndicated National Public Radio content to fill its airtime.
Cohn said KPLU has retained communications attorney Ernest Sanchez as an adviser. Sanchez has worked with other radio stations that have become independent, including KUNC in Colorado, WBEZ in Chicago and KEXP in Seattle, which used to be part of UW.
KUNC President Neil Best said a 2001 push to make the station independent raised over $2 million in 20 days.
“It’s worked out very well for us,” he said. “Our budget is three times the size and the news department is about five times the size of what it was. We just purchased a second station that allows us to be all music on one, all news on the other. None of those things would’ve happened if we’d been part of the university. We’ve been allowed to grow and have our freedom.”