Save KPLU effort nears its $7 million goal

With about seven weeks remaining in its bid to raise $7 million to purchase public radio station KPLU (88.5 FM) from Pacific Lutheran University, the Friends of 88.5 FM has made some changes to its campaign in the interests of transparency and clarity, following a request by the Tacoma-based university.

Friends of 88.5 FM launched the fundraising campaign earlier this year after news broke of the University of Washington’s move to purchase the radio station from PLU, which would have ended KPLU’s news operations and turned the station into an all-jazz station.

Had the UW purchased KPLU, the station’s news staff and presumably its jazz hosts would have been laid off. Although told they could apply for jobs at KUOW (94.9 FM), the region’s other major public radio station, there were no promises made to hire KPLU’s journalists and other staff.

Following public outcry, both the UW and PLU agreed to modify their agreement to allow a community group to make a completing bid and keep the radio station operating independently.

Public response to the campaign has indicated a strong desire among Western Washington’s public radio listeners to keep two vital stations open. Friends of 88.5 FM has raised a little more than $6 million, and have recently announced a $500,000 challenge grant from other donors, matching donations dollar for dollar between now and June 3. If successful the challenge grant will push the campaign past its $7 million goal well before a June 30 deadline.

But those now making a donation to the campaign may notice a difference when the go to KPLU’s website. Following the request of a PLU attorney, the campaign has moved its presence from the KPLU page to a separate website and has removed the KPLU logo from its fundraising appeals. Donors now are being directed to SaveKPLU.org, although a link to the campaign website remains at KPLU.org.

And out of concern that some donors to the campaign may have confused donations to the Save KPLU effort and to KPLU’s ongoing operations, Friends of 88.5 and PLU are working to give those who donated the opportunity to clarify their intent.

All are good moves that will strengthen a successful bid by the independent group to purchase the station and keep it open.

But that same transparency and clarity should also have been modeled by the University of Washington and Pacific Lutheran University much earlier.

As outlined in a report by the Seattle Times last week, UW officials worked successfully to keep the pending agreement on the UW’s intent to purchase the station under wraps until just before the UW Board of Regents voted to approve it in November. The negotiations were even given the code word, “Fight Club,” a cheeky reference to the 1999 Edward Norton movie of the same name and its tagline, “The first rule about Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.”

Records, the Times reported, showed representatives for the two universities had signed the letter of intent prior to the board of regents meeting, and that news of the agreement was announced to the KPLU staff and other stakeholders a little more than an hour before the vote. Likewise, KPLU’s Community Advisory Council was not notified of the proposed sale before its approval, as is required by rules tied to the station’s federal funding.

The UW and PLU can be credited with being open to a competitive bid. Although PLU legally has the discretion to accept either bid, we will note that PLU has allowed the Save KPLU campaign to use airtime without charge and, until recently, the use of the station’s website to seek donations.

But more transparency in the discussions between UW and PLU and earlier notice of PLU’s intent to sell its radio station would have resulted in a better outcome for all involved.

And we’ll repeat our call that keeping a second public radio station in the region, one that has provided a strong, independent voice for journalism — and jazz and blues, to boot — is worthy of support.

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