The announcement in late November that Pacific Lutheran University intended to sell its popular National Public Radio affiliate and jazz music station, KPLU (88.5 FM), to the University of Washington was met with disappointment and resignation that another valued source of state and regional journalism was likely being silenced.
Following the sale, the UW would have shuttered KPLU’s news operations and changed its format to an all-jazz station. The university said the station’s news staff would be laid off, but could apply for positions at KUOW (94.9 FM), the region’s other major NPR affiliate, but it made no promises to hire KPLU staff or even that new positions at KUOW would be created.
There’s now some hope that the station and its local programming, even without its familiar call letters, might survive.
Officials with UW and PLU are negotiating an addendum to the purchase agreement that would allow a community group to make a competing offer for the radio station. A UW official said the university will “stand down” from its acquisition of the station if a group can make a successful bid. Such an effort has about six months to put an offer together while the Federal Communications Commission reviews the UW’s purchase of KPLU.
It’s a smart move by the UW. The pending sale of the station was controversial because PLU officials negotiated and approved the deal without notifying or considering feedback from KPLU’s Community Advisory Council. The council, a requirement of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting as a condition of the federal funding the station receives, had no opportunity to comment until after the deal was made public.
KUOW, like KPLU relies heavily on donations from listeners. Nearly 90 percent of KUOW’s revenue comes from the donations of listeners, businesses and corporations. And many of KUOW’s supporters also are supporters and listeners of KPLU. The University of Washington risks alienating many of KUOW’s supporters unless it is seen as giving a community group a fair shot at making a competitive offer.
While there is some overlap of national NPR programming, the station’s local news operations are separate. The loss of KPLU’s news division would be noticeable throughout the state and the Northwest. Compared to the hour of local daily talk programming and short news segments during NPR broadcasts that KUOW offers, KPLU is a major provider of quality journalism.
Recently, its new staff teamed with the Seattle Times to produce a two-segment report on the state’s clean energy grants and whether public funds should be used for emerging clean energy technologies.
KPLU also offers enjoyable and informative segments including its weekly talks with climatologist Cliff Mass and sports columnist Art Thiel. It also originated the popular daily segment about birds and the environment, “BirdNote,” which is now broadcast by more than 100 stations across the country.
Beyond the journalism, the sale also risks the loss of KPLU’s current staff of jazz and blues hosts, who offer original programming and innovative efforts, including School of Jazz, which encourages and promotes young jazz musicians in the region.
It’s also worth noting that KPLU’s broadcast signal is the stronger of the two stations for most of Snohomish County.
A successful offer by a community group, likely headed by the KPLU Community Advisory Council, would require the mother of all pledge drives. The UW has offered $7 million for the radio station; a competitive offer will have to come close to matching that.
Listeners of KPLU should support the drive, but anyone interested in preserving a vital source of local journalism should help as well.