More than 200 people showed up at a meeting of KPLU’s Community Advisory Council on Monday to express frustration over the recently announced sale of the public radio station by its owner, Pacific Lutheran University, to the University of Washington, and its licensee KUOW.
The meeting gave the public its first chance to offer feedback on a sale negotiated without much attention ahead of its announcement on November 12. And there wasn't a lot of gray area there. People came to talk about why they support the station's mix of jazz and news, and to vent their frustrations over its sudden sale.
“When I first heard about the news I cried. I'm heartbroken. It's like losing a trusted friend,” Linda Farmer said. She was one of about two dozen people to speak up against the acquisition.
"I consider myself a KUOW refugee,” fellow listener Janine Blaeloch added. “I feel totally betrayed that some of the money I poured into that station is being used to buy my new favorite station."
For the record, KUOW released a fact sheet on Tuesday afternoon stating that listeners don’t give directly to the reserve that it would use to buy KPLU.
A third listener, Ashley Salazar, gave an emotional plea. "Hi my name is Ashley, I humbly come before you as the spouse of a special forces military member. And KPLU has been there for me for a decade of many sleepless nights,” she said to applause.
University of Washington spokesman Norm Arkans said three boards had to approve the sale and that it’s a good deal. He also said that from U-W’s perspective, their stewardship brings a demonstrated commitment to public media excellence that might not have been there if PLU had found another buyer.
"So you had an entity that was saying ‘we're going to sell the station,’ Arkans said. “And if we don't step up and buy it who does?"
Defenders of the deal say it eliminates hours of overlap in broadcasting national shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Arkins said going forward KUOW’s 94.9 channel exclusively will carry news. The KPLU bands will be all jazz.
But what concerned many KPLU fans at the meeting was why the university was eager to let the station go. KPLU news director Erin Hennessey said most of the numbers show a station in good health.
"KPLU has the 12th largest public radio audience in the country, and it has grown tremendously over the years,” she said
According to a report earlier this year, KPLU’s audience grew by 21 percent over the last half decade. And their most recent pledge-drive exceeded its target goal by almost $50,000 -- which anyone in public radio will tell you is a really good problem to have.
During the meeting, Lisa Cubbins was one member of the public to raise questions about Pacific Lutheran's financial health.
"If you look up the University's bond rating, PLU's finances look bleak,” Cubbins noted.
In fact, a report in September by the ratings agency Standard and Poor’s downgraded PLU’s credit outlook and said the university didn’t have enough liquidity -- cash. Pacific Lutheran refused multiple requests for an interview on tape for this story, but spokesperson Donna Gibbs responded in an email that the sale "had nothing to with PLU finances."
The other issue that troubled KPLU listeners and staff alike was the complete surprise of the announcement. Even as the terms of sale were being finalized this fall, KPLU carried out its fund-raising campaign, negotiated a new union contract, and made new hires.
"We had just hired a Morning Edition Producer,” said KPLU Director of Content Matt Martinez. He said they called the producer the Thursday the sale was announced as she was driving through Montana to Seattle.
“She was set to start on Monday, and we had to give her a call and let her know that the station has been sold,” Martinez said.
Martinez is in the same boat. He left NPR after 15 years to take his job at KPLU in August.
"I thought I would be here close to retirement,” he said.
The two universities have until December 18 to finalize the sale, which must ultimately be approved by the FCC. In the meantime, the Community Advisory Council is submitting a letter to PLU opposing the sale, and asking them to consider alternative options.
Editor’s note: The Northwest News Network is funded in part by KUOW and KPLU. N3 hired an independent reporter and editor for this story.