KPLU Supporters Get Their Wish: A Chance to Buy Radio Station | KUOW News and Information

KPLU Supporters Get Their Wish: A Chance to Buy Radio Station

Dec 18, 2015

Fans of KPLU are expressing delight at news that the public radio station might not disappear after all.

Hundreds of KPLU listeners have been fighting the station's proposed sale to competing public radio station KUOW and its license holder, the University of Washington. This week they won a key victory.

Officials from UW and Pacific Lutheran University, which holds the license for KPLU, said they have been renegotiating their deal. They now aim to give the deal's opponents a chance to raise money to buy KPLU — and keep it on the air.

"It's essentially what we've been asking for several weeks now," said Stephen Tan, chair of KPLU's Community Advisory Council. "I'm grateful that the administrations and the regents at both universities listened to the concerns that were raised by the public."

Under the original deal, announced Nov. 12, the universities had a Dec. 18 deadline to finalize the purchase of the news and jazz station with its main signal at 88.5 FM.

Under that deal, KUOW — the news and information station at 94.9 FM — would buy KPLU for $8 million. Pending FCC approval, KUOW would operate a jazz station at the 88.5 frequency. The KPLU newsroom and brand would be eliminated.

On Thursday, the universities pushed the Dec. 18 deadline back to Jan. 15. UW spokesperson Norm Arkans said they needed more time to negotiate the details of an unusual two-track deal: one allowing a community group to put together an offer for KPLU at the same time the sale to KUOW continues to work its way toward FCC approval. The community group would get to buy the station if it can make an offer acceptable to PLU before the FCC gives KUOW final approval.

"It's stunning," said Keith Seinfeld, a former KPLU reporter who is administrator of the website. "It seemed impossible a month ago."

Rising Volume of Complaints

When the plan to purchase KPLU was announced, KUOW publicity materials emphasized the 65 hours per week of duplicated — and expensive — national programming airing on the competing stations each week. KUOW's website said the purchase "strengthens our radio community with a dedicated jazz station, and broadens the reach of our news and information station."

But criticism began soon after the purchase was announced, and the chorus of complaints grew louder in the following weeks.

"The idea that the public would have no voice at all in one of the major stations in the region disappearing, I think that that was wrong, and people realized it was wrong," Seinfeld said.

KUOW received hundreds of critical emails and phone calls. The station hired a crisis communications firm, Strategies 360, to help respond to the backlash.

"The vast majority of emails in the past week and a half were, 'you need to give the station the chance to be purchased by a community group,'” Arkans said Wednesday. "And the volume of that was rising."

(Full disclosure: Arkans sits on the KUOW board of directors.)

The loosely organized campaign of letter writing and phone calls — spurred in part by KPLU's Community Advisory Council's opposition to the sale — drew the attention of UW President Ana Mari Cauce.

Arkans said Cauce, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, was moved by the many complaints she saw about the deal's secrecy and its impact on the listening public.

"She said we need to be listening to the community," Arkans said. "And if this is what the desire is, then we should at the least give them a chance to see if they can pull the resources together, and if they can, then we will step back."

Coming Up Next: Fundraising

The question now is: Can loosely organized protesters of the sale shift gears to become multimillion-dollar fundraisers? Keith Seinfeld and Stephen Tan both said they were optimistic, having heard from many people asking where and how they could donate.

"I don't know that it's going to be any harder than what the last month was to get where we are today," Seinfeld said. "So that gives me hope that we can really do it."

The months-long process of gaining FCC approval for the sale to KUOW will continue even as supporters of KPLU try to put together the funding and other infrastructure needed to run a public radio station.

The nonprofit Friends of KPLU incorporated on Dec. 10. Tan said the group doesn't have any staff yet.

It remains unclear how much money supporters of KPLU would need to raise, what organization would raise it, or what else would be required for a successful bid to PLU. Arkans said what constitutes an acceptable offer is entirely up to PLU.

PLU spokesperson Donna Gibbs could not be reached for comment.

KUOW plans to pay for the $8 million purchase with $4.5 million from its reserves, a $2.5 million loan and $1 million worth of on-air underwriting credits.

KPLU had $8.3 million in expenses in 2014, according to the station's latest financial report.