At KPLU studios in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, some employees said they’re disappointed that Pacific Lutheran University would sell the station.
KPLU reporter Gabriel Spitzer said that right up to this announcement he had been making plans for the new local program he hosts, called "Sound Effect." This announcement came as a shock.
On Thursday, KUOW General Manager Caryn Mathes announced that KUOW and KPLU had reached an agreement for KUOW to buy KPLU’s assets for $8 million.
KUOW 94.9 and KPLU 88.5 have had a long relationship – both are Seattle-area stations that air NPR programs along with local news -- but KPLU has another identity as the region’s jazz station. The two stations help fund a network of regional journalists, and they hold joint events for their donors.
KPLU employees learned of the intent of sale in the jazz studios where performances are held.
“There’s, you know, a certain amount of gallows humor, but people are freaked out,” Spitzer said.
“None of us are guaranteed jobs,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine a future where all of these reporters remain employed. So in that sense, it feels like a loss for the region to lose professional journalists.”
General Manager Joey Cohn said he’s thrilled about the full-time jazz service, which is something Seattle has never had, but feelings are mixed.
“People are sad obviously, I mean we’ve had people that have worked here for decades and very proud of the work that they do,” Cohn said. “But I think given the options of what could occur, I think that this is the best option for the future of public radio in this market.”
He said KPLU’s signature sound has been its light-heartedness and warmth, and a listener connection with the on-air hosts.
“It’s the people, it’s talent that we have here, it’s a sense of humor,” he said. “It’s a soul.”
But it’s unclear now what will happen to KPLU’s employees: 36 full-time and 15 part-time. Mathes said there are a few upcoming hires in the KUOW newsroom regardless of the deal, but that all employees will have to apply through the UW’s open process.
Spitzer said there’s a lot of uncertainty, since their jobs will continue as usual until FCC approval. That could take a year if someone opposes the deal.
Officials with Seattle’s two NPR stations, KUOW and KPLU, say they have discussed combining forces for years.
Mathes spoke at a meeting of the University of Washington’s Board of Regents, which approved the deal as KUOW’s license holder. Mathes said KUOW would become the sole provider of NPR and Northwest news, while KPLU’s frequency would become home to a new all-jazz service.
“We hope to entice millennials and even their younger cohorts in the door with compelling music, events and music education programs as well as with the news and information that tells stories that resonates with them,” Mathes said.
Mathes said KUOW’s studios in the University District would host the jazz service as well, and the station would hire several people to run it. She said KUOW could broaden its reach using parts of KPLU's existing radio network. The rest of that network would be used for the jazz service.
“KPLU 88.5 has four full-power FMs and then translators, so 11 frequencies total,” Mathes said. “Once the arrangement closes with the FCC, we’ll be reapportioning what’s on those 11 frequencies, so the news will get greater reach.”
Pacific Lutheran University spokeswoman Donna Gibbs said the context for the sale was that radio audiences “have been slowly diminishing” each year.
“It makes sense to pursue a shared vision” rather than splitting the NPR audience between the two stations, she said. She and Mathes both said the duplication of NPR programs on the two stations was a major reason for the change.
Editor’s note: To help us cover this story accurately and fairly, we received editorial assistance from our partners at Oregon Public Broadcasting.