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Puget Sound’s public news landscape shrinks as KUOW buys out KPLU

KUOW will buy KPLU for $8 million. Credit: Amy/Flickr

This story has been updated.

Two of the Northwest’s public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW, will soon become one. Both organizations announced Thursday that Pacific Lutheran University will sell KPLU to the University of Washington-based KUOW for $8 million. The University of Washington’s board of regents approved the deal Thursday afternoon.

One source has told Crosscut that the majority of KPLU’s staff learned of the acquisition only hours before it was made public in the station’s noon editorial meeting.

According to a statement from KUOW, KPLU’s station, 88.5 FM, will now exclusively broadcast jazz, while all news and NPR programs will shift over to KUOW, at 94.9 PM. But while KUOW says it will have job openings at the jazz station, it makes no mention of KPLU’s news staff.

However, as one source made clear, this is an acquisition of assets not a merger, which means KUOW is mostly buying the good stuff – equipment and licenses – and leaving behind any lingering debt KPLU may be carrying. It also means that KPLU’s news team would almost certainly not make the trip north to the University District, although KUOW has said there are openings with the radio station and has apparently encouraged KPLU’s 36 staff to interview.

Donna Gibbs, PLU’s VP of marketing and communications, said the two organizations have been looking for ways to combine for “probably a dozen or more years.”

Gibbs initially said the decision was not financially motivated. “This was really driven by an opportunity to create two destinations where people who want to listen to jazz music have their place at 88.5, and people who want to hear news can do so at 94.9,” she told Crosscut over the phone.

She later said, however, that “each year, the value of this asset [KPLU] diminishes,” calling the decision to sell KPLU a “strategic decision based on where we can best put our assets.” She added that this will allow the university to add $7 million to its endowment.

When asked what it means to have one fewer news source in the region, Gibbs said, “I would point to the fact that we’re living in the time of proliferation of avenues to get news from – whether it’s Crosscut or bloggers. The Seattle P-I was going out of business and now they have a vibrant online destination.”

KPLU began in Tacoma in 1966 as Pacific Lutheran University’s radio station. While the station later moved the majority of its offices up to Seattle, it continues to have offices in Tacoma, and has remained an affiliate of PLU, receiving $1.5 million from the university in 2014. That’s about 1 percent of PLU’s total budget, according to public records.

PLU’s contributions to the station were down by nearly a half a million dollars since 2011. Gibb said that may have been the result of a smaller KPLU staff on the PLU campus.

KPLU’s fundraising, meanwhile, has increased every year over that same period, up nearly $1 million between 2011 and 2014. But operations and broadcasting costs have increased, and KPLU’s overall value has been slipping. At the end of 2014, KPLU was valued at about $9.2 million down from $9.8 million in 2011, according to public records.

KPLU is already much smaller than KUOW, which had 2014 net assets totaling nearly $17 million. But as anyone who lives in South King County knows, KUOW’s reach is limited. By purchasing KPLU, that reach will almost instantaneously expand. The same goes for KPLU’s jazz programming.

According to Timie Dolan with KUOW, KPLU staff will remain with the radio station until the FCC approves the license transfer, which will take up to six months.

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