The sale of KPLU to KUOW was a decision between two universities – Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Washington. As became quickly obvious in the hours and days following the announcement, the internal staff of KPLU, from top to bottom, was not aware of any negotiations or intention on the part of PLU to sell the radio station.
The drama is a near perfect repeat of a David vs. Goliath story from the early 2000s involving KUNC, a small NPR station in Greeley, Colorado, and the larger Colorado Public Radio. The narrative is so close, in fact, it has seeded a belief among some at KPLU that, if given the opportunity, the station could have appealed to its listeners and perhaps hung onto its license.
Amid a confusing rollout in which KPLU staff received notice only half an hour before other media learned of the sale, the shock and anger at the station seeped out into the public eye. At the base of the obvious concern for the futures of KPLU’s reporters and staff has been a frustration that the station was not given the opportunity to make a counter offer to purchase its own fate.
Pacific Lutheran University — widely known as PLU — holds the license to the station, as it has since 1966, and contributes to its operating costs. The University also owns the station's Tacoma broadcast studio and equipment. But KPLU itself is a separate entity.
To raise the more than $7 million dollars that would have been needed to match the University of Washington's purchase offer would have no doubt been a heavy lift for KPLU.
But now that the ball is rolling, that option has apparently faded into the rearview mirror.
According to Donna Gibbs, the VP of Marketing and Communications with PLU, talks of merging with KUOW have been on the table for more than a dozen years. The reasons for the talks and the eventual sale tend to follow two threads of logic: PLU believes this is what’s best for public radio. And Pacific Lutheran believes this is what’s best for itself as a university.
With regard to the first thread, PLU has taken the firm line that, essentially, KPLU is redundant. And to that, there is some truth. Both stations carry nationally produced programs All Things Considered and Morning Edition, resulting in about nine hours of overlap a day. “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,” said Gibbs last week. In an e-mail Tuesday, Gibbs echoed much the same sentiment. “We believe this is a natural union between two stations that for many years have shared a common mission and a common region,” she said.
Further, in purchasing KPLU, KUOW’s reach is expanded greatly, especially in the populous Tacoma market.
From PLU’s perspective, it is not hard to see why the university may have lost interest in playing host. The once Tacoma-centered station has long since moved the majority of its operations up to Seattle. The university has donated about $1.5 million in facilities and equipment to the station. And according to Gibbs, in an apparent reference to changes in digital delivery of news and music, “The value of this asset [KPLU] diminishes each year.”
In selling KPLU, PLU gets two things in exchange. One, PLU will add $7 million to its more than $80 million endowment. When asked if the desire for the money was a sign of some trouble at PLU, Gibbs said “absolutely not.” Public finance records back this up, showing assets, revenue and the endowment all growing consistently since 2011. Gibbs says enrollment is up as well.
Two, PLU gains full control of its Neeb Center – home to the campus’ Office of Development as well as the KPLU broadcast station. The slick building was built for $5.9 million over 18 months, completed in June of 2009 and promptly awarded a LEED Gold ranking by the U.S. Green Building Council. Public finance records show that PLU was donating to KPLU about $1.5 million worth of space and equipment within that building.
As a private institution, PLU does not have the fiduciary responsibility to entertain competing offers nor does the university have any real obligation to maintain KPLU. Frustrations, therefore, have more to do with what KPLU staff and listeners feel like the university should have done, which is consult with the people of KPLU who are the representatives of public radio. Indeed, the resume of PLU President Thomas Krise shows no background in journalism. And of the 37 voting members of the PLU board of regents, none list occupations related to journalism or public media.
In the immediate aftermath of the sale, and perhaps thanks to what appears to have been awkward unveiling of the news (one source suggests that KUOW somehow released the news three hours ahead of an intended embargo) KPLU was not holding its tongue. “It perplexes us,” read one e-mail from KPLU’s listener services to a concerned listener, “why Pacific Lutheran University was not open, nor did they ask us, if we would be able to raise funds to counter an offer. Frankly, we were completely made unaware of PLU's intent until yesterday (November 12), when it was too late. It seems they had no interest in providing us or our public supporters with an opportunity to weigh in. Very frustrating to our staff and supporters alike.”
Since last week, however, KPLU staff are noticeably less able to respond to questions, referring all media requests to Gibbs at PLU. When Crosscut contacted KPLU’s listener services Tuesday to attribute the comments in the e-mail to someone specific, the department wouldn’t elaborate and only offered to provide Gibbs’ phone number.
The Great Hope for KPLU lives in Greeley, home to just under 100,000 people and the University of Northern Colorado. Greeley’s KUNC is perhaps smaller than KPLU, with a reach of about 120,000 people, according to the station’s website. It started in 1967, a year after KPLU and, like KPLU, broadcasts both music and news. It’s the definition of scrappy; the only person in the studio Tuesday evening was Jackie Fortier, hosting the national feed of All Things Considered and answering phone calls at the same time. She had to cut the conversation short to return to her microphone.
In 2000, the University of Northern Colorado, in an effort to save money, put the station up for sale. Colorado Public Radio, playing the role in this scenario of KUOW, made an offer of $1.9 million. According to Neil Best, CEO of KUNC, he and his staff were notified at 9 a.m. one day that the station would be sold by 9 a.m. the next.
The parallels to KPLU and KUOW are uncanny. Colorado Public Radio was interested in KUNC to broaden its reach and planned, as KUOW is doing now with KPLU, to split news and music between the two frequencies.
According to Best, when his staff found out, they wanted to take to the airwaves to plead for support. He told Crosscut, “I said to them, 'If this were happening in Fort Collins, how would we break this news?’ They said at three. I said, 'That’s what we’re going to do.' ”
When three o’clock came, the station made an appeal to the public: Come to tonight’s UNC board meeting. Fifty or sixty people showed up. According to Best, the turning point came when a woman walked up to him at the meeting and, in front of a crowd of local media, wrote him a check for $250. But she asked that he not cash it until the end of the month when she received her tax break for her student loans. “I immediately had a very sympathetic character,” said Best. “In the media, we love a David vs. Goliath story and we love to cover ourselves.” The story blew up and UNC gave KUNC a presumably next-to-impossible 20 days to make a counter-offer.
In the following days, two more fortuitous events unfolded. First, Tom Sutherland, an academic who was famously held hostage in Beirut from 1985 to 1991, donated $250,000, sparking more media attention. Second, a local couple quietly handed over $1 million. Archive records also show the Denver Post publishing an editorial in favor of keeping KUNC independent. Combined with a public push, the station raised enough money to counter the offer from CPR.
There are a few differences. For one, even in 2001, $1.9 million is less than the $7 million KPLU would have needed, which does not include essentially a new studio.
Additionally, UNC is a public university and therefore required to entertain competing offers. PLU, as a private university, is not.
For Best, the times are different as well. When asked if he thought KUNC could make the same push in today’s media environment, he said, “Maybe not.” At the time, said Best, there was a shock factor to hearing that a media outlet could close, which inspired a “we’re mad as hell” movement. For Best, that shock factor is gone. “It’s a sign of the times,” he said.
KPLU’s following is loyal, to be sure. A petition titled Keep KPLU KPLU on Change.org has received more than 700 signatures. Donations grew by more than a half a million dollars from 2013 to 2014.
But the $8.5 million in additional funds KPLU would need to raise is roughly equal the station’s total worth and would more than double what the station raises in a year.
Not to mention, the contract has been signed. “At this point,” said Gibbs in her e-mail. “PLU is contractually obligated to not solicit or entertain any competing proposals.”
“If KPLU wanted to have a community-sponsored license they could have brought a proposal to the university at any time over the past 49 years.”
Correction, 11/19/2015, 10:00 a.m.: A previous version of this article said PLU's endowment was $65 million. That was a typo. It should have read $85 million.