The little NPR station that could
Ariel Van Cleave was somewhere in Montana, driving from Ohio toward her new job with the Seattle-based public radio station KPLU, when her cellphone rang. It was KPLU News Director Erin Hennessey. The station, Hennessey said, had been sold in the dead of night to its competitor, KUOW, which planned to shutter KPLU’s newsroom and absorb its jazz programming.
Feel free to take a U-turn, she told Van Cleave, because your job now has an expiration date. “I was completely shocked when I found out about the sale,” says Van Cleave in an email. “But it felt a little surreal, too, like... seriously? C'mon.”
Miles away, in the bottom floor of a corporate-style building in uptown Seattle, the staff of KPLU was getting the same news just two hours before the sale would go public. “The saddest day at KPLU was the day I had to tell the entire staff that the best thing they could do was to find another job,” says Station Manager Joey Cohn.
But something strange happened: Almost no one left. Content Director Matt Martinez, just three months on the job after leaving a national gig with NPR in Washington, D.C., doubled down. The staff whose names are familiar to the station’s loyal listeners — Ed Ronco, Gabriel Spitzer, Kirsten Kendrick — continued to produce their regular daily and weekly news stories. And Van Cleave continued west. “[Erin Hennessey] promised we would make great radio,” she says. “If this was truly the end, then we were going to end on the highest note we could possibly think up. How could I say no?”
Over the next 10 months, a herculean effort to save the station would apparate out of thin air under the banner of Friends of 88.5. Now, a year later, the staff’s loyalty has been rewarded. Despite the eulogies and obituaries many began writing as news broke, the station lives on.
On October 14, Friends of 88.5, led by Cohn and Stephen Tan, chair of the advisory committee, will be awarded Crosscut’s 2016 Courage Award in culture. (Find more information about the ceremony here.)
In the scrap heap that is local journalism, KPLU was the exception. In 2015, its listenership was as high as ever and it had well over $2 million in reserves.
But it also had a weak spot: It was owned by Pacific Lutheran University, and the station’s board of directors was PLU’s board of directors. It did have its own advisory committee, as is required of every organization under the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but its authority was limited. “I do have to admit, when I was asked to join [the advisory committee] … I remember thinking it was kind of odd that this station doesn’t have its own board,” says Tan.
As a result, KPLU’s existence depended on the university’s interests aligning with the station’s. And for decades, that was the case. But when PLU decided to sell the station to the University of Washington, which owns KUOW, it meant KPLU had very little leverage to push back. Even Tan, who was the chair of the advisory committee, didn’t learn of the decision until just before it went public.
“It was a punch in the gut,” says Cohn. “That’s how the staff felt. It was pretty devastating for the staff and the listeners.”
But the following week, in what would be the first of a long line of dominoes that needed to fall for KPLU, the advisory committee just happened to have its quarterly meeting. The usually sleepy affair exploded, with over 200 people showing up to a room in the Westin, demanding that the decision be reversed.
The committee, before a heartbroken audience, voted unanimously to oppose the sale. Tan wrote a letter to PLU President Thomas Krise and the movement had begun. “I think it galvanized people to change the minds of the decision makers at PLU and UW,” says Tan. “One of those parties needed to walk away [from the deal]. We didn’t need both.”
Under pressure from listeners, press and even some elected officials, the first to bend was UW President Ana Mari Cauce. She agreed in December to postpone the sale. KPLU would have about six months to raise $7 million and buys its independence.
It would be a long shot: Seattle’s other major public radio station, KEXP, had just spent three and a half years raising the close to $15 million to fund a new building. KPLU had to raise half that amount in an eighth of the time. And it had to do it without any of the bricks most nonprofits lay long before launching a major capital campaign. The station didn’t even have its own bank account separate from PLU. “This was highly improbable that we pull this off,” says Tan.
Friends of 88.5 became those bricks. The organization quickly obtained nonprofit status. It worked with a man named Rudy Castillo with Bank of America to set up an account. On January 11, after just a month of planning, the campaign began.
Over the next few months, Friends of 88.5 seemed to morph into something bigger than itself. For every community event Cohn and Tan put together, 10 more popped up organically. Downtown Poulsbo held a sort-of KPLU fest. Tacoma declared April 29 KPLU day. When KPLU sextupled the previous dollar record on Give Big Day (such an enormous showing that some people blame the station for crashing the Give Big website), Tan and Cohn began to think this thing could actually happen.
On May 26, a month ahead of schedule, the station hit its mark.
PLU and UW had secretly negotiated the station's sale over ten months; Friends of 88.5 had just one month to get all of its legal work in order. And yet, they managed to cut a deal to continue operating off of PLU's campus for three years and retain most of the station’s broadcasting equipment and facilities.
The station was forced to leave behind its more than $2 million in reserves, as that was part of the original deal between UW and PLU. "Because the requirement was to make a matching offer, we didn’t have a lot of room to say well we want that money," says Tan.
Fortunately, Friends of 88.5 managed to raise $1 million more than what they needed to buy the station, which gave them a small cache of reserves.
Tan and Cohn duck and dive taking credit for the successful campaign. Each points the finger back at the other and then outward toward the community. The station’s new call letters are KNKX, (they also considered KOWN and KYNW) meant to spell "connects" (no, Dan Savage fans), an acknowledgment of their gratitude to the public.
"It’s remarkable to me, that there are so many people that if they had not been in the positions they’d been in, it would have failed," Tan says. "I’m not a believer in fate, but if it felt like someone was watching over us."
“We are so grateful,” says Van Cleave. “Every day, I walk into work at 4:30 a.m., and I'm so glad I didn't turn around.”