The plan for a community buyout of KPLU-FM will, if successfully completed, answer a lot of questions about that station’s future. Less noticed in the discussion, however, is a much larger question that will remain: What does the station’s soon-to-be-former owner, Pacific Lutheran University, do instead to tell the world who it is?
Much of the dispute over whether the radio station (and its Internet-streaming channel, Jazz24) has focused on KPLU’s jazz and news programming, and what happens to that when KUOW-FM buys the operation, the license and the frequency.
Less appreciated is the loss of a valuable asset, both for the school’s own academic programs such as music and as a marketing tool to introduce a small college to the world. As has been pointed out in this space before, the value in both aspects is considerable already, the potential even more so should the university have an interest in applying energy and mind power to the proposition.
But PLU’s administration isn’t interested in doing so, and sees no value in keeping the station. While insisting it’s not about the money — and usually when that phrase is employed, it’s about the money — the value PLU does see is in the $7 million in cold cash the station might fetch in a sale, whether to a community group or the University of Washington.
The community should understand that Tacoma as a city has something to lose in this as well. Having a globally known station such as KPLU and an online service such as Jazz24 based here, and having it active in the jazz community, is a nice addition to the city’s arts culture and its own brand, reputation and marketing. But if the newly independent station relocates to Seattle, the net effect is about the same as if KUOW buys it. The group organizing the community buyout says its preference is to keep the station based in Tacoma.
So back to the original question: What’s the plan for getting and keeping Pacific Lutheran University in far-off Parkland known to the world?
There are in this country 2,968 four-year degree-granting institutions, public and private, for-profit and nonprofit, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (as of 2011-12). The count of degree-granting institutions doesn’t include two-year schools such as Washington’s community and technical colleges; nationally that added another 1,738.
That’s a lot of competition for the attention and enrollment dollars of the 20 million or so college students in the U.S. It’s going to get even more fierce as potential students rethink educational options and their cost, and as community colleges increasingly provide more innovative, faster and financially attractive pathways to good careers; in Washington that competition is further intensified as some of the two-year schools add four-year programs.
The consequences of not succeeding in that competition can be painful, as illustrated by news from Trinity Lutheran College of Everett. That small school, whose academic offerings include not just biblical studies but such areas of study as business, computer information systems, early childhood education and pre-law, announced “any efforts to increase enrollment at Trinity will no longer sustain the college,” and it’s shutting down at the end of the current academic year.
Trinity shares a denominational heritage with PLU, but at fewer than 200 students it’s a fraction of the size of even that school. For all the plans and changes, including a physical move of the school from Issaquah to Everett, Trinity wasn’t able to get noticed to the extent needed to boost enrollment.
How do you get noticed? A radio station heard throughout the region and around the world is one way, but PLU’s not interested in that. Fielding a national championship team in a high-visibility sport such as football or basketball is another; while it has had success on the gridiron, PLU doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to compete at that level (unless you’d like to donate the money to move the school up to FBS status, apply for membership in a power conference and build an on-campus stadium of at least 40,000 seats).
Traditional marketing is another way. You could see an example of that recently on one of those video-screen billboards along West Valley Highway near Tukwila. In between ads for an airline and a hamburger chain came one for PLU.
That’s nice. But lots of colleges do that already, including such regional institutions as Western Governors University, the online school. An electronic billboard, even one along a busy highway, doesn’t have the same reach as a radio station.
All right, we’ll stop harping on that and suggest one other: innovation in academic programming. PLU has been experimenting in this realm, borrowing an idea from the community colleges which are offering not just degrees but credentials and certificates for mastery of specific skills or expertise.
The university has launched a Certificate in Maritime Management, covering such topics in shipping, logistics, law and regulation and vessel and terminal operations. That ties in nicely to Tacoma’s role in the maritime industry and world trade, an economic-development strategy long advocated in this space.
Of course, once you come up with an innovative offering, you have to let the world know about it, and PLU has been on, wouldn’t you know it, KPLU.
The proposed model for an independent community radio station can work; it appears to work for KING-FM, the Seattle-based classical music station that converted to noncommercial status and relies on donations. The bigger challenge is raising the purchase money in the first place.
For PLU, meanwhile, the big challenge is coming up with a workable marketing plan that keeps the school financially viable. That plan will include some new ways of operating, but the school may discover some old techniques work well too, leading to this request: “Umm, we’ve rethought this. Could we have our station back?”
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.