The backers behind the effort to purchase KPLU are on the verge of reaching their goal: raise $7 million to keep the station out of the hands of the University of Washington’s KUOW.
It took supporters of the Tacoma-based public radio station only five months and change to raise the money.
As of Tuesday afternoon the campaign stood at $6,430,000, given by 17,000 individuals and businesses. When it reaches $6.5 million a matching $500,000 pledge will kick in.
Pacific Lutheran University announced in November that they were selling the station to KUOW. KPLU listeners were outraged when news of the deal that was negotiated in secret broke.
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Music fans and news listeners were concerned about what would happen to their programming if the sale went through.
After the public outcry officials at both UW and PLU agreed in December to allow a community-based nonprofit group to make their own offer on the station’s license for $7 million — the same price KUOW would pay.
Supporters created Friends of 88.5 FM to raise the money needed to buy the station’s license and other assets. They face a June 30 deadline and a number of other steps including FCC approval.
“When KPLU was in trouble, the community reacted,” said University of Washington meteorology professor and KPLU weather commentator Cliff Mass on Monday. UW owns KUOW.
“What’s happened now is absolutely startling,” Mass said. “KPLU has developed a relationship with the community that I don’t think I’ve seen at a radio station.”
While other nonprofit stations have been sold over the past decade most have gone in the $2 million to $4 million range. The $7 million raised in under six months is unprecedented, said Stephen Tan, chairman of the board of Friends of 88.5 FM.
“It’s blown everyone away,” Tan said.
Aside from the fund-topping $500,000 contribution from a collection of local businesses and individuals and other big donations, the majority of the $7 million came from small donors, Tan said.
“We’ve gotten thousands more individual donors than anyone expected,” Tan said.
While their listener numbers are comparable, KPLU’s broadcast footprint is Sasquatch-sized compared with KUOW’s ballerina-sized shoes.
KPLU, which broadcasts news and public radio programing along with jazz and blues, has a large presence in Western Washington. In addition to 88.5 FM it broadcasts on 10 repeaters from Bellingham to Raymond.
Repeaters are transmitters that repeat the main broadcast on various frequencies. Listeners in Aberdeen, for example, can listen to KPLU at 100.9 FM. The repeaters allow listeners in most of Western Washington to hear KPLU’s programming.
It’s those repeaters that make KPLU an attractive purchase.
“We are essentially border to border, Vancouver to Vancouver,” Tan said.
“That made it more attractive,” KUOW General Manager Caryn Mathes said of the repeaters on Tuesday. “But the first thing was, ‘Oh my gosh they’re going to sell it.’ PLU made it very clear they were divesting no matter what.”
In January Mathes said her station would dedicate 88.5 and two of the repeaters to an all-jazz format. The other eight repeaters would broadcast KUOW’s main signal.
When radio stations are sold the main assets are licenses, towers, broadcasting equipment and music libraries. Format changes, if any, are the choice of the new owners.
The lines separating the players in the “Save KPLU” effort often became blurry in the ensuing months. On May 13 they became sharper when PLU informed the Friends of 88.5 FM that they needed to separate themselves from KPLU. Until then the fundraising group had been operating on KPLU’s website.
PLU was concerned that benefactors might not know if they were donating to the Save KPLU campaign or the station’s general fund.
KPLU, like most public radio stations, relies in part on donations from listeners and holds two roughly weeklong fundraising drives per year.
At PLU’s request the Friends group created a separate website, savekplu.org, and is not using KPLU’s logo on it. The group and PLU will contact past donors to ascertain which campaign they intended to donate to.
While the Friends of 88.5 FM campaign was underway KUOW never slowed its plans for the acquisition.
In January, Mathes announced the launch of Planet Jazz, a streaming jazz and blues service. The pilot program was part of KUOW's preparation to turn 88.5 into a full-time jazz and blues station.
“Planet Jazz is not intended to derail the efforts of Friends of 88.5 in any way,” KUOW said in an April announcement. “The preview of Planet Jazz is intended to generate feedback from an interested community of jazz and blues music lovers and is not intended to overshadow the efforts of the community group.”
But if KUOW does acquire KPLU they will own KPLU’s already existing streaming jazz and blues service, Jazz24.
Also in April the university applied to change KPLU’s call sign to KPJZ.
At KUOW the secret purchase negotiations were referred to as “Fight Club,” the Seattle Times recently reported. It’s a reference to the movie of the same name in which the No. 1 rule was “you do not talk about Fight Club.”
That history has fueled mistrust between some KPLU supporters and the two universities. But the Friends of 88.5 FM are taking PLU and KUOW at their word.
“What both PLU and the University of Washington have told us is that if the community group makes a substantially similar offer, the University of Washington will stand down and allow the community group to purchase the station,” Tan said. “That’s what we intend to do.”
PLU was interested in selling the station after its value began to fall and it became a financial drain on the university, said PLU president Thomas Krise on Tuesday.
A 2004 valuation put the station at $12.4 million, according to Krise. Another valuation in 2015 put it at $9.6 million.
“It’s declining in value because radio is declining and it’s also costing the university $1.5 million a year,” Krise said.
Mathes said that KUOW was invited to buy KPLU. But Krise said the deal was mutually arrived at as a culmination of years of discussions.
“We’re the largest metro area with competing NPR stations,” Krise said. “We have a heavily overlapping audience. It’s a declining audience in both age and number. We’re both spending a lot of money — about a million a year — buying the same programs and broadcasting them sometimes at the same time.”
The operating budget of KPLU runs about $7 million annually. That doesn’t include the $1.5 million the university provides.
Krise said the university has never stood in the way of the Friends’ campaign. He points to $500,000 in support the university has provided to KPLU during the fundraising campaign. KPLU did not hold its annual spring fund drive.
“This is unprecedented,” Krise said of the revised purchase agreement that is allowing the fundraising group to make an offer on KPLU. When the $7 million mark is reached the university and the fundraising group will negotiate a new purchase agreement.
Krise said he and PLU have been misrepresented in the media, both professional and social.
“We authorized the entire staff to lead the campaign. So, we’re paying them to do the campaign,” Krise said. In addition PLU allowed on-air pleas for the Save KPLU campaign.
“We had people complain they were trying to give to the ongoing operations of the station and found that their gift was being diverted to the Save KPLU thing,” Krise said. “That’s a serious legal problem.”
Krise said he and other employees have been subjected to harassment. “You’ll see incitements to violence (on social media) and lots of derogatory statements about a number of people at the university and that’s been characteristic of the behavior of this group, which is mystifying to us because we’ve done everything we can think of to be helpful,” Krise said.
“I’m not entirely happy that part of the messaging put a wolf at the door,” KUOW’s Mathes said on Tuesday. “We were invited in to the process to help preserve it.”
She doesn’t have regrets over the process.
“I think we have been as transparent as possible. Change is hard for some people.”
The main reason KUOW was interested in purchasing KPLU was to preserve its frequency for public use, she said.
“It’ll be a win for the community whoever buys it. Whether we buy it or the Friends group buys it,” Mathes said.
Mathes said their deal becomes void when a new asset purchase agreement is signed.
“It terminates UW’s APA. Nothing happens until they reach a deal on the particulars beyond the cash,” Mathes said.
Currently KUOW, KPLU and Oregon Public Broadcasting jointly operate the NW News Network. “If it’s a new owner (of KPLU) I assume we would continue to collaborate,” Mathes said.
Mathes acknowledges that the deal with PLU has engendered some ill will. But KUOW had its best fundraiser ever last spring, she said.
“We show what we’re made of by continuing to serve the community in the best possible way,” she said. KUOW is in the midst of editorial and production reviews all geared toward delivering a better product.
The Friends’ purchase would only be the first step for the group. Next comes the negotiations with many details to work out, which will affect the station’s operating expenses.
Funding for operations will come from a variety of sources but a major source will be sustaining members, Tan said.
A notice will be sent to current sustaining members that will notify them that their contact information will be transferred to the Friends of 88.5 FM, unless they object.
“We have every reason to suspect that sustaining members and one-time donors will be even more enthusiastic about supporting this station than they were when it was owned by PLU,” Tan said.
The Friends are asking to keep broadcasting from the Neeb Center on the PLU campus in the short term to help with expenses.
“That’s a building that was funded by KPLU listeners,” Tan said.
Despite moments of acrimony Tan said his group has been happy with PLU’s role.
“The Friends of 88.5 group is thankful of PLU’s support in the form of allowing us to use the website in the first few months of this campaign as well as the staff and on air time,” Tan said. “That was support they provided us that was not required.”
Whether the station turns into KPJZ or not, you won’t know it as KPLU in the future.
“The call letters have yet to be decided but it won’t be called KPLU. That’s for sure,” Tan said.