Supporters of Tacoma-based KPLU reach $7 million mark in bid to buy station

The effort called Save KPLU lived up to its name Thursday afternoon, when KPLU General Manager Joey Cohn took to the station’s airwaves to make the official announcement.

“We reached our goal of $7 million,” Cohn announced shortly after 3:30 p.m. in the studio packed with staff, supporters and media.

Now the Friends of 88.5 FM can make an offer to station owner Pacific Lutheran University to keep it out of the hands of the University of Washington’s KUOW.

It took 17,000 supporters of the Tacoma-based public radio station less than five months to donate the money. A fund-topping $500,000 matching contribution came from a collection of businesses and individuals.

In a typical fundraising effort, charities will first seek big donors before a public campaign. Save KPLU didn’t have that option.

“We didn’t have the luxury of time. We just had to go,” Cohn said.

Money was raised at over 85 community events. Cohn said he knows of no other situation in public radio that comes close to the fundraising efforts of Save KPLU.

“We’ve been saying we made public radio history,” Cohn said. He cited $2 million dollars raised in less than a month for a station in Greeley, Colorado, as being the closest, and $1 million of that was a single donation. “This kind of donations in this short of time, no, it’s never happened before,” Cohn said.

“We’ve had 4-year-olds send in change,” he said.

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.

The sale to Friends of 88.5 FM would include KPLU’s streaming jazz and blues service, Jazz24.

PLU announced in November that it was selling the station to KUOW. Music fans and news listeners were concerned what would happen to their programming if the sale went through.

After a public outcry, officials at UW and PLU agreed in December to allow a community-based nonprofit group to make its 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.

Cohn cited Olympia as a major center of donations. “Tacoma too. There’s a lot of pride in Tacoma for KPLU,” Cohn said.

The Friends group has been negotiating a standard nondisclosure agreement with PLU for the station’s sale, said Stephen Tan, chairman of the board of Friends of 88.5 FM.

A new purchase agreement between PLU and the Friends must be negotiated, and the sale is subject to the Federal Communications Commission’s approval.

Cohn estimated on air Thursday that the entire process will take 90 days.

Though the name of KPLU will change, it won’t leave the PLU campus for another two to three years, Tan said. A state grant that paid for equipment at the Neeb Center still has another three years of funding, Cohn said.

Eventually, Cohn said, he hopes to find studio space in downtown Tacoma.

“We want to continue broadcasting from Tacoma,” Cohn said.

KPLU and the South Sound are intertwined, Tan said.

“That’s a big, big part of our identity and our success,” Tan said.

KPLU has a 16-member news gathering team. The staff did not abandon KPLU during the period of uncertainty, Cohn said.

“It had the opposite effect and it brought the staff together,” Cohn said. “We rallied together and felt like we were on a mission.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

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