It’s not often a public radio station earns folk-hero status, but the one formerly known as KPLU, rebranded a few years ago as KNKX, comes pretty close.
Now that the station has moved its South Sound home from Parkland to downtown Tacoma – complete with a wide open “living room” for the public to enjoy – that special status has been further cemented.
What’s not to like about this month’s opening of KNKX’s state-of-the-art studio and office space in the historic Gardner building at 930 Broadway?
The station is a long-time fixture at 88.5 on the FM dial, and there it remains. But a radio frequency will never be mistaken for a community, and Tacoma provides a stable, welcoming community for a news-and-jazz music operation that really needed it.
“Tacoma was instrumental in saving the station,” KNKX president Joey Cohn told The News Tribune. And Grit City was more than happy to do it.
In 2015, when Pacific Lutheran University announced it was selling KPLU to the University of Washington and that the station’s news reporting tradition would end, the uproar was felt around the world. Listeners cycled through the five stages of grief but lingered long on anger, which morphed into action.
The National Public Radio affiliate had been broadcasting on the PLU campus since 1966. Its roots were deep and not easily dislodged.
When PLU threw down the gauntlet and told supporters the needed to raise $7 million in six months to buy the station, the challenge was accepted and met.
Fans and foundations rallied to raise $8 million. As part of the deal, KPLU would have to change its name and move off campus by the summer of 2019.
Done and done. And the cherry on top? The Friends of 88.5 brought in another $3.4 million to help fund the move.
The new space is surrounded by theaters, the Tacoma School of the Arts and local businesses, making it easy for KNKX to engage directly with neighbors and provide students a place to learn about the broadcast industry through internships.
The new call letters, chosen in 2016 because they sound like the word “connects,” are a good fit for a station that links a million listeners a week to world-class music and news stories.
One of the best parts of this underdog story is the way it busted pop-culture stereotypes. NPR listeners are supposedly the type who enjoy an inordinate amount of bird watching and crossword puzzles. They’re known for a high tolerance for marimbas and gallivanting around Europe as disciples of Rick Steves.
But here in the South Sound we know there’s nothing wimpy about them. Just threaten to take away their local news and see what happens.
Even though KNKX also has Seattle studios with plans to expand, we expect T-Town loyalty will be reciprocated, especially since the City Council gave the station $45,000 last week to create “Tacoma’s living room,” a place for youth and adults to convene and converse.
We hope our KNKX news colleagues save us a comfy spot. We’ll even bring snacks.
We know what you’re thinking: Won’t the station be competition for other local news outfits like the TNT?
When it comes to journalism, there can never be too many eyes on government nor too many tellers of local stories. The more reporters searching for truth and accountability, the better.
And the heart of Tacoma is the ideal place for all of this energy to be centered. The TNT has made no secret of plans to make our own eventual move downtown.
The success of the station formerly known as KPLU is a win for the region. It showed the world we live in a community that cares about news, the environment, history, culture and, yes, jazz.
All of us are better for having it here.