Stealth sale of KPLU looks to finish on sweet note

From the editorial board

WATCH: Friends of KPLU reach $7 million goal

The Save KPLU campaign raised $7 million in less than five months allowing the group to make a bid to buy the public radio station Thursday May 26, 2016.
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The Save KPLU campaign raised $7 million in less than five months allowing the group to make a bid to buy the public radio station Thursday May 26, 2016.

Tacoma-based KPLU’s recent announcement that it raised enough money to live on as an independent public radio voice, not be swallowed by Seattle-based KUOW, is an occasion worth celebrating.

Not because it plucks the heartstrings of 253 pride. Not because it refreshes the storyline of the little city refusing to bow to the big city accustomed to taking what it wants. (In fact, KPLU’s news studio is already located in Seattle, sorry to say.)

No, KPLU’s survival is worth celebrating because it affirms the value of independent news outlets. The cheers would ring even louder if the station would return to its South Sound news roots.

Local news sources – whether broadcast or print, including The News Tribune – have struggled in a brutal digital media landscape to maintain professional journalism staffs. This, in turn, has pinched the flow of reliable information that ordinary people need to conduct themselves as citizens and hold the powerful accountable.

We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: News is the oxygen that a healthy democracy breathes.

Ironically, the need for an independent watchdog press was underscored by the clandestine way in which the KPLU deal was consummated by Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Washington.

What’s most remarkable is how quickly KPLU’s staff and boosters rallied to save the station. Raising $7 million in less than five months, at a time when terrestrial radio has been declared a dying medium? Some would’ve called it a fool’s errand. Count us among the doubters who figured the station was destined for its final on-air signoff.

It didn’t look good in November when the two universities announced that PLU planned to sell its broadcasting licenses to UW. KUOW/Puget Sound Public Radio would retain its frequency (94.9 FM) for National Public Radio and Northwest news and would convert KPLU’s longstanding spot on the dial (88.5 FM) to an all-music format. KPLU’s news gatherers, presumably, would be sent packing.

PLU officials used flowery words such as “natural union” and “merger” to characterize the transaction. President Thomas Krise said selling to UW was the best way to “preserve the legacy of KPLU” and enhance “the survivability of public radio.”

The most forthright description lay buried in a UW document marked highly confidential, in which KUOW said it aimed to be “a monopoly in the market.”

It’s hard to fault PLU for exploring ways to unload what it calls a declining asset. Money from the sale will help sustain its core educational mission after a period of down enrollment and budget cuts. And as a private university, it has no obligation to be transparent with the public.

UW officials deserve less slack. A Seattle Times story last month exposed how KUOW and UW executives put a tight lid on the pending deal until the day it showed up on the Board of Regents’ crowded agenda, where it was approved unanimously with no discussion.

They even gave a cutesy name to their stealthiness: “Fight Club,” a homage to the 1996 novel and 1999 movie of that name. (Famous line: “The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.”)

University officials told The Times they didn’t want to compromise sensitive business negotiations. Instead, they compromised the spirit, if not the letter, of the state Open Public Meetings Act. (The first rule of that law: The people of Washington “do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.” The second rule? Same thing.)

In December, KPLU supporters formed a nonprofit, Friends of 88.5 FM, to raise money and buy the station at the price KUOW offered. They had six months to accomplish this feat under terms of the conditional contract between the universities.

Today, several steps remain before the station’s future is secured. The Friends must negotiate a new purchase contract with PLU, and win federal approval of the license transfer. They must continue to raise money to operate the station; that means diversifying the donor base, since some big benefactors might feel stretched after the “Save KPLU” campaign.

In time, they’ll need to detach their brand from the university call letters and find space off campus – likely, in Pierce County. “Our presence in the South Sound is such a big part of our identity,” board chairman Stephen Tan said in an interview Friday.

To strengthen that identity, KPLU should seriously consider moving its news staff south.

The public radio community expects a happily-ever-after conclusion to this drama. “All was revealed,” KUOW president and general manager Caryn Mathes told The Times. “It feels to me that things have played out exactly the way they should have.”

Her sugar-coated appraisal falls flat, given the needless angst and secrecy of the last months. But the rescue of an independent information source is still worth celebrating, because less news is definitely not good news.