KPLU mess was brazen violation of public trust

Guest columnist and political scientist Bill Woods of Bainbridge Island.
Guest columnist and political scientist Bill Woods of Bainbridge Island.

Our regional public radio station KPLU.FM is now KNKX.FM. The public insurrection by 18,000 Friends was successful in raising the $7 million to match the secret deal between Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Washington by which KUOW.FM, the “other” public radio station, would buy KPLU.

However, the success masks two public issues. First was the attempt to undermine what is the public interest in public broadcasting. Second was an attack on the First Amendment, the central nerve of the body politic.

Dictators first silence public communication. Silencing of public radio news is the removal of a podium necessary for a meaningful First Amendment. The public needs to speak openly and to hear alternative, dissenting points of view regarding important issues. How else can people know the truths to influence public policy?

Here, the motive for PLU President Thomas Krise and the Board of Regents Chair Gary Severson was to cash in an asset. The sale contract contained no protection for the news function and 16 staff members.

The motive for KUOW was to gain assets, eliminate its direct competition and become a monopoly. The prime mover was KUOW General Manager Caryn Mathes with Board Chair Judith Endejan, according to Seattle Times reports.

KPLU’s assets include broadcast and streaming to its audience of 430,000 (12 percent of Seattle’s metro area) and annual gifts of $7.14 million.

The UW owns the FCC license. KUOW contracts its operation. UW President Ana Mari Cauce with Regent Chair William Ayer approved the transaction offering $2.5 million.

Here are corporate calculations by three public institutions. From the standpoint of these officers, it was irrelevant that KPLU is a public asset providing the only unadulterated NPR public journalism broadcast in the morning, with 25 percent local news coverage.

PLU is not a private institution. As an IRS 501(c)3, it received $2.2 million in government funding and tax breaks. As an American institution it has constitutional rights and responsibilities that adhere. It owned the public FCC license.

The UW is funded by state and federal governments; its regents are appointed by the governor. KUOW is a non-profit public radio station with a community board.

Note: In all three institutions, the boards and executives violated parts of their own mission statements. UW sets forth its primary mission as the “dissemination of knowledge.” PLU cites its “commitment to the advancement of knowledge, thoughtful inquiry and questioning.” KUOW aims “to create and serve an informed public.”

But these actions were simply a market transaction, a corporate raid by which KPLU would be purchased by KUOW. Operating expenses would be dramatically reduced by firing all the journalists and staff, and income would be maintained from the music format and by continuously beseeching the listeners.

The cloak of justification is found in their “corporate-speak.” Imagine that President Abraham Lincoln’s extraordinary speech at Gettysburg said only “government for the people” and did not include the whole of it: government that is “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

It is incontrovertible that the principals in this fiasco have a fundamental obligation to act in the public’s interest in all matters. It can be fairly judged that these six officer-holders breached their fiduciary duty to the public.

Underneath the visible issues are two fundamental political issues: Where is the public interest here? Who here is protecting the First Amendment?

This situation will probably happen again. American public broadcast journalism depends on a weak model of perpetual begging, disparate and unaccountable local managements, and a weak First Amendment.

We must find better ways to support and hold these institutions of public journalism and individual office-holders accountable for protecting our first essential freedoms.

Bill Woods of Bainbridge Island is a Vietnam veteran and PhD in political science.