By David Guest
Tacoma Daily Index editor
When Pacific Lutheran University announced its intention to sell public radio station KPLU to the University of Washington for $7 million in November, it seemed inevitable that Tacoma, and the greater Puget Sound region, would lose an important source of news and information.
Plans of a community group to raise the money needed to counteroffer the UW bid by a June 30 deadline faced unprecedented challenges. Supporters made sure the effort didn’t go down to the wire. And it wasn’t even close.
In May, the Friends of 88.5 FM group announced that it had reached its $7 million fundraising goal a month ahead of schedule, a fundraising push that Stephen Tan, KPLU community advisory council president and chairman of Friends of 88.5 FM, said had never been done before in the history of public radio in the United States.
KPLU general manager Joey Cohn cited the $2 million raised by a Colorado public radio station in under a month as the closest comparison.
“When we look back at January – at what needed to be done – it was daunting,” Tan said. “No one expected the volume of donations we received. It points to the grassroots support we received.”
KUOW, the Seattle public radio station owned by the UW, announced in November that it planned to purchase KPLU and dedicate its 88.5 FM and repeater frequencies to an all-music (jazz) format. KUOW would provide National Public Radio content and news. But losing the KPLU call letters also meant losing the station’s team of reporters, editors and on-air personalities and the unique perspective and news coverage that they have provided since 1966.
When the sale was announced, public pressure on both PLU and the UW led to an agreement to postpone the deal to allow a local nonprofit group to come up with the $7 million required to purchase the KPLU license.
With a little help from almost 18,000 contributors, KPLU – by any name – will remain a fixture in the Northwest.
The UW has stated that it will not stand in the way of an agreement between the Friends group and PLU if the deal is approved by the Federal Communications Commission.
“When they began, people thought $7 million might be a stretch, but it really is impressive,” said Norm Arkans, University of Washington’s associate vice president for media relations and communications. “Congratulations to everybody at the station and in the community who participated.”
Tan said that a non-disclosure agreement should be worked out between the Friends of 88.5 FM group and PLU this week, opening the door for final negotiations on the sale of the license, transmitters and other assets. Approval of a sale by the Federal Communications Commission would likely take around 90 days.
Friends of 88.5 FM suggest that while the station will be saved, the KPLU call letters are likely to change. The preliminary agreement between KUOW and KPLU specified that the call letters would change, and it seems certain that Pacific Lutheran would prefer the call letters change to avoid any confusion about its role in the new station.
All ties between the new station and PLU may not be completely severed, as it remains likely that the new group will be able to negotiate the use of the Neeb Center studios, which are located on campus. The facility, which opened in 2009, was built specifically to house the radio station and was funded by KPLU supporters. Tan is hopeful that the reborn KPLU can continue to broadcast from the PLU campus for two or three years until the organization can find a permanent home.
“This campaign has been an inspiring and humbling experience for all of us at KPLU and Jazz24,” Cohn said. “We felt good about our work but we had no idea that our community felt so passionate about what we do. Support of this magnitude has never happened before in such a short time in public radio. We are dedicated to making our community-owned station one that we can all be proud of. When you tune in or read our stories online, we hope you’ll take a moment to smile and say to yourself, ‘I helped make that happen — for me and for thousands of others who share a love of music and life-long learning.’ Thank you for making history with us.”