By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index
A year ago Barack Obama was president, Bernie Sanders was surging in the polls and filling stadiums and Donald Trump was one of 15 or so Republican candidates.
And those of us in the greater Puget Sound area who cared about national and international news listened to NPR on KUOW or KPLU.
KUOW is owned and operated by the University of Washington, Seattle. KPLU at that time owned and operated by Pacific Lutheran University, in Parkland, a barely known suburb of Tacoma.
KPLU began about 50 years ago as a relatively standard college campus radio station.
But over time, KPLU, for a variety of reasons, expanded its range (with satellite and broadcast translators in Sedro-Woolley, Port Angeles, Olympia, Bellingham, Longview and many others), began to air NPR and has become nationally, if not internationally recognized as a resource for Jazz, Blues, NPR news and regional reporting.
KPLU has grown exponentially over fifty years reaching 350,000 listeners across Washington and another 100,000 regular listeners online.
But something unexpected happened in 2015.
In what can only be described as one of the worst decisions (and almost certainly the ugliest public relations fiasco in recent years for both PLU and UW) of its history, PLU made a secretive attempt to sell KPLU to the University of Washington, where its station (KUOW, 94.9) would have claimed KPLU’s broadcast translators and expanded their market dramatically.collection of KPLU supporters banded together to raise 7 million dollars (in only a few months) and bought the station.
Even when it was still KPLU, and owned by PLU, 88.5 had a global (and influential) reach far beyond its humble origins.
The renamed 88.5, now known as KNKX (pronounced “connects”) is legally separated from PLU – but still maintains one of its two broadcast centers on campus – at least until June of 2019 (the 7 million dollars bought the broadcast license – not the building and equipment, largely paid for by supporters who donated to the station’s capital campaign for the new facility). (Pledge drive funds are for the operating budget, not for big projects like a new building.)
The second location is in downtown Seattle where they continue to cultivate their international presence – with a local focus.
You can see concerts recorded live at their Seattle performance studio on the KNKX YouTube channel.
KPLU grew and prospered under the protection of PLU and with the vision of a few board members and supporters who saw that KPLU could be more, far more, than a typical college radio station.
And then, quite suddenly, KPLU was kicked out of the ivory tower.
But then, kind of like another situation I could describe at about the same time, despair turned to determination and determination turned to action and action created something never seen before – at least in Seattle – and certainly not in Parkland – a radio station owned not by a university, or a corporation (technically KNKX is “owned” by the Friends of 88.5 doing business as Pacific Public Media, the General Manager reports to the Board of this non-profit community organization)– but literally a “community owned” radio station with about 21,000 active supporters – 9,000 new supporters emerged when the crisis rallied reluctant listeners to become more than passive listeners.
It was a depressing experience to listen to KPLU for the last few months of 2015 and early 2016. Too many of us, listeners and hosts alike were numb – feeling paralyzed and betrayed.
I’ve attended the KPLU Christmas concert for several years – and many of us, listeners, radio hosts, staff and others carried dread and fear that 2015 would be the last KPLU Christmas concert.
And in a sense it was.
But in early 2016 strands of hope began to congeal around a plan – a group formed (Friends of 88.5) and an impossible bargain was made; raise 7 million dollars in six months or KPLU would be gone forever.
It felt like being kidnapped and held for ransom.
(UW president, Ana Mari Cauce was an advocate for the community getting a chance to raise the money, noting that the public seemed passionate enough to be successful.)
7 million dollars was an inconceivable amount of money and, at least at first, there was no discernible advocacy group, let alone anything like a coherent plan.
And 7 million dollars? Who could even imagine the tiniest fraction of that amount? We were, don’t forget, not that far out of the worst recession in over 70 years.
In the end, of course, we did raise the money, and in only four and a half months. But by the time we did, we realized that it was never about the money – it was about the passion, the vision, the shared community, the thousands of phone calls and emails and conversations and gritty work of organizing concerts and events and meetings and fundraisers, and yes, about 50,000 hands at work to save something we had just discovered that we loved. And needed.
KPLU was always better than it needed to be. And perhaps it was always taken for granted – even–or especially-by the university that owned it.
I took it for granted. I thought it would be there forever. And then suddenly it almost wasn’t.
KPLU was like that companion, that dog, that comfy pair of shoes, that was just reliably there.
But now we know, or at least some of us know, how fragile, irreplaceable and indescribable it is to have a voice, a place, a community.
In a media world of crass commercialism and crude or bland entertainment that appeals to the lowest denominator, a voice like KPLU stands out.
And as of August 30, 2016, KPLU did die.
But KNKX took its place – stronger, more determined and resilient than ever.
88.5 is a new, barely comprehensible thing, undefined and untethered, in service to no one but its listeners.
But not merely listeners. Those of us who have travelled around the country tend to be struck by how distinct KNKX is from other NPR stations.
Most of those other stations don’t have a sense of how impactful good radio can be.
KNKX listeners know. And more importantly, especially now, we care.
And it’s not just listeners like me. I’ve been listening to 88.5 since 1971. But now I know KNKX listeners half, even one-third my age.
KNKX is not just for graying Prius drivers who like NPR. It is becoming what only radio can be, what radio in its golden age used to be; a voice, a presence, a reminder that even when all hope is lost, and hope itself seems foolish, and, like Radio Free Europe during the darkest days of World War II, even when we feel most alone and betrayed, we never are. KNKX offers a voice, a song or a thought-provoking “drive-way moment” and a reminder that meaning, community and truth still matter.