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Community Group Inks Deal With Pacific Lutheran University To Buy KPLU

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Justin Steyer
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KPLU
KPLU general manager Joey Cohn (right) and Stephen Tan (left) , chairman of Friends of 88.5 FM address media and supporters on May 26 after announcing that the Save KPLU campaign had hit its fundraising goal.

 

Editor’s note: KPLU has hired an independent editor to oversee coverage of this story.

The non-profit Friends of 88.5 FM has reached a deal with Pacific Lutheran University to purchase KPLU.

After 50 years of serving Western Washington under PLU, 88.5 is set to become an independent, community-licensed station. 

The agreement, signed on Monday, still must be approved by the Federal Communications Commission. The deal represents the last major step toward stopping the proposed sale of the station to cross-town competitor KUOW, and preserving KPLU’s news and music.

The announcement came after two weeks of direct negotiations. Stephen Tan is chairman of the board for Friends of 88.5 FM and was at the bargaining table. He says he is grateful and relieved.

“I just want to thank everyone who donated time, donated money, helped out in any way, spoke up. You were heard, and it looks like we’re going to be successful,” Tan said.

The Friends group will pay $7 million, plus a million dollars’ worth of on-air underwriting for PLU. Friends of 88.5 raised the money, plus a million-dollar cushion that will fund the transition and operations, in less than six months.

“Congratulations to the whole group,” said PLU president Tom Krise in a phone interview. “It’s really been an impressive display of enthusiasm and commitment and, really, in many ways, joy. It’s an incredible win-win for public radio, for jazz, for the university, for the region. I think this is a really great outcome and I’m very pleased to be part of it.”

The End Of KUOW’s Bid

The deal lets KPLU staff continue working out of its offices on PLU’s Parkland campus for three years, rent-free. After that the station plans to find new facilities in the South Sound. KPLU also maintains an office in downtown Seattle.

One open question is what will happen to KPLU’s endowment and cash reserves. The parties say they’re barred from discussing specifics of the deal, but those details will be made public within the next two weeks when the agreement is submitted to the FCC.

The agreement nullifies the original deal, announced last November, which would have sold KPLU to the University of Washington-licensed KUOW. KUOW said it planned to eliminate KPLU’s news department and remake the station with an all-music jazz format under the call letters KPJZ.

UW spokesman Norm Arkans says KUOW’s deal is now off the table.

“We got into this in the first place for the sole purpose of preserving a public radio asset in the Northwest. So we’re done,” Arkans said.

In a written statement, UW President Ana Marie Cauce congratulated the community group on its agreement and its “unprecedented fundraising effort.”

“We are delighted they were able to make it happen,” she said.

A Circuitous Route To Independence

The current deal between PLU and the community group was set in motion after the original intended sale generated significant public outcry. That prompted UW, at the behest of President Cauce, to announce it would stand down if KPLU listeners could raise enough money to match its offer.

So began a whirlwind fundraising campaign in January that saw Friends of 88.5 meet its $7 million goal by late May -- over a month early – on the strength of 24,000 donations from more than 18,000 donors.

In spite of the circuitous route to an independent 88.5, PLU’s President Krise says he can’t imagine doing things any differently than he did. Asked whether the university could have allowed a community group to make an offer before negotiating with other radio stations, he said that may not have worked.

“The steps that we went through, I think we probably needed those in order for this to happen,” Krise said. “I think that people just said, 'Oh, I care about this and I want to support it,' and I’m not sure they would have been motivated to think that way had we not proceeded in the direction we did. Of course, we didn’t envision this end, but we’re very pleased that we’ve wound up this place.”

KPLU general manager Joey Cohn says the station did learn some key lessons from its existential crisis – especially the importance of connecting with listeners and ensuring the station reflects what’s distinct about the community that saved it.

“That’s what we’re here to do – make it a station that’s unique to the Northwest, just in the same way that the Puget Sound is, that the Olympic Mountains are, that Mt. Rainier is, that Pike Place Market is. It’s something that ingrained and special, and something we can be proud of,” Cohn said.

Cohn says he expects the station to finalize its independence this fall, well before KPLU’s 50th anniversary in November. 

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.
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