One is lean, well-managed, financially healthy, and beloved: KPLU, owned by Pacific Lutheran University (PLU). Its programming is essentially a split between news/local programming and jazz.
The other station is fat, has greatly reduced its local programming, and seems to think it is a commercial radio station: KUOW, owned by he University of Washington (UW).
This week we learned of a secretly constructed deal in which KUOW, using surplus pledge money and loans from the UW, will purchase KPLU, destroying a valued local radio station and its independent news operation.
This blog will describe why this deal is not in the best interests of our region, how KUOW is poorly serving its listeners, and why it is not too late to stop this ill-conceived agreement. It is a story of poorly informed university administrators, of hiding a controversial deal from the public, of a radio station gone corporate and inappropriately using its pledge funds (KUOW), and of a region where the depth of news coverage is rapidly declining. My perspective on the sale is perhaps different than some, having been involved with both radio stations.
The Secret Deal
Without revealing the prior negotiations to the public, PLU has agreed to sell KPLU to the University of Washington's KUOW for 8 millions dollars: 7 million in cash and 1 million in underwriting announcements. KPLU will no longer exist, with its news operation being terminated and the jazz part retained in a future KUOW jazz outlet. KPLU staff will lose their jobs, although they will have the privilege of applying for jobs at KUOW (no guarantees). Of the 7 million dollars, 4.5 million will come from KUOW's "reserve"--which means the cash they have piled up from pledge drives. The rest will be derived from a loan from the UW.
Importantly, although there is an agreement between PLU and the UW, no legally binding document has been signed, which means this can be turned around if local public radio listeners act now (more later).
It is extraordinary that this deal, regarding a very popular local PUBLIC radio station, was done in complete secrecy, and even more amazing that a state university felt the need for such a clandestine approach. Clearly, both sides were worried about the firestorm that would occur if the truth came out before the deal was struck. And no attempt was made to allow KPLU to raise money to save itself, which could well have been done.
The Decline of Regional News Coverage
But before we analyze the effects of this deal, it is important to understand some important context: the weakening of regional news and programming in western Washington, and why this deal will make it worse.
One fact is clear: the depth of media coverage of local (Northwest) issues has been radically reduced over the past ten years.
(1) The Seattle PI, once a print outlet with a very large news staff, has been reduced to an online outlet with a handful of news folks (but fortunately including the redoubtable Joel Connelly). Its online pages are full of unfortunate innovations such as "sponsored news", celebrity gossip, and pictures of nubile young women in various stages of disrobing (see examples of the first two below, the third is too risque for this blog).
Let us say the PI is a shadow of what it used to be.
(2) Virtually all of the local commercial TV stations have greatly reduced their local news staff and have lessened staff pay at the same time. Far less depth in covering major local issues. Lots of coverage of fires and bad weather. I do like the weather coverage.
(3) KUOW radically cut its local programming, down to essentially one hour a day. It does maintain some local staff that creates short segments that are interspersed in All Things Considered and Morning Edition.
(4) KCTS TV (Seattle's Public TV) fired virtually all of its local production staff, with its airtime now filled with Masterpiece Theater reruns and infomercials for investment advice and quack health programs.
(5) The Seattle Times greatly reduced its news staff (by about 1/3) during its financial crisis back in 2008/2009. We are talking about the loss of roughly 30-50 people in the newsroom.
(6) There is some local news coverage from local weekly print and online outlets, such as the Weekly, the Stranger, and Crosscut. Although they contribute significant stories at times, their staffs are small, generally quite young, and lack long-term experience with the region. They are not a replacement for the losses noted above.
So here we are living in one of the most vibrant and important metropolitan areas in the country, if not the world. The home of Microsoft, Amazon, the UW, Boeing, Costco, and so much more. And local news coverage and local programming programming has declined precipitously over the past decade.
Amazingly, in this environment, leaders at Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Washington have decided to kill the valued, substantial, and award-winning news operation of KPLU.
Want to read about KPLU's news awards? check this out.
To show you how poorly PLU leaders understand the impact of their actions, PLU spokeswoman Donna Gibbs noted that the loss of KPLU news is not significant since the Seattle-PI is now a "vibrant online destination." Perhaps she thinks celeb interviews and half-undressed young woman is the kind of "vibrant" material that can replace the experienced journalists she is firing. PLU management seem unaware of the great contributions KPLU journalists have made in our area.
In a single phrase: highly negative. There have been about 6-10 major news stories on the sale. Virtually all of the stories are critical. Virtually all the online comments associated with these articles are critical of the sale. Go to the facebook pages of BOTH KPLU and KUOW: essentially all the comments are highly negative.
KPLU listeners feel they have been stabbed in the back. KUOW listeners are stunned that KUOW has been banking their pledges while pleading poverty. Faculty at the UW, as noted on the AAUP (American Association of University Professors) listserv, were disappointed that the UW administration did not reveal this was in the works.
The vision statement of PLU is:
As a university of the first rank, Pacific Lutheran University seeks to maximize the achievement of its mission and become an internationally renowned model of the New American University, purposefully integrating the liberal arts, professional studies, and civic engagement.
You noticed the civic engagement part? In few ways was PLU better engaging the community then through KPLU. So WHY are they selling?
Before the sale, this is what PLU President was saying (see Joel Connelly's article in the PI for more)
“Year-round, KPLU demonstrates its commitment to providing compelling, informative and entertaining content, mentoring students, strengthening its connection to the community, and furthering the mission of KPLU. I’m excited to see what’s ins tore between KPLU and the rest of PLU in 2015.”
“Speaking of students, KPLU utilizes the talents of PLU students year-round. In 2014, PLU Medialab conducted a research project to help inform KPLU’s marketing efforts, and this year KPLU will debut a news internship program for students.”
And why is he changing his tune now?
PLU claims to be in good financial shape but was it actually desperate for KUOW cash? The PLU President claimed hat they had to sell now because the "value" of KPLU was declining since radio was getting less popular. A strange argument for a robust station that was serving the needs of roughly 300,000 listeners a week. One that easily was able to support itself with short pledge drives. Was is because PLU would gain a relatively new building, built for KPLU with substantial contributions from the community? Or the fact that pledges from all sustaining KPLU members WILL NOW GO TO PLU instead. This seems unethical at best.
Disfunction at KUOW
One might be willing to consider this sale if KUOW had a good track record in providing good local coverage or was dedicated to informing the region about important issues. If it had a history of honesty and interest in listener needs. Unfortunately, it does not. One would also feel better about the deal if KUOW was committed to greatly increasing its local news and regional programming and in the process hiring most of the KPLU news staff. But it is clear that they have no such intention.
Consider what has been happening at KUOW the past few years.
(1) KUOW has reduced local programming from 5 hours to one hour (including ending Steve Scher's popular morning show, Weekday).
(2) KUOW has eliminated long-form programming where issues could be dealt with in depth. Program director Jeff Hansen believes that folks only will listen to short segments (no longer than 5 minutes), which is not a little insulting to the highly educated KUOW audience. He told me this in person and is widely quoted expressing this opinion.
(3) KUOW has filled its schedule with repetitious syndicated material (like The Takeaway)
(4) KUOW has extended the pledge break periods to several weeks, in contrast to KPLU that keeps them short (one week or less).
(5) KUOW has gone corporate, with often multiple advertisements per show.
"This program is sponsored by John's Auto Repair, which specializes in Mercedes, BMW, and Audi vehicles, and which is having a special this month for tune ups. Get more information at johnsauto.com or call 206 718-3829".
Or they use commercial approaches like: the next program can only be found on KUOW. And they constantly advertise upcoming segments to keep folks tuned in.
KUOW claims to be non-commercial radio. LOL.
(6) KUOW pleads poverty while banking a surplus of 1-2 million dollars per year. Check out their annual statement (buried on their web page). Here are some of the numbers I found. The 2014 surplus was 1.15 million dollars
(7) KUOW, the radio station of the University of Washington, has nearly NO UW content. Where are rebroadcasts of the wonderful public lectures, interviews with top UW faculty, and tapping of the intellectual powerhouse next store? You won't find it at KUOW, the UW's radio station.
Listeners are very unhappy with the changes at KUOW, but KUOW management simply doesn't care. If you want to see proof of that, explore the comments on the KUOW facebook page. Here are a few examples. There are dozens and dozens more like these.
I used to listen to npr nonstop many years, but the last year or two has been really lacking in programmin
I love KUOW, I really do. Have been almost a daily listener for over a decade. even when I lived in another state for 3 years. But the obliteration of the weekday schedule has been devastating. Here & Now and The Takeaway are indistinguishable, and so bland. I have tried to listen to them for a year now i think, and they just get worse. So, so bland & just not a substitute for what KUOW used to do in terms of local original programming. I still can't picture a KUOW listener thinking "man I really wish they would get rid of all this in-depth conversation & investigation & swap in 3 or 4 hours of cutesy little tidbits of random stuff." I think that all of your listeners would rejoice if you cancelled the 2 shows I mention above and bring back local, actual conversations a la Weekday & The Conversation. The only thing still worth listening to is the only hour left of an actual hour of conversation- the Week In Review.
Two years ago I was kicked off of KUOW for defending the UW's admission policy on air during the weather segment (startling, but true). There were massive numbers of calls in protest and 4,000 folks signed a petition for me to return. KUOW management did not care. The same kind attitude pervades that station today.
Having been at KPLU for a few years, I was struck by the different atmosphere at that station. Humble, interested in responding to listener comments, careful with money, and very nice people. In contrast, KUOW management thinks they know better and really don't care about listeners preferences and interests.
The funny thing is the KUOW is doing exactly the WRONG THING to have a future. They have filled their airtime with syndicated shows and NPR feeds, but such material can be gotten over the web. Folks don't need KUOW to listen to All Things Considered anymore and soon they will realize this and take control of their own content. KUOW will fail.
The only thing that will attract folks to KUOW will be local content, but that is exactly what they have gotten rid of. Poor planning at best.
KPLU purchase or not, KUOW needs serious reforming. It is time for UW management include VP Norm Arkans and President Ana Mari Cauce to deal with their errant radio station.
A Bad Deal for Local Public Radio Listeners
The proposed deal will destroy a very popular local radio station. It will end a desperately needed local news organization. It will give KUOW a public radio monopoly in Seattle, a monopoly it probably will abuse, if its previous track record holds.
The deal needs to be stopped. If PLU wants to get out of the public radio business, give KPLU a chance to find another buyer, such as self-financing. Selling KPLU to KUOW is like putting a lamb in the care of a wolf....you can imagine how that will turn out.
And imagine if KUOW used its big surplus to improve and expand local programming instead of eliminating other stations that are doing much more with less.
What Can Be Done
This secret deal can be undone if public radio listeners, PLU alumni, UW alumni, and other interested parties act now.
First, email Donna Gibbs (PLU Vice President for Communication and Marketing) or PLU President Thomas Krise. Their emails:
Donna Gibbs: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tomas Krise: email@example.com
Seocnd, email UW Communications Vice President Norm Arkans, KUOW head
Caryn Mathes, and the Chair of UW Board of Regents
Norm Arkans: firstname.lastname@example.org
Caryn Mathes does not reveal her email ( expected at KUOW!). So use the programming email: email@example.com
Third . Leave comments on the KUOW and KPLU facebook pages opposing this sale.
Fourth. Let KUOW know that if the sale goes through, you will stop your donations to that radio station. If they have piles of cash for buying out the opposition, they clearly don't need your pledge funds for operations.
Tomorrow (Monday, November 23), there will be a public meeting organized by KPLU at 2 PM at the Pike Room at the downtown Westin Hotel. Make your feelings know.
KUOW's management has so much surplus pledge fund cash
they can remove their competition by a buy out