April 12, 2016

Radio Station KUOW Has Gone too Far

It is not often that a major public entity does something so inappropriate and contrary to the public interest.

As I will demonstrate below, Seattle's KUOW is using questionable and disingenuous tactics to undermine its rival public radio station, KPLU.   And its use of pledge funds is deceptive at best.

Listeners need to act to ensure that KPLU, by far the region's best public radio station, survives.

What is the latest KUOW misstep?    It is creating a jazz station to undermine the jazz programming of KPLU and patently fibbed about it.

The back story.

Last year KUOW/UW and  Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) had secret negotiations about the purchase of KPLU.  PLU was desperate for cash and mistakenly thought that a secret deal would make things move fast.

When the sale of KPLU to KUOW was announced in November, KPLU listeners were livid.   Their beloved station would be gone, with most of the staff fired. KUOW listeners were angry that somehow 4 million dollars ended in a slush fund that KUOW management could use to buy a competitor.   But KUOW wanted the sale badly:  they would get KPLU's superior transmitters and have a virtual monopoly on public radio money in the region.

 Kicking someone who is down does not reflect our values.  KPLU is working hard to get on its feet.

The sale was clearly not in the public interest, and with a huge public outcry, UW and PLU decided to give KPLU six months  (June 30th) to raise the seven million dollars required by PLU.  I was particularly impressed with the role of UW  President Ana Mari Cauce, who made it clear that an immediate sale was inconsistent with basic UW values.  The community needed to have a chance.

KUOW reluctantly backed off, since the UW was the license holder and was providing some of the funding.

But KUOW was not giving up...and they kept information about an upcoming sale as a banner on top of every one of their web pages.  Check out a snapshot tonight from the KUOW information page.  The sale doesn't look very delayed does it?

KPLU  started a fund drive in January and so far it has been very successful, with KPLU securing donations of over 3.7 million.  Clearly, they are on track to secure the needed funds by the deadline.

KUOW was clearly worried.  And desperate to derail KPLU's momentum, they announced yesterday that they (KUOW) would immediately start competing with KPLU's bread and butter--jazz and blues programming.  KPLU not only has award winning local news and NPR programming, but specializes in jazz/blues through its main radio station (88.5) and streaming through the Jazz24 HD channel (which is very popular and has around 100,000 listeners).  To undermine this very popular KPLU jazz offering, KUOW is starting a jazz streaming outlet

 called PlanetJazz starting on April 18th.

Why are they doing this?  The KUOW claim is that they wanted to get ready in case KPLU could not secure the funding.   But that is complete nonsense.  Why? First, if KPLU was not able to find the money, KUOW would immediately inherit a fully functioning and popular HD channel Jazz24.  Second, it is clear that collecting money at the current rate, KPLU will be able to buy its independence.

So what is KUOW putting a competing jazz outline online?  There can be only one reason:  to destroy the momentum of the KPLU donation drive.

KUOW listeners should be irate about the total waste of their pledge dollars and donations.   To launch this new jazz service, KUOW has retained an expensive consultant and has remade its streaming services.   The costs of such an effort, based on my conversations with an industry insider, is at least $50,000 to $100,000.   But it is worse than that.   KUOW is using millions of dollars of pledge money for the takeover...money that was given in good faith by listeners who were told their contributions were needed to maintain local programming.

And is wasn't true.  

The  pledge money ended up in a slush fund/reserve account that can used to take over other stations and to hire consultants to create a competing jazz outlet.   Even more upsetting is that KUOW is not leveling with its listeners about it.   On their web page they deny they are doing it:

This is the kind of language that would make a lawyer proud.  They don't FUNDRAISE for the reserve.  What they do is to take the surpluses each year and put THAT into the reserve.  Plus, whatever interest/income they get from the reserve, which started as contributions.  You really have to watch those KUOW folks.  They could always become tax lawyers.

Finally, UW and PLU Presidents, Ana Mari Cauce and Thomas Krice, should be upset with KUOW's flaunting the clear intent of the universities to give KPLU a chance to survive under community funding.  It makes no sense to give KPLU six months to raise funds and then try to sabotage it with wasteful, competing programming.

What should you do?

If you are a KPLU listener or someone wishing to support KPLU, please pledge as soon as you can

If you are a KUOW listener and pledge to KUOW, please move your support to KPLU.   KUOW has vast reserves and does not need your money.


  1. I was shocked when I heard that on KUOW the other day! I had literally just switched over from KPLU's Jazz24 HD 2 program (and app) which I love, to catch some news/talk. It made little sense- good sense anyway. Basically it stinks! Keep jazz at 88.5. And keep KPLU! The wonderful folks at 88.5 know what they are doing and really deliver quality and passion.

    Unlike KUOW, which comes off as just a market opportunist. Lame.
    Seattle-Tacoma deserves true musical-zeal and authenticity.

  2. Cliff, well stated, and thank you for being there to put KUOW's shameful behaivior on center stage. If anything, such news has strengthed my resolve to provide as much support for the Save KPLU campaign as I am possibly able. I am absolutely disguested with KUOW's so-called leadership. They are supposed to be practicing good husbandry of the public's money, but are instead behaving more like corporate raiders. The Save KPLU campaign is of national importance: We'll preserve a first-rate staion, sure, but we're also defending the sanctity of the piblic radio model.

  3. I'm with you on this 100%. The next time KUOW has a fundraising drive we need to organize via social media and jam their phones with complaints.

  4. Thanks, Cliff. Just donated more.

  5. Stations like KUOW are basically superfluous nowadays, since they produce very little original programming. The national NPR shows are all available as direct podcasts - so when I give, I just give to the originating station (e.g. WBUR, WBEZ) or to NPR directly (for stuff like All Things Considered).

    Heck, even "Planet Jazz" sounds like it's just going to be reselling prepackaged content. Pandora, Spotify, and Apple Music offer that already, and cover every other conceivable genre to boot.

    I've got the internet at my disposal, I don't need a middle man - but that's all KUOW is anymore.

  6. If I were a KUOW employee, I would hang my head in shame. These tactics are so far outside what is acceptable in Seattle. And especially shame on KUOW management.

  7. I briefly heard of this a day ago but you filled in the details for me Cliff. Time to add some more to my contribution to Save KPLU.

    BTW, do you know how to get a copy of KUOW's financial statements? I'd like to see what they are really doing with all the contributions they receive.

  8. To be honest, I really haven't cared a whole lot about the KPLU sale. I give to KUOW and commute a lot between Seattle and Tacoma, so was actually looking forward to being able to hear more news when I'm in Grit City. Using funds to extend their broadcasting range made a lot of sense to me. If the community was able to come up with the funds to stop the sale, so be it. I'm fine with being overruled by the majority.

    The new jazz station, however, is a pretty dirty move. I may need to suspend my ongoing donations until this whole thing gets sorted out.

  9. Does anyone know: What happens to the money pledged to KPLU if, heaven forbid, they fail to meet the June 30th deadline?

  10. Ansel, in the unlikely event that the campaign fails, donations by check would be refunded 100%. Donations by credit card would be refunded 97% (Bank of America gets 1.5% fee for each card transaction, so 3% for a donation that results in a refund).

    On the other hand, in the likely event that the campaign succeeds, then the donations are tax deductible....for folks who itemize their tax deductions.

  11. I agree with most of what you have written here. But my 'take' on KUOW's Planet Jazz is somewhat different. Folks will listen to this automated streaming service, think 'gawd, this is what we have to look forward to if KUOW is successful in their purchase', and subsequently redouble their contributions to SaveKPLU.

    Also, there should be a class action suit brought against KUOW to reclaim the fundraising monies that listeners contributed under the guise of paying for their favorite programming.

  12. "KPLU started a fund drive in January and so far it has been very successful, with KPLU securing donations of over 3.7 million. Clearly, they are on track to secure the needed funds by the deadline."

    Is there any data to support that future donations will continue at the rate they have averaged thus far?

  13. As a professional Jazz musician here in Seattle the phrase "unneeded jazz outlets" no matter what context it is, is really offensive. I would argue we need more outlets for the art form.

  14. Marc...I have changed the wording...see if you like it better...cliff

  15. I've stopped listening to KUOW entirely. There is no there there.

  16. @Ron:

    Also, there should be a class action suit brought against KUOW to reclaim the fundraising monies that listeners contributed under the guise of paying for their favorite programming.

    Unfortunately, they aren't breaking any laws. Their legal department definitely worked for their money when wording their statements to ensure that they were toeing - but never crossing - the lines of misrepresentation. Their actions definitely were not in good faith, but you can't sue a company for being clever. Their slush fund - and method/s of enforcing it - appear to be perfectly legal, regardless of them not very moral and/or ethical.

    [Sorry if two similar versions of this comment show up - there was an error and than a browser reload issue.]

  17. Love you, Cliff Mass, buddy... keep up the excellent work.

  18. First, shout out to Sol's Civic Minute for including this story and link in today's email. Second, this saddens me. I expect better from public radio, especially in Seattle. Thanks Cliff👍🏾

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