June 29, 2016

The KPLU Triumph

Sometimes the good guys win.   Today is such a time.

A few hours ago, we learned that Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) has agreed to sell popular public radio station KPLU to a community group (Friends of 88.5) for 7 million dollars in cash, plus 1 million dollars in underwriting.

Against great odds, the Puget Sound community said no to a sale of the radio station to University of Washington's KUOW, which longed for a regional public radio monopoly and KPLU's transmitters/frequency allocations.

This is not just a western Washington local triumph, but an achievement of national implications. 

It is about a community that said no to the loss of diversity in local news and regional programming.   No to the trend of corporatization and nationalization of local content.  Yes, to valued and unique jazz and blues programming.  Yes, to distinguished local news coverage.

A record breaking amount of money was raised while an army of naysayers said it was impossible.

And the community showed the extraordinary power of social media to dissuade bad decisions of even the most powerful local interests.

The story of the saving of KPLU has the breadth and interest to make a compelling novel, with twists that would inspire a Hollywood screenwriter to think about the movie potential.   It has greedy/deceptive villains.  Moneyed and powerful interests wanting to get their way.  Secret deals.  Heroes and heroines.  A Hail Mary attempt to save the station that worked.  Record breaking fundraising.   Covert KUOW emails revealed in the press.  Fight Club. The participation of thousands of listeners and supporters.  The innovative use of social media.  Leadership and staff at KPLU that would not give up.   And even gunfire in a Seattle Public Library branch.

It is a story so unusual and far fetched that most would think it was a tall tale.  But it wasn't a story...it was real.  And KPLU, whatever it will be called in the future, will provide regional listeners and jazz/blues lovers from around the world with the programming they love for many years to come.

Stephen Tan, Chair of Friends of 88.5, and Joey Cohn, KPLU head

For me, the most interesting questions deal with the future.

How will KPLU evolve and grow as it becomes an independent entity, unfettered by their connection with PLU?    KPLU management has learned deep lessons about the importance of community engagement and the value of close ties with its listeners.   I suspect those lessons will have profound effects on the trajectory of the station.

For KUOW, this failed hostile takeover attempt of a valued local public radio station should stimulate deep reflection and reform.  KUOW management worked on a secret agreement to buy KPLU, skirted public meeting laws to keep the public uninformed before a UW Regents meeting, planned on using pledge money acquired for KUOW operations for the takeover bid, and wasted large amounts of money on a jazz outlet meant to put pressure on KPLU.

Perhaps even worse, KUOW management has stripped most of the local programming from the KUOW weekday schedule, filling the hours with bland nationally syndicated material.   It is time for KUOW to reappraise its programming,  bringing back much more local content.  The rich resources of the University of Washington should be entrained into the on-air material, and the management of KUOW improved (clearly the KUOW board has been ineffective at best). And there should be many opportunities to join forces with a resurgent KPLU.

KUOW can become a far better public citizen and regional news organization.   And to do so, it would be advised to follow the model of integrity and listener engagement so evident at KPLU.


  1. Congratulations, Cliff.
    And Thank You for your efforts that greatly helped to this a great outcome.

  2. The far north really seems to be where all the climate action is. The outlooks illustrated here are fairly typical of the past few years and it seems pretty strange the lack of chatter about it.


    Surely this is raising some red flags in the old "slow but steady" paradigm of climate study?

  3. Well done folks! There was a hell of a lot of effort done by a lot of good folks with this one, from which we'll all reap the indirect rewards. The FCC was established to assure the presence of independent voices on the airwaves in each region, and although they've been defunded and oftentimes neglected the survival of an independent KPLU is a clear example of how communities can accomplish those important goals even relatively independent of a federal body.

  4. Well said Cliff, and Hooray for KPLU! KUOW used to be my go to radio station, with KPLU only for Jazz. But when KUOW gutted its local content, I realized how good KPLU news really was. KUOW likely did need updating, but the direction they've gone in is from bad to worse. Thanks for being one of the leading public voices for KPLU Cliff.

  5. Decades ago Jim French did a morning program. Typically it would involve some major topic of the day, and he would have an academic from somewhere in the US give a 5+ minute accounting with Jim asking questions. Then a moderated call in Q and A. It always was informative and fun.

    I cannot imagine any professor at UW along with a good host not being able to hold our attention for half an hour.

  6. Yeah. Well, you are a good guy also, Cliff. I appreciate your knowledge and your willingness to share it.

  7. That's great Cliff. Your efforts really paid off.

  8. What a super effort by you and the whole community. Thanks to all for saving my favorite station!

  9. Woo-Hoo!! We're very excited about this out here on the end of Toandos Peninsula. KPLU keeps us country folk cultured and your call to arms last year shocked us all to action. Thank you Cliff. Thank you listeners!!!

  10. KUOW doesn't just have bland national programming, they play the national NPR news and the BBC news back to back! I don't need to hear all of that twice, thank you, I'd like my local programming back. Thank goodness I can keep KPLU.

  11. Congratulation to you, Cliff, and the rest of the KPLU Good Guys (and Good Ladies)! Thanks for verifying some of the unbelievable twists and turns involved in this transaction only proving once again that truth can be stranger than fiction. I sincerely hope that someone will write a book about this successful effort of citizens regaining control over the use of the public airwaves.

    I agree with RLL that UW, with its tremendous resources, could produce compelling, local programming and perhaps even attain number one in radio ratings as did Jim French on KIRO. Speaking of resources, it would seem KUOW should have adequate studio space for live, local programming with those new digs they acquired at taxpayer expense in anticipation of the KPLU acquisition.

    I find it so sad that the mind set of corporate media has been adopted by so many in public broadcasting. There is hope this trend could change and that's why it is so great to see the public take back the media for once!

  12. KPLU has been my 'jazz'tutor since we moved back to western Washington in 1996. I now can tell the difference between Jango reinhard and pearl Jango!

  13. KUOW is run on the Walmart School of management, KPLU supporters are of the Costco School.

  14. Thank you Cliff for your efforts in helping make this happen. It is because of you that I discovered KPLU and became and ardent fan. And I'm over the moon delighted that I was able to contribute to this wonderful success story.

  15. Thanks so much Cliff. I doubt we would have had this outcome without your crusading comments back in December.

  16. Oh wow, I remember Jim French! His shows were great. It always seemed like he didn't get nearly as much attention as he deserved. Dave Ross seemed to be considered the "star", but I much preferred Jim French's style - very much like a good NPR interviewer, actually.

  17. This seems good news but what is the breakdown of exactly where this $7 + $1m went? Furthermore what are the operating costs for KPLU and who will pay for those?

    I work for a commercial radio network in the UK and nearly all stations including news are close to full automation, its the only way to run a radio network in 2016. News presenters do all of their own research, editing, writing, show planning etc. I am always astounded when I walk into a US radio station and see news desks with dozens of staff many of whom are redundant.

    Perhaps close attention should be made to costs and efficiency measures enacted to ensure the future which the local public have voted for.

  18. The KUOW general manager made one of the most self serving, ignorant answere to the announcement that KPLU would remain independent. I doubt he will ever get why we wanted something so much better than KUOW and its robotic programming.

  19. Congratulations are in order and an understandable sense of victory after a hard fought battle. But it is the future that counts and is a greater challenge than the past. KPLU has one built-in advantage, namely the Jazz repertoire. The ability to sustain a Jazz base and a viable radio station (public or commercial) is riding against many tides in radio, not the least of which has been the death of many Jazz stations in other,parts of the country.
    My hope is that the new station will take advantage of the opportunity of distinguishing itself further by avoiding the duplication of NPR programming. You mention the importance of local news. Indeed. Perhaps a consideration of partnerships with the Tacoma Tribune and the Everett Herald to share their resources and voices along with Crosscut, or the Weekly and/or the Stranger.
    NPR is a Seattle addiction, but your staff knows full well they too can report national and international news in a different format that can bring fresh perspective and many more stories than the magazines of NPR. NPR has its place, but the national service hogs the prime times of radio drive time. Why simply share it when you are more than capable of delivering an alternative while also delivering the news and avoiding the heavy fees NPR distribution now demands. Ideas and innovation are your future.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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