Born as a student project decades ago, the university-owned radio station KPLU is about to undergo a major transition as Pacific Lutheran University divests itself from regional public broadcasting.
Discussions began last spring, and the results of those discussions were announced in mid-November, declaring that KUOW, the University of Washington-owned public broadcasting station, would collect KPLU’s 88.5 slot on the FM dial, where jazz would prevail, while also producing, at its own position at 94.9, a full slate of news. In exchange, PLU would receive $7 million in cash and $1 million in future on-air promotions.
Soon after details emerged in a KUOW news release, listeners and supporters responded. The KPLU advisory board met in Seattle and decided to protest the deal with a letter to PLU President Thomas Krise.
Further correspondence followed between supporters and Krise. Blogs, Facebook and other social media postings increased the volume of complaint, and letters of protest were sent to agencies including the Federal Communications Commission, the UW Board of Regents, the KUOW Board of Directors, the Public Interest Law Group and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, among others.
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Krise met Monday with The News Tribune at his campus office to discuss the proposed sale, his reaction to the protest and how he sees the future of public broadcasting in the region.
Krise, an Episcopalian, is the 13th and first non-Lutheran president in PLU’s history. He took office in 2012 and serves as both an administrator and as an educator in the school’s Department of English. A retired Air Force officer, his academic interests focus on early Caribbean, early American, and 17th- and 18th-century British literature.
Q: How large was the response, after the announcement? Letters, emails?
A: “It’s several hundred. A lot of them were cut-and-paste. The people who’ve been sending multiple messages, maybe 10. There’s a very active dozen or so.
Q: Were you surprised at the reaction?
A: It’s fascinating. I wish I wasn’t in the middle of it. It’s the Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. It’s been interesting figuring out the concerns. It’s been hard to get the basic message across. I’ve been surprised how people don’t understand the mission of the university.
I think I was surprised at the confusion. I was prepared for spirited debate. I’m surprised at the inaccuracies. We knew there would be objections.
Q: And how do you answer the objections?
A: There are two reasons (for the decision). It’s costing the university, and our primary mission is educating students. We have an asset that is costing us money.
Also, how best (can we) preserve the legacy of public radio? If we were only interested in the money, we would have shopped it around. The likely high bidders would have been religious broadcasters. There could have been no news, no jazz.
A declining asset is detrimental to our mission, and duplicating broadcasting nine hours a day (with KUOW) is unhelpful. It weakens the survivability of public radio.
Q: One of the major complaints against the decision concerns the way it was made. Members of the public, including students, KPLU listeners and supporters were not informed that the station’s future under university ownership was in jeopardy. The citizen advisory board said in a letter that it was disappointed in the process. Do you think that disappointment was justified?
A: There have been three (consolidations in the news): Plum Creek and Weyerhaeuser, Crosscut and KCTS, and Group Health to Kaiser Permanente. In none of those cases was there a public comment period. There was no consultation.
This is the time for debate. This is how you get notified. The FCC has a process that’s likely to take three to six months. That’s the time.
Q: So it shouldn’t have been a surprise to supporters?
A: If you were paying attention, you’ll know we’ve been talking about this for decades. We thought about buying KUOW, and we thought that would be about $17 million. We thought about unilaterally going to a single format — we could have set up all jazz or all news. We seriously explored that. It wasn’t a good solution. For the people who pay attention to the media landscape, this isn’t news.
Q: You didn’t attend the meeting last month of the advisory committee.
A: (An advisory council leader) asked me not to come to the meeting.
Q: Do you approve of, or support, a community group coming forward to buy the station?
A: I would like the one that would be most likely to preserve the legacy of KPLU. At this point, it looks like that’s the UW.
Q: You’re selling for $7 million in cash and $1 million in future on-air promotion. What happens to the $7 million?
A: It will generate $350,000 a year that will support the mission of the university, including mass communications, MediaLab, the Center for Media Studies and jazz performances. These are the kinds of things we will make investments in. It will support scholarships.
Q: KPLU supporters helped build the Neeb facility, where KPLU has offices — as does the university, with unrelated offices.
A: The Neeb was always planned as a mixed-use facility. When you give money to a university with a specific purpose, the board has to have the power to decide what happens.
The biggest donor has given his particular blessing to this. One other said they’re sad but they understand. No member of the advisory council is one of the 200 (largest donors), and a significant number are not donors. (Also,) you’ve had a lot of noise from people who are not supporters.
Q: If the community group is successful in raising the money, could the new owners broadcast from campus?
A: I haven’t really thought of that. I assume they would keep the Seattle studios.
Q: Why entertain a new buyer at this point in the process with the UW?
A: Make an offer, make a proposal — that’s what this time is for.
Q: Do you think such a proposal could succeed?
A: At first, I thought it wouldn’t be likely to succeed. It’s a big undertaking.
Q: Do you listen to KPLU?
A: Of course.
Q: Are you taking any of the criticism personally?
A: I’ve been compared to Hitler, Putin and Stalin. And Darth Vader too. It causes laughter more than concern.
Q: Some listeners, and contributors, have said they will not support a non-KPLU presence at 88.5. You also may lose intangibles — community good will through a presence on the air, and so forth. Is this a concern, losing a local resource?
A: It’s a consideration, and certainly we’ve taken that into consideration. For years, KPLU has been based in Belltown in Seattle. About the only thing going in Parkland is the jazz programming. KPLU has been a Seattle-based news operation. The leadership of the station asked the university’s permission to go to Seattle. It’s a Seattle-based news organization. It’s something that we built up.
Q: Are there any lessons you’ve learned over the past month or so?
A: I learned a lot from the social media, but I don’t know what I’d do differently. We’ve done due diligence. We’re concerned that employees will land successfully.
Part of the issue — there’s a decline in listenership for NPR (National Public Radio). It makes people sad. We’re worried about it. We’re sad about it. This is a serious business decision that has to be made, and it’s hard. We understand the emotion and the anger and sadness. We’ve felt it ourselves.
Q: If another university president called saying she was thinking of selling the school’s public radio station, what advice would you give?
A: Be prepared for a lot of noise and make sure all the arguments are clear.
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535
KPLU supporters working to create nonprofit
Supporters of public radio station KPLU are taking steps to form a public nonprofit to buy the station from Pacific Lutheran University.
PLU and the University of Washington, whose KUOW public radio station had committed to buy the news and jazz station, last week said they would give KPLU supporters some six months to come up with an alternate bid.
KUOW has offered PLU $7 million in cash and $1 million worth of advertising and promotion air time in exchange for KPLU.
Longtime KPLU supporters are already taking legal steps to create the nonprofit group Friends of KPLU to raise money and buy the station. That group registered with the Washington secretary of state Dec. 10.
Friends of KPLU want the station to remain independent with its format intact. The station's advisory council and a cadre of supporters have protested the planned sale to KUOW and the consolidation of the two stations.
The backers group now is researching obtaining a business license and gaining Internal Revenue Service charitable status, according to supporters.
Under the plan announced last week by the two universities, KUOW would sign a conditional purchase contract for KPLU, subject to the Federal Communications Commission’s approval of the transfer of the radio station’s license. That process usually takes about six months.
During those six months KPLU supporters could form their nonprofit, conduct a fundraising campaign, find new quarters for the station and tentatively hire staffers.
Stations backers several years ago raised $6 million to help build the Martin Neeb Center, the campus building where KPLU is based in Parkland. Under the sale agreement with KUOW, PLU would retain ownership of that building.