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Halfway to Goal, KPLU Continues 'Hyperspeed' Fundraising Drive

KPLU fans at a community meeting and fundraiser in Olympia.
KUOW Photo/John Ryan
KPLU fans at a community meeting and fundraiser in Olympia.

Public radio station KPLU has raised more than half the $7.25 million it says it needs to fend off a buyout by KUOW and the University of Washington.

But fundraising experts say bringing in the remaining money by the end of June is a tall order.

Since the "Save KPLU" campaign began in January, KPLU staff members have been crisscrossing the Puget Sound region in a bid to keep the NPR news and jazz station on the air.

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About 200 fans crammed into a combination community meeting and fundraiser in Olympia Wednesday night. A stream of on-air staff spoke and took questions from the friendly crowd while KPLU coworkers at the back of the room had credit-card readers at the ready.

KPLU's environment reporter Bellamy Pailthorp said the station's possible elimination is part of a larger trend of news outlets shrinking or disappearing.

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"This is a really rare opportunity if you support 'Save KPLU' to stop one of those deals in its tracks," Pailthorp told supporters. "I don't think that's a very common opportunity, and it's one that's really dear to my heart, so thank you."

In November, Pacific Lutheran University agreed to sell KPLU to the University of Washington and KUOW. The plan was for 88.5 to become an all-jazz station run by KUOW. KPLU staff -- 35 full-time and 17 part-time employees -- would lose their jobs, and the KPLU brand would disappear.

But after a public backlash, UW and KUOW said they'd back off if a community group could match their offer of $7 million in cash and $1 million in on-air underwriting credits.

KUOW officials have said the goal of the original deal was to make sure the 88.5 frequency stayed within the public radio system once Pacific Lutheran University decided to sell it. KUOW General Manager Caryn Mathes said in an email last week that KUOW is exploring hiring more reporters to expand the reach of its journalism around Puget Sound. But she said no specific hiring plans would be available until July.

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"Thank you all for making this effort," KPLU listener Jon Gilstrom said to the KPLU staffers who trekked to Olympia Wednesday night. "There are this many people in every city around here who don't want to lose their radio station. Nothing else equals this station."

"Having another independent news source is totally important to having a vibrant democracy," KPLU listener and donor Kay King of Olympia said.


The amount of money KPLU is trying to raise isn't that unusual for a major nonprofit group. But the pace is.

"It's certainly like on hyperspeed," public-media fundraising consultant Deb Turner of Brewer, Maine, said. "It has to be, given the timeline that they've been given."

Turner works with a consulting group called Greater Public, which has counseled both KPLU and KUOW on other fundraising efforts. She said a big campaign like this typically takes years, not weeks, of planning. She said "a fair amount of the money, perhaps as much as 50 to 80 percent" typically comes in before the campaign is even publicly announced.

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KPLU didn't get time for any of that. Now it has to raise another $3 million and negotiate a complicated purchase agreement by the end of June.

Coming To Terms

The "Save KPLU" campaign has not submitted a purchase offer to Pacific Lutheran University yet, according to KPLU content director and "Save KPLU" campaign manager Matt Martinez. That leaves the community group less than two and a half months to negotiate a complicated deal.

Pacific Lutheran University spent a year negotiating the original deal with the University of Washington and KUOW before announcing it to the public in November.

One factor in KPLU's favor: it can model its deal on the agreement already signed with KUOW.

"We don't have to start from scratch," Martinez said.

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Among the issues that still need to be worked out is the fate of about $2 million in cash held by Pacific Lutheran University for the station: mostly operating cash and an endowment. KPLU considers the entire sum to be listener-contributed money that was intended for the radio station. The university says it plans to forward only about $600,000 to the eventual buyer.

[asset-images[{"caption": "KPLU operates out of this building, largely built with listener donations and named after the station's former general manager, on the Pacific Lutheran University campus in Tacoma. But its newsroom operates out of an office in Belltown.", "fid": "125683", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201604/DSCN2184.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/John Ryan"}]]In addition, station officials hope to keep operating KPLU from the Pacific Lutheran campus in a building that was built mostly with donations from KPLU listeners. Pacific Lutheran spokesperson Donna Gibbs said the university is prepared to let KPLU operate there for three more years.

Pressure Cooker

At least one public radio station saved itself on an even shorter timeline.

"We raised $2 million in 20 days," said Neil Best, the general manager of KUNC in Greeley, Colorado.

If KUNC hadn't raised the money, the University of Northern Colorado would have sold the station in 2001 to Colorado Public Radio, a Denver-based network that now owns more than a dozen stations.

"One of the advantages we had was there was not a day to spare with only 20 days," Best said. "There was a huge urgency that was never lost."

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"People are motivated by that urgency and that impact," said Patricia Gray of the Pike Place Market Foundation, which itself is in the midst of a major fundraising campaign. The foundation is trying to raise $9 million over four years to expand Pike Place Market toward the Seattle waterfront.

Gray said KPLU has a big advantage over other non-profit organizations: its huge reach.

"A fan base they can connect with through a radio station. That's a huge asset," she said.

KUNC in Colorado met its big fundraising goal after a long-time listener came up with a million-dollar gift out of the blue.

KPLU fundraisers say they haven't found a similar sugar daddy or sugar mama yet, but they're looking.

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And with two months and more than $3 million still to go, some KPLU staff members are feeling the pressure.

"This is really difficult," Martinez said. "At the very beginning, we knew this was going to be hard. In our darkest days, when we're really, really tired, we just want to take a week off, and we know we can't, we remind ourselves, this is what we signed up for, and that gets us through."

KUOW has hired an independent editor to oversee coverage of this story. 

Year started with KUOW: 2009