KPLU clears $7 million hurdle to independence

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The Martin J. Neeb Center, home of KPLU, on the campus of Pacific Lutheran University. (Photo: John Froschauer/Pacific Lutheran University)

KPLU in Tacoma, Wash., is taking a major step towards independence after a nonprofit group established to buy the station’s license reached its $7 million fundraising goal Thursday.

The nonprofit Friends of 88.5 FM reached its goal more than a month before the deadline to avert the station’s sale to the University of Washington, which also operates KUOW. The group will announce the campaign’s completion at 3:30 p.m. PST.

For the sale to be finalized, Friends of 88.5 FM and KPLU’s current licensee, Pacific Lutheran University, will need to agree to terms and gain approval from the FCC. The group hopes to take control of the license by September.

$7 Mil Announcement

KPLU G.M. Joey Cohn is surrounded by staff, supporters and local media as he announces the news on-air. (Photo: KPLU)

The fundraising effort was spurred to the finish line with the help of $500,000 in challenge funds provided by a group of individuals and businesses, according to Friends of 88.5 FM. That gift was released when the campaign reached $6.5 million. Ultimately, the effort raised funds from roughly 17,800 donors since launching Jan. 11.

“I’m blown away,” said Matt Martinez, KPLU’s director of content and project manager of the Save KPLU campaign. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that many of us at the station have been moved to tears by how much community support there’s been for wanting to save KPLU.”

Pacific Lutheran University announced in November that it would sell KPLU to the University of Washington. But after pushback from the community, the two universities agreed to give a community group the opportunity to buy the license from PLU. The group has been working toward a June 30 deadline.

The effort got a major boost earlier this month from the Seattle Foundation’s GiveBIG campaign, an online giving promotion for Seattle-area charities and nonprofits. The promotion brought in $1.45 million for the group, compared to over $68,000 for KPLU in last year’s GiveBIG.

Martinez also said that PLU’s allowing Friends of 88.5 FM to fundraise on available radio spots for free and make use of the KPLU.org website for fundraising was a key factor in the station being able to reach its goal.

“Those are huge decisions that really helped make this campaign a success,” he said.

Donna Gibbs, v.p. of marketing and communications at PLU, said in an email to Current Tuesday that the university is “attempting to negotiate with the community group now” and will not consider a counter offer from the University of Washington.

“As PLU and the UW publicly stated in January, if the community group can demonstrate $7M in readily available cash for a matching offer as defined in the UW asset purchase agreement, and meet other thresholds required by the FCC, the UW/KUOW has agreed to step aside and we will move forward in selling the license to them,” she wrote.

“We offer our congratulations to the Friends of 88.5 and their supporters for reaching this first step toward converting 88.5 to a community licensee,” KUOW said Thursday in a press release. “The community has shown tremendous support, and all involved have worked hard toward this milestone. UW/KUOW’s goal was always to preserve a public radio frequency for the listening public and we will be happy for that preservation whether it comes to us or a new community licensee.”

Friends of 88.5 FM’s board includes KPLU GM Joey Cohn and Stephen Tan, a former chair of KPLU’s Community Advisory Council. The group began negotiating in April, suggesting that it pay PLU only $6 million in cash in addition to $1 million in underwriting for the university over 10 years.

The University of Washington offered PLU $7 million in cash in addition to the underwriting. But KPLU’s backers believe that their offer matches UW’s because PLU would incur about $1 million in staffing costs if it transferred the license to UW.

The new community station is also making plans to operate without the support of a university. Martinez says the group has budgeted for the transition costs, which it anticipates will exceed $250,000.

The station will continue accepting donations and will hold fundraising events that were already planned. Any funds raised beyond $7 million will go toward the transitional costs.

“We fully expect to have that $250,000,” he said.

Transparency as strategy

Few public radio stations have ever raised so much money in a short amount of time to buy their independence, according to Melanie Coulson, director of member station services at Greater Public and a KPLU alumna. Coulson could think of only two other examples: WNYC in New York drummed up $20 million to become independent of city ownership in 1997, and KUNC in Greeley, Colo., raised $2 million in 20 days in 2001.

To ultimately reach such a large goal in such a short time Martinez said he believes KPLU’s strategy of being open and honest with the community made the difference. Campaign leaders held five community meetings throughout KPLU’s listening area to discuss questions community members had about the station and its finances and programming. KPLU gave community members an “ambassador toolkit” that provided ways to help the station.

At first, Friends of 88.5 FM thought it would need a few gifts in the range of $500,000 to $1 million to achieve the goal. But the largest gift was $250,000, made by an individual. Only 10 donations were over $100,000. The average gift was around $282 and the most common gift value was $100.

“If we had a dollar for every time someone asked us ‘Have you called Bill Gates?’, we would totally be done with this campaign already,” Martinez said.

“That is the single biggest thing that I’ve learned throughout this entire process: Don’t underestimate your community; they support you for a reason,” Martinez said. “They give you their credit card numbers for a reason.”

After seeing the success of the community events, KPLU will continue to hold quarterly gatherings with listeners in addition to regular meetings of its board of directors and community advisory board.

The KPLU group’s ability to raise the funds while relying on only a few larger donations was “really unique,” said Coulson, who lives in Seattle and gave to the Save KPLU campaign. Most capital campaigns involve foundational gifts of $500,000 to $1 million that stations can announce and use to help drive momentum, she said. But KPLU made no such announcements.

“It really feels like it’s been a community effort from all sizes of gifts,” she said.

But KPLU will now need to find a way to keep the fundraising momentum going without the hook of saving itself from a sale. “People love to save things; they love to be the savior at the last minute,” Coulson said.

But shifting from that phase to post-independence fundraising? “There’s no playbook for that,” she said.

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