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Halfway to goal, KPLU Continues 'Hyperspeed' Drive To Avoid KUOW Buyout

John Ryan

Radio station KPLU is in the midst of what could be its final pledge drive.
The station has raised more than half the 7 million dollars it needs to fend off a buyout by KUOW.
Fundraising experts say bringing in the needed funds in just six months is a tall order.

KPLU staff have been crisscrossing the Puget Sound region in a bid to keep the public radio station on the air.

In Olympia, about 200 fans crammed into a combination community meeting and fundraiser. On-air staff spoke to the crowd while KPLU coworkers at the back of the room had their credit-card readers at the ready.

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

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

In November, Pacific Lutheran University agreed to sell the news and jazz station to the University of Washington and KUOW.

The plan was for 88.5 to become an all-jazz station run by KUOW. KPLU staff would lose their jobs.

But after public backlash to the deal, UW and KUOW said they'd back off if a community group could match the $7 million cash offer.

King: "Having another independent news source is totally important to having a vibrant democracy."

Kay King listens to KPLU in Olympia. So does Jon Gilstrom.

Gilstrom: [applause] "And there are this many people in every city around here who don't want to lose their radio station. Nothing else equals this station."

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

Turner: "It's certainly like on hyperspeed, it has to be, given the timeline that they've been given."

Deb Turner is a public-media fundraising consultant in Maine. The group she works with has consulted for both NPR stations in Seattle. Turners says a big fundraising campaign like this typically takes years, not weeks, of planning.

Turner: "And then maybe a fair amount of the money, perhaps as much as 50 to 80 percent, coming in before the campaign is even publicly announced."

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

But at least one public radio station has saved itself on an even shorter timeline. Neil Best is the general manager of KUNC in Greeley, Colorado.

Best: "We raised $2 million in 20 days."

If KUNC hadn't raised the money, KUNC's parent university would have sold the station to Colorado Public Radio.

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

KPLU leaders are feeling that urgency, too, with two and a half months before their deadline. Matt Martinez is KPLU's director of content.

Martinez: "It's hard. This is really difficult. 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."

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.

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