KPLU 88.5
KPLU 88.5

Yes­ter­day, David Brew­ster sim­ply floored me. Over the years, Brew­ster has played an admirable and respect­ed role in Seat­tle, using media to encour­age civic engage­ment and par­tic­i­pa­tion as a founder of The Seat­tle Week­ly, Cross­cut, an online news ser­vice, and the won­der­ful Town Hall venue for impor­tant lec­tures. While I would­n’t call Brew­ster’s pol­i­tics bold­ly pro­gres­sive, he’s long been some­one I have respect­ed as an inno­v­a­tive thinker.

But then came his opin­ion piece in yesterday’s Seat­tle Times.

Titled Seattle’s pub­lic broad­cast­ing re-imag­ined, it was an error-filled paean to the most recent merg­ers and acqui­si­tions in our local media land­scape —the KCTS/Crosscut merg­er (actu­al­ly an acqui­si­tion because full pow­er over the new orga­ni­za­tion rests with KCTS) and the still-not-final­ized KUOW takeover of its now slight­ly larg­er com­peti­tor, KPLU. Brew­ster got just about every­thing wrong in his op-ed. While the big­ger sto­ry is KUOW’s acqui­si­tion of KPLU, let me start first with KCTS and Cross­cut, as does Brewster.

KCTS and Crosscut

In the first para­graph of his op-ed, Brew­ster informs us that he’s been “help­ing unof­fi­cial­ly and with ris­ing enthu­si­asm for the past two years to nudge along” the KCTS absorp­tion of Cross­cut. The deal promis­es in the short run to save Cross­cut from drown­ing in red ink and move some of its staff writ­ers from part to full-time. Brew­ster acknowl­edges that this means Cross­cut will no longer be independent.

It might be use­ful to under­stand that these past two years of Brewster’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with KCTS’ cur­rent lead­er­ship have been pre­cise­ly a time when KCTS elim­i­nat­ed sev­er­al of its local­ly pro­duced news and pub­lic affairs pro­grams, includ­ing the half-hour week­ly spe­cial In Close.

As if that was­n’t bad enough, KCTS also announced it would essen­tial­ly be leav­ing local sto­ries to quick snip­pets on its on-line site or short TV seg­ments slipped as “Inter­sti­tials” between oth­er pro­gram­ming. With the excep­tion of Katie Campbell’s excel­lent (and out­side-fund­ed) Earth Fix pro­grams, KCTS was leav­ing the doc­u­men­tary world total­ly behind.

As a thir­ty-one year vet­er­an doc­u­men­tary pro­duc­er at KCTS, I was one of the first casu­al­ties of the cor­po­rate, com­mer­cial­ly-ori­ent­ed regime that took con­trol of the sta­tion in late 2013. My doc­u­men­tary film, The Great Vaca­tion Squeeze, had been pro­duced with in-kind sup­port and edi­to­r­i­al con­trol com­ing from KCTS and already approved for air when I was giv­en the news that the sta­tion had changed its mind, and giv­en my walk­ing papers as well. Short­ly after­wards, the sta­tion fired eleven of its most tal­ent­ed, ded­i­cat­ed and expe­ri­enced pro­duc­tion staff—all of this while Brew­ster was plan­ning the cur­rent “merg­er.”

The com­mer­cial mindset

Brew­ster lauds these changes in KCTS, claim­ing that “it has com­mer­cial-broad­cast mox­ie, not old-school PBS types at the helm.” Yes, and this is pre­cise­ly the prob­lem in the eyes of those of us who val­ue real, mean­ing­ful journalism.

KCTS’ long­time vet­er­ans believed in the mis­sion of PBS, laid out in 1968 when pub­lic tele­vi­sion was first pro­posed in the Unit­ed States. It was a mis­sion focused not on rat­ings but on real infor­ma­tion, edu­ca­tion and inspi­ra­tion, tuned to the needs of “under­served” audi­ences, civic engage­ment and the com­mon good.

Com­mer­cial “mox­ie” turns pub­lic tele­vi­sion into just anoth­er busi­ness and Rob Dun­lop, KCTS’ cur­rent CEO, had absolute­ly zero pub­lic tele­vi­sion expe­ri­ence before he took over the helm of KCTS.

Dunlop’s ulti­mate aims remain secret. Does he want to make the sta­tion so lean he can sell the build­ing KCTS has been in since 1986, or unload part of the station’s dig­i­tal spec­trum in an auc­tion next year? In any case, Brew­ster ignores all of this and the thought — obvi­ous to every­one else — that Cross­cut can be fold­ed any­time Dun­lop feels like it. “Cru­cial­ly,” says Brew­ster, with a bit of his ‘mox­ie,’ “KCTS has vowed to get back to pro­duc­ing local news and pro­grams, with Cross­cut as a first, albeit inex­pen­sive step to hav­ing an instant newsroom.”

Of course, this rais­es a cou­ple of ques­tions. How come nobody at KCTS has been told of this plan to go back into TV news and how will this accom­plished by jour­nal­ists with­out expe­ri­enced tele­vi­sion pho­tog­ra­phers and edi­tors? As some­body who has worked in print and in tele­vi­sion (and writ­ten for online-only pub­li­ca­tions like NPI’s Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate), I can attest that they are not the same. It takes a dif­fer­ent kind of eye and train­ing to make good television.


But of course, the big­ger and more wor­ry­ing acqui­si­tion that could shake up the local media land­scape is the planned sale of KPLU to its fel­low NPR affil­i­ate KUOW, which is owned by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Washington.

“I also have con­sid­er­able opti­mism about the over­due rous­ing of pub­lic broad­cast in the region, includ­ing KUOW’s pur­chase of rival KPLU,” Brew­ster writes.

Some­how in his mind, turn­ing the best NPR affil­i­ate for local news into sole­ly a jazz sta­tion will add to the news cov­er­age in a town that has been los­ing it for a long time. Cer­tain­ly, the demise of the Seat­tle Post-Intel­li­gencer’s print edi­tion didn’t result in more news cov­er­age. Instead, with­out com­pe­ti­tion, the Times began pro­duc­ing less and became even more con­ser­v­a­tive editorially.

The P‑I, which sur­vives as an online-only pub­li­ca­tion, is a shell of its for­mer self. It still has excel­lent writ­ers like Joel Con­nel­ly. But its news­room is large­ly gone.

The gob­bling up of KPLU by KUOW sure­ly por­tends a vast reduc­tion in pub­licly fund­ed news cov­er­age. The ever “opti­mistic” Brew­ster sees the new KUOW as expand­ing its own cov­er­age, but a more like­ly sce­nario is that KUOW will cut back even fur­ther on what it does local­ly, since it will no longer have to com­pete for news audi­ences with KPLU. In fact, KUOW has been doing just this sort of local cut­ting back for some­time now. It has reduced its only local­ly pro­duced pro­gram­ming to an hour a day to the cha­grin of many of its lis­ten­ers and staff, while also play­ing hav­oc with its NPR news programming.

Chang­ing course

Iron­i­cal­ly, last year, Brew­ster made the points I’m mak­ing now, in a Cross­cut arti­cle titled “Steve Scher’s KUOW dis­ap­pear­ing act,” a piece mourn­ing “the steady loss of [Seat­tle] jour­nal­ists with lots of insti­tu­tion­al memory.”

Sch­er, KUOW’s pop­u­lar Week­day host, quit the sta­tion after his ven­er­a­ble pro­gram was can­celled. “Some­where in the past decade, KUOW became fix­at­ed on rat­ings,” Brew­ster explained, ques­tion­ing the mind­set of KUOW Pro­gram Direc­tor Jeff Hansen, who he described as “Scher’s philo­soph­i­cal rival at the station.”

That was in 2014. Brew­ster is now singing a very dif­fer­ent tune.

KPLU is grow­ing, not slumping

Back when KUOW went from a news and clas­si­cal sta­tion to an all news and talk venue, NPR sta­tions were increas­ing­ly buy­ing the adage that dual for­mat (music and news) sta­tions can’t sur­vive in the mod­ern radio cli­mate. Brew­ster may still believe this; Caryn Math­es, KUOW’s CEO clear­ly does, since her stat­ed intent is to make 88.5 (KPLU’s sig­nal) a jazz-only sub­sidiary of KUOW.

But in fact, while Brew­ster claims NPR audi­ences are “slump­ing,” KPLU’s have been grow­ing steadi­ly. The sta­tion just passed KUOW in total lis­ten­ers per week, with 438,000, up from 320,000 a cou­ple of years earlier.

More­over, KPLU just had its best fund dri­ve ever (and it was a three-day dri­ve com­pared with KUOW’s ten days).

Brew­ster gets so many facts wrong, it’s hard to know where to begin.

He sug­gests that Pacif­ic Luther­an Uni­ver­si­ty has been “sub­si­diz­ing” KPLU, when in real­i­ty the oppo­site is true. PLU is in finan­cial trou­ble and wants to pick up $8 mil­lion on a sale of KPLU, but it’s not because of KPLU.

The uni­ver­si­ty gives the sta­tion a pal­try $30,000 a year, plus space in a build­ing that was almost total­ly fund­ed by a cap­i­tal cam­paign in which donors were told they were buy­ing a build­ing pre­cise­ly for KPLU.

Mean­while, KPLU gives the uni­ver­si­ty hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars in free pro­mo­tion in the form of under­writ­ing men­tions every hour. Sure­ly, many of PLU’s stu­dents came to the uni­ver­si­ty because they heard about it on the sta­tion, and a core group of them have been protest­ing the sale.

All of this infor­ma­tion is con­tained in a splen­did let­ter sent by Stephen Tan, the chair of the KPLU advi­so­ry board to PLU pres­i­dent Thomas Krise. Krise was asked to pass the let­ter on to PLU regents, but did not. Brew­ster appar­ent­ly nev­er read the let­ter, though it has been pub­lic record for some time. The let­ter laid out the facts, crit­i­cized the extreme secre­cy of the move (even the Advi­so­ry board was not told about it till the deal was com­plet­ed) and asked for time to find a com­mu­ni­ty buy­er of the sta­tion so its award-win­ning news (and jazz) could be continued.

In Novem­ber, hun­dreds of KPLU lis­ten­ers attend­ed a com­mu­ni­ty advi­so­ry board meet­ing. They, and the board itself were unan­i­mous in oppos­ing the sale and so were the 47 peo­ple who left com­ments online after Brewster’s arti­cle yesterday.

Even the pho­to the Times ran with Brew­ster’s op-ed was a joke

To add insult to injury, the Seat­tle Times includ­ed a pho­to with Brewster’s op-ed. The pho­to was at least eight years old (the Times couldn’t have found more recent one, or even shot some­thing new?) and depict­ed KUOW’s Ken Vin­cent work­ing in its stu­dio. Iron­i­cal­ly, Vin­cent quit the sta­tion in 2007, over what he called Pro­gram Direc­tor Jeff Hansen’s efforts to “dumb down” the station’s news and pub­lic affairs and under­pay its staff, “while it socks mil­lions of dol­lars into reserve accounts”. Per­haps to buy KPLU, so it can dumb down even further.

KPLU’s lis­ten­ers are under­stand­ably out­raged by the sale, hav­ing been asked for pledge mon­ey after the sale was already com­plete, with­out being told that they were giv­ing mon­ey to a sta­tion that would soon no longer exist. KPLU news staff engaged in col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing with the sta­tion after the sale with­out hav­ing been told they would actu­al­ly have no jobs, so the agree­ment they were reach­ing would be moot. (Full dis­clo­sure: My wife is a part-time reporter for KPLU).

His­to­ry has shown that media con­sol­i­da­tion leads to bad out­comes. If KPLU is sold to KUOW and if KCTS con­tin­ues on its cur­rent tra­jec­to­ry, we will get less cov­er­age of the cru­cial issues that we care about, like income inequal­i­ty, inad­e­quate pub­lic plan­ning, and rent goug­ing, that threat­en our beloved qual­i­ty of life.

If Brew­ster has his way and the KUOW takeover of KPLU is approved (there is still a chance to stop it), the dumb­ing-down will pro­ceed unabat­ed, the lis­ten­ers of Seat­tle’s NPR sta­tions will lose impor­tant con­tent and the con­tin­u­ing demise of inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism in Seat­tle will leave us all poor­er and less informed.

John de Graaf is a respect­ed doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er and pro­gres­sive activist with decades of pub­lic tele­vi­sion expe­ri­ence. He was the keynote speak­er at NPI’s 2010 Spring Fundrais­ing Gala and is a val­ued sup­port­er of NPI’s work. He con­tributes peri­od­i­cal­ly to the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate.

Adjacent posts

6 replies on “Crosscut creator David Brewster hops on Seattle media consolidation bandwagon”

  1. Thank you so much for putting a light on a quite take over of our local news. I cried when I lost the PI. I’m fight­ing to keep KPLU. I remem­ber lis­ten­ing to KUOW’s (near­ly 95 FM) basi­cal­ly baroque in the morn­ing and one day find­ing it gone. Please con­tin­ue to call out those who are bend­ing facts. You are proof that good news report­ing is need­ed now more than ever.

  2. I hate media con­sol­i­da­tion, but I think that it is a symp­tom of two many out­lets to be sup­port­ed. The alter­na­tive would be for these enti­ties to die. That may have been the rea­son for the Tele­com act of 1996. At one time, you could only own one AM sta­tion, one FM sta­tion and one TV sta­tion in each market.

  3. The “con­ven­tion­al wis­dom” that sug­gests region­al media con­sol­i­da­tion is inevitable is not only adrift from real­i­ty, but indica­tive of peo­ple who haven’t done their homework. 

    The Puget Sound Region is among the most eco­nom­i­cal­ly pros­per­ous areas in the coun­try. There is more than enough sup­port for two NPR affil­i­ates. KUOW’s decline is as inex­plic­a­ble as it is inex­cus­able. Its man­age­ment team has no one to blame but them­selves, and elim­i­na­tion of the com­pe­ti­tion will not make things bet­ter for anyone. 

    If any sta­tion deserves to fail, its KUOW. They’ve abused lis­ten­er trust, mis­used sup­port­er’s pledges,and under­mined the via­bil­i­ty of the region’s pub­lic radio busi­ness mod­el. Its high time that sta­tion man­age­ment remem­bers where their sup­port comes from, and enough with try­ing to run a pub­lic radio sta­tion as though it were an MBA case study.

  4. Agree with BCMac and [John de Graaf]. It’s just indica­tive of the way that Seat­tle has been going that not only KUOW but peo­ple who once were cre­ative, like Brew­ster, are now in bed togeth­er, pass­ing off inac­cu­rate infor­ma­tion for fur­ther con­sol­i­da­tion of the media. 

    KPLU has been a supe­ri­or sta­tion for some time. The demise of local pro­gram­ming on KUOW, in favor of nation­al and inter­na­tion­al wall to wall cov­er­age, is dis­heart­en­ing. The con­stant drum beat for dona­tions to KUOW is also not much dif­fer­ent than lis­ten­ing to a com­mer­cial station. 

    I would assume that the drop in end of the year dona­tions is behind the tim­ing of this deci­sion, and that they have got peo­ple like Brew­ster on board to help sway pub­lic opinion, 

    I look for­ward to donat­ing to a new sta­tion, owned by peo­ple that hope­ful­ly will care about local pro­gram­ming, jazz and news, and be able to clear­ly delin­eate them­selves from KUOW’s pro­gram­ming. To be clear, I lis­ten late at night to both sta­tions, and appre­ci­ate some of KUOW’s shows. But the move to almost con­stant nation­al pro­gram­ming, along with repeat pro­gram­ming hour after hour, has me turn­ing to KLPU through­out the day.

  5. Thank you so much for this piece — I also was floored by David Brew­ster’s Op-Ed, and have been appalled by the secre­cy of the nego­ti­a­tions of the sale of KPLU to KUOW. I wish I could buy KPLU out­right (no way I can!), but will cer­tain­ly con­tribute to keep it a sep­a­rate, non-UW sta­tion. We depend on their local news insight! If it stays inde­pen­dent of KUOW, the next KPLU fund dri­ve will be a joy to support.

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