NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

Crosscut creator David Brewster hops on Seattle media consolidation bandwagon

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.

KUOW and KPLU

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

  • Enjoyed what you just read? Make a donation


    Thank you for read­ing The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate, the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute’s jour­nal of world, nation­al, and local politics.

    Found­ed in March of 2004, The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate has been help­ing peo­ple through­out the Pacif­ic North­west and beyond make sense of cur­rent events with rig­or­ous analy­sis and thought-pro­vok­ing com­men­tary for more than fif­teen years. The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate is fund­ed by read­ers like you and trust­ed spon­sors. We don’t run ads or pub­lish con­tent in exchange for money.

    Help us keep The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate edi­to­ri­al­ly inde­pen­dent and freely avail­able to all by becom­ing a mem­ber of the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute today. Or make a dona­tion to sus­tain our essen­tial research and advo­ca­cy journalism.

    Your con­tri­bu­tion will allow us to con­tin­ue bring­ing you fea­tures like Last Week In Con­gress, live cov­er­age of events like Net­roots Nation or the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion, and reviews of books and doc­u­men­tary films.

    Become an NPI mem­ber Make a one-time donation

6 Comments

  1. Thank you, Mr. de Graaf, for say­ing every­thing that is in our hearts and on our minds so eloquently.

    # by KMD :: December 16th, 2015 at 9:28 PM
  2. 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.

    # by Mary E. Davis :: December 16th, 2015 at 11:50 PM
  3. 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.

    # by Mike Barer :: December 17th, 2015 at 7:16 AM
  4. 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.

    # by BCMac :: December 17th, 2015 at 10:06 AM
  5. 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.

    # by Alb :: December 17th, 2015 at 4:44 PM
  6. 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.

    # by Jo Seattle :: December 19th, 2015 at 1:23 PM