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.
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.