The clock is ticking in the campaign to save a beloved media institution based in the Seattle area. With 24-hour jazz and exclusive in-studio artist sessions (plus quirky promos and lively personalities), this unique combination of sounds ends if the non-profit “Save KPLU” effort fails to raise $7 million by the end of June.
But wait, you say. I’ve already heard about that. KPLU Tacoma’s radio license would be purchased by the University of Washington’s KUOW Seattle if enough money isn’t raised to take the station independent. It simply would no longer be part of Pacific Lutheran University. It wouldn’t go away.
Actually, it could go away. For a large, global audience. Online.
While KUOW has committed to keep the 88.5 FM radio frequency broadcasting jazz all day long (eliminating KPLU’s NPR and local news programming in favor of KUOW’s), the same commitment hasn’t been made to KPLU’s digital presence. That presence is not insignificant, with a reach that few terrestrial broadcast towers can hope to match.
It’s that fact that has this streaming audio fan (and former radio broadcaster) singing the blues.
Global Public Radio
KPLU has a history of digital innovation. General Manager Joey Cohn says the station was “a little ahead of the curve” for public radio when, in 2008, it created a full-time Public Media Director position responsible for “all things tech … including all content distribution whether it’s analog or digital.” KPLU’s news department, he adds, was the first local news team to collaborate with NPR to develop tools needed to teach radio journalists how to cover news online. “After developing those teaching tools with KPLU,” Cohn says, “NPR then applied the training nationwide.”
Its more-public digital activities include a YouTube channel with more than 7.5 million views of its national and local live Studio Session performances.
And then there’s Jazz24, KPLU’s full-time, 24/7 online streaming (and HD Radio) jazz service. One that’s managed to attract a global audience, as well as being broadcast by other public radio stations.
While Cohn says they’ve been streaming since around 1998, Jazz24 didn’t really gain traction until about six years ago. “What we found is 90% of our listening is outside our market,” he says. “Jazz24 has 100,000 listeners a week reaching people all over the world. Years ago, NPR told me that Jazz24 was the most listened to music stream that is produced by public radio, by far.”
All Streams Considered
As successful as Jazz24 is, it’s fair to say that KPLU’s digital efforts aren’t the only local standout. KING-FM, which went the non-profit public radio route five years ago, completely upended its broadcast programming to be more like Internet radio. It gave up news and traffic at the same time as it eliminated advertising, and expanded its online symphonic and classical music channels.
You can’t exactly make the same type of claim for KUOW, at least in terms of continuous digital innovation. “On May 1, 2004, KUOW became the first public radio station in our region to broadcast in HD Radio,” a web page on its site proudly proclaims. But at present, it admits, “there are only a few HD radios on the market.”
So this week, perhaps in a bid to play digital catch up (or engage in a distinctly Seattle form of passive/aggressive counter-programming) KUOW is launching its own 24/7 online jazz and blues stream, tentatively dubbed Planet Jazz. The station has hired experienced jazz host and programmer Steven Williams to create it. KUOW is also putting Planet Jazz on its HD2 radio channel in addition to online, bumping KUOW2 news programming to HD3 and eliminating an HD4 channel entirely to give Planet Jazz more bandwidth for better HD Radio quality.
KUOW’s announcement emphasizes that Planet Jazz is a “pilot project” and “not intended to overshadow the efforts of the community group” trying to buy KPLU’s license out from under KUOW.
This is where I start to detect the wafting odor of bluesshit.
I’m hardly a disinterested observer. I’m a former radio news director and reporter. I’ve been a guest on both stations. I’ve donated to both. I’ve got good friends who work at both.
But what makes me take pause about KUOW’s jazzy-come-lately initiative is the lackluster quality of much of its traditional broadcast product. Its on-air presence can be staggeringly uneven, including chopped-up news segments routinely recycled into new “programs.”
It doesn’t give me a lot of hope for KUOW’s conveniently timed new digital initiative. Which may simply be a trial run for its proposed all-music 88.5 FM, too.
As to the fate of Jazz24 in a Planet Jazz world, Williams says, “If the acquisition goes through, KUOW gets Jazz24, along with its existing syndication customers. The purchase agreement calls for KUOW to operate it for at least 90 days.” But there’s zero guarantee after that, and KUOW early on made it clear that current quirky, lively KPLU staff are not part of the acquisition deal.
For digital Jazz24 fans like me, a sale of KPLU’s license to KUOW instead of to a community non-profit will almost inevitably mean taking a giant step backwards from its global online reach.
The campaign to take KPLU independent has now passed the halfway point, both in terms of dollars and time. But half-measures won’t save its broadcast and online presence, nor the innovative thinking and offbeat good humor that are the hallmark of KPLU’s approach. Unlike many things digital, those can’t be be cut-and-pasted.