Power to the People

An amazing story has been unfolding here in Puget Sound for the past 8 months, and recently, we’ve come to the exciting end of Book I and are ready to embark upon the sequel, a new adventure.  The tale has nothing to do with our humdinger of a presidential election, but it’s truly an American story.  Or maybe it’s more of a story about what we’d like our whole country to be.

We have a delightful little radio station here called KPLU (88.5).  It’s an NPR affiliate that broadcasts from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma and, when it’s not running NPR programming (Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Fresh Air), it airs local news, jazz, and blues.

It’s a gem of a station with a loyal audience, including myself.  I wake up every morning to KPLU and listen to it at night while I do the dishes and fold laundry.  And it offers one of my favorite radio shows, Bird Note, a two-minute program about birds that combines narrative and nature sounds.  The first time I heard it, I thought, “That’s really odd,” and now, every morning, I look forward to the distinctive oboe theme that opens each segment.

Last year, Pacific Lutheran decided it wanted to get out of the public radio business, so it approached KUOW, our 800-pound radio gorilla at the University of Washington, about buying it.  KUOW is a great station, but it’s very different from the much smaller KPLU, and its plan was to shut down KPLU’s news department and make the station all jazz, no NPR programming, no local news.

Fortunately, last December, due to outcry from KPLU listeners, who want news with their jazz, the purchase agreement was modified to allow for a competing bid.  The community would have until June 30, 2016 to raise $7 million to take control of the station.  Friends of KPLU was formed and it kicked off a fundraising campaign, with the goal of keeping the station independent.

It seemed like a crazy dream, and as the money began trickling in, the reality of just how big a number 7 million is began to settle over KPLU listeners.  Donations were coming in steadily, but every day, as we got the donation update, we also received the reminder that we still needed millions and millions of dollars to buy the station.

And then suddenly, we were only 2 million away.  Then 1 million.  And on May 26, more than a month before the deadline, Friends of KPLU announced that 20,000 people had donated money and the $7 million goal had been reached.

As I wrote at the beginning of this post, the story isn’t over.  PLU still has to accept the community offer and KUOW has to withdraw from the bidding.  But it looks as though those things will happen.  Also, the station will need to change its call letters (with help from listeners), form a community board, and raise money for operations under its new name.  Programming will remain the same, but the station will be something different:  truly public.  Owned and operated by its listeners.

Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”  The story of KPLU affirms that there’s enormous power in individuals coming together for a common cause, and that there are few obstacles that can’t be moved by people who believe they can make a difference and are willing to invest the time and resources to do so.

And there’s another saying I like:  “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

We’re being hit hard right now by stories of an ineffectual primary system, an unjust justice system, and a Congress that works for the corporations that give them money, rather than the voters who elect them.  It’s easy to say that our most fundamental institutions are corrupt beyond saving, but, as the community effort to purchase KPLU shows, there are a few planks in the foundation of our country that remain strong:  Freedom of speech and our ability, as individuals, to donate money to causes we believe in without censure from our government.  Also freedom of the press and the opportunity we have as citizens to take ownership of media organizations and run them as we see fit.

This story also demonstrates that each voice matters.  It’s tempting to dismiss this idea with cynicism, especially right now, but the truth is:  KPLU’s audience spoke up, and PLU and KUOW listened.  Maybe because it seemed like the right thing to do.  Or maybe because, in America, we still cheer for the person willing to pull out a tiny slingshot, draw back his or her arm, and take on a giant.




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