By Katherine Hedland '88
Paige Hansen, Afternoon "All things Considered" Host/Reporter for KPLU
KPLU, the radio station discreetly housed in a corner of the Eastvold Auditorium building, has grown into a broadcast powerhouse, with a loyal and expanding audience tuning in worldwide over the Internet for jazz and news only KPLU provides.
Found at 88.5 FM or www.kplu.org,
the station is the regions pre-eminent public radio system, providing
National Public Radio programming, local news and real jazz and blues.
"Theres an audience for jazz worldwide," Program
Director Joey Cohn said.
But it takes a lot of work that listeners never see to provide
the high-quality music and news they hear. And the station is looking to the
future: digital radio, increasing high-technology equipment and other changes
will again alter how KPLU operates.
"Going back to when we really began to develop in 1980,
weve been at the forefront of our industry," General Manager Martin
Neeb said. "By any measure, were one of the best jazz stations
in the world and one of the best NPR stations."
Kerry Swanson 89, assistant manager for operations and
public media who has spearheaded development of the Internet arm of KPLU,
says the station is looking ahead.
"Were not just in the radio business anymore. The Internet for us is beyond our expectations. In the future, KPLU will be more than just a radio station," he said. "It used to seem the early days of radio were the most interesting, but this really is one of the most exciting times in radio. These are the pioneer days."
With a unique dual format of news and jazz, the station appeals
to different kinds of listeners.
The station undertook a rather unorthodox research project
for a public station: it surveyed listeners to see what they want to hear.
Managers wanted to find ways to capture the news listeners during jazz hours,
and get jazz fans to turn into the talk portion.
"All the other radio stations are one format: country,
" Neeb said. "Were the only station that
has two formats. That makes us special."
The research has shown that jazz and news draw much of the
"It has worked," Music
Director Nick Morrison said. "We have seen greater crossover from
news into jazz."
KPLU has an international audience of fans who tune in for
the "real jazz" the station plays. The stations play list
includes authentic, acoustic and improvisational jazz.
"Our focus is for the jazz to sound melodic," Cohn
A lot of work goes into selecting the music, and KPLU keeps
the standard hits playing while being at the forefront of finding new talent.
"We have a new music rotation, so youll hear a
certain number of new songs throughout the day," Morrison said.
Morrison, sometimes with the help of Cohn and other hosts,
goes through hundreds of CDs. He estimates he receives 30-50 every week from
artists and record companies, and he gives each at least a listen, hoping
to hear distinctive music.
Music director Nick Morrison in the KPLU music stacks
"Sometimes it doesnt take very long to say, This
doesnt work," he said. "Were lucky to get one
really great CD a month. But sometimes we find the gems."
That was what happened with Norah Jones, a jazz singer gaining
popularity on pop and rock stations. Morrison heard a track of hers on someone
elses CD and was impressed. "We were playing
Norah Jones before her CD came out," Morrison said.
The same was true for the up-and-coming Karrin Allyson. And
several years ago, Cohn suggested to the owner of the popular Dimitrious
Jazz Alley in downtown Seattle that he bring a newcomer named Harry Connick
Jr. to his club. Today, Connick is a top-selling artist and an actor.
"I think we had a lot to do with the growth of their audiences," Cohn said. "We were instrumental in the success of many artists."
news department came into its own in the 1990s and now has one of the
largest reporting staffs of any NPR station. Its state-of-the-art Northwest
News Center opened in downtown Seattle last year.
In public radio, a staff of five in the news department is
considered large, and KPLU has had a bigger news staff than that for years.
The reporters cover regional news, putting together stories for the morning
and afternoon news shows. KPLU also airs regular NPR programs like "All
Things Considered" and "Car Talk."
"When I started here 15 years ago, we had one full-time
reporter," said Morning Edition host Dave
Research also helped the news department determine what kind
of stories people wanted to hear.
"It showed us now much people really do want local news," News Director Erin Hennessey said. "Their interests were very much in line with our coverage areas: education, the environment, health and science, law and justice, business and labor and the arts."
"They care about their communities and they want a radio
station that cares as well and is keeping tabs on it," she said.
Hennessey said KPLU focuses on issue-driven stories of regional
interest, in addition to event-driven news.
"We have the ability to explore stories in-depth, to
look at the bigger issues," she said. "Because
we have more time on air, our coverage has more in common with newspapers
than with commercial radio."
News stories that might run 30-45 seconds on another station
get twice that much time on KPLU. And features can run several minutes. Listeners
get the benefit of hearing NPR stories on the air, and KPLU sends stories
to NPR. That means KPLU and its reporters receive a national audience
and that Northwest stories find their way into the homes and cars of people
all over the country.
"We really take the broadcasts and our own stories seriously," Hennessey said. "Everyone in this newsroom is just really committed to news that provides context and perspective. We dont just do who, what, where," she said, quoting the quintessential journalism questions.
"We really get to spend more time on the why."
KPLU has formed partnerships with other non-competing media
for in-depth projects. The station is currently working with KCTS Channel
9 on a long-term series examining education reform in Washington called "The
Learning Curve." In the past, KPLU reporters worked with the Seattle
Times and public broadcasting on a civic journalism project on politics and
growth, and last year put together a criminal justice series with The News
Tribune of Tacoma and KCTS called, "A
Duty To Protect," examining what can be done to protect the community
from dangerous parolees.
Such projects allow the station to share resources and information,
to promote each other and to reach larger and different audiences.
"Its really satisfying to do this kind of work, and we hope it translates into useful information and good storytelling for the listeners," Hennessey said.
In order to do all this, the station depends on support
from listeners. KPLU runs on a $4 million annual budget, with $3.5 million
coming from the community. Of that, $2.3 million came directly from listeners
this year, and $1.2 million from underwriting support from corporate
donors. Regular fund drives, in which donors are urged over the air to give
during dedicated weeks, bring in many of the dollars, and special events
like the popular Jazz Cruises on Puget Sound make up the rest of the
Thousands of people sail on the brunch cruises, now in their 12th year, to hear live music from performers like Greta Matassa and Pearl Django.
University and station support each other
While PLU holds the license for the radio station and all
KPLU staff members are also university employees, the station operates nearly
independently. PLU supports the station with infrastructure, allowing it to
operate without any daily overhead, but the station is otherwise self-supporting.
"The infrastructure is provided by the university, and
that is a great gift," Neeb said. Both entities
have signed an editorial integrity statement, so the station holds authority
over what it broadcasts and how it portrays stories, without interference
from the university.
KPLU also has a commitment to PLU students, and has employed
dozens over the years. The station has become home to several PLU alums and
has helped launch the broadcast careers of many PLU graduates. Years ago,
Cohn started an overnight shift for a student that continues today.
Assistant Station Manager Swanson started work at KPLU as
a student in 1985 and worked his way up the ranks over the years. He serves
as adviser to the student station KCCR/K103, and has recruited talent from
there to KPLU. Other graduates who stayed on at KPLU include evening jazz
host Abe Beeson 93 and Craig Coovert 00, who manages Web resources.
Other successful KPLU alums include Kevin Ebi 95, business
editor at KIRO in Seattle; Dale Comer 02, who is an assistant producer
for Jones Radio Network, which produces the syndicated evening "Delilah"
show; Stephen Kilbreath 92, who is on the air at KUBE in Seattle; Greg
Schieferstein 88, news director of Evening Post Television, KPAX-TV
in Missoula, Mont.; and Adrienne Wilson 99, a Morning Edition host for
an NPR station in Wichita. David Christian 59 worked as chief engineer
at PLU for more than 40 years before his recent retirement and was instrumental
in the founding and expansion of KPLU.
The university believes KPLU is a huge benefit. "We're proud that KPLU is an integral part of the university," President Loren J. Anderson said. "It showcases for the entire region our commitment to quality, excellence and lifelong education and our dedication to community service."