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Behind the mike at KPLU

By Katherine Hedland '88. (From Winter 2002)


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 region’s pre-eminent public radio system, providing National Public Radio programming, local news and real jazz and blues.

"There’s 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, we’ve been at the forefront of our industry," General Manager Martin Neeb said. "By any measure, we’re 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.

"We’re 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."


Station looks hard for melodious, rhythmic ‘real jazz’

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, news, classical…" Neeb said. "We’re the only station that has two formats. That makes us special."

The research has shown that jazz and news draw much of the same audience.

"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 station’s play list includes authentic, acoustic and improvisational jazz.

"Our focus is for the jazz to sound melodic," Cohn said.

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 you’ll 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.

"Sometimes it doesn’t take very long to say, ‘This doesn’t work,’" he said. "We’re 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 else’s 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 Dimitriou’s 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 offers in-depth perspective on issues

The 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 Meyer said.

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 don’t 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.

"It’s really satisfying to do this kind of work, and we hope it translates into useful information and good storytelling for the listeners," Hennessey said.


Public radio requires public support

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 budget.

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."

 

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© Scene 2004  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Summer 2004

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