Interview: Seattle-based radio station crowdfunds the future of jazz

Ryan Leppich Quarte

Something extraordinary has happened just south of the border, and it’s to the tune of 7 million dollars. KPLU 88.5FM, a Seattle-based radio station best known for their online Jazz24 stream, successfully raised the money required to buy their independence in under five months. The station is one of the few remaining live broadcasts of jazz and blues for the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Last week, Vancity Buzz spoke to KPLU General Manager, Joey Cohn, about the future of the station and the music.

Image: 88.5 KPLU

Image: 88.5 KPLU

Since its inaugural broadcast in 1966, KPLU has been a division of Pacific Lutheran University, a 3,300 student institution based out of Tacoma. The university had been in talks with another radio station to sell off KPLU, and Cohn said there was “huge public outcry” when the news became public, almost a year later. “I couldn’t tell my staff, because I was directed to keep the news silent [until the official announcement].”

In order to compete with the deal already on the table, KPLU needed to raise a cool 7 million in the span of five months.  “The station was very successful, and we had just come off of best financial year at KPLU. We have the largest audience in our history, between on-air and online audiences,” reflects Cohn. In fact, the average donation for the fundraising drive was around $300.

Image: Parker Miles Blohm

Image: Parker Miles Blohm

It’s a powerful story not commonly seen in the media industry, where listeners have directly changed the trajectory of this 16-member news team and 12-person music staff. “I think it’s a very loyal audience that feels an emotional connection to the music and announcers. We’re not trying to be Spotify. We provide companionship to people. KPLU is like friends and family.”

When it comes to Jazz24’s online listeners, Vancouver ranks among the top four cities, only trailing behind Seattle, London, and New York. Cohn thinks it’s because Vancouver has a very educated population: “Thirty years ago, Vancouver used to have a full-time station called C Jazz. Vancouver also has the annual Jazz Festival, and an active high school jazz program in the city. I think there’s similarities to Seattle, where people are interested in both local stories and in the world around them. The arts are all part of that.”

Image: Parker Miles Blohm

Image: Parker Miles Blohm

TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival’s Co-Founder and Media Director, John Orysik, echoes the sentiment in this statement to Vancity Buzz: “KPLU has been a leading jazz broadcaster in the Pacific Northwest for a long time. They’ve cultivated a strong and growing listenership for the music that has served both artists and audiences very well… Coastal Jazz looks forward to further building our relationship to create even more opportunities for people to experience the transformative power and joy of jazz.”

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SEE ALSO: Lauryn Hill, Sarah McLachlan headline TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival

At KPLU, there’s more work to be done in the weeks ahead – the entire deal needs to be negotiated, signed and delivered by the end of June. The station wants to continue to operate out of their existing studios on campus for at least the next three years. The new community license will be held by a non-profit organization, called Friends of 88.5. More information is available in the updated FAQ section, or listen to Jazz24 for more announcements.

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Cecilia Lu Arts & Culture Editor at Vancity Buzz. Cecilia a sucker for great indie theatre and anything really geeky. Lethal drink of choice: single malt whisky. cecilia[at]vancitybuzz[dot]com

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