"When staff found out there was all this money—not only in the bank, but being generated [during pledge week]—they asked: Why are we duping the donors? "That's how a former KUOW staffer characterized internal reaction to the station's upcoming annual financial report. Last year, the station had a $1.3 million surplus. This year's report, according to the former staffer, will show an even larger surplus.
So why do KUOW's twice-yearly pledge drives—one started on October 8—make it sound like the wolves are at the door?
"Maybe they're too good at raising money," says one longtime supporter of the station. But with that much money in the bank, he adds, "maybe they should have only one annual pledge drive."
KUOW is a very successful public radio station. Last year it was number four among all Seattle radio stations; it ranks 10th in public radio nationally, which is impressive for a medium-size market. The community clearly supports the station. But scrutiny of this Seattle sacred cow has been rife since veteran KUOW staffer Ken Vincent cited low wages and high cash reserves as one of his reasons for leaving the station in August.
Now donors are starting to ask questions: Is the sacred cow milking us? Must pledge drives be so long, so frequent, and so frantic? Why are the station's surpluses such a closely guarded secret?
"The brouhaha with Ken made it sound like there's somebody over here living off the fat of the land and that listeners are being double-talked," said KUOW general manager Wayne Roth, who's led KUOW since 1983. Roth acknowledged that the station enjoys a large surplus, but he insisted that there always has been a surplus and that the station is just being prudent.
"I don't know how we could be more transparent," Roth said.
Others think transparency is lacking.
"We have a reasonable right to know everything but salaries," says Seattle resident Brian Grant. "On their website, they're not saying in plain English what their financial situation is. The annual report does not even have a balance sheet."
Grant's no muckraking blogger. He's a psychiatrist and sits on local arts boards. He gives money to arts organizations, social services, and KUOW. Grant also matches his employees' contributions to KUOW. But Grant was frustrated when he attempted to look into KUOW's finances.
"There's nothing that says in plain English, 'Here's our surplus,'" says Grant.
Roth told me that the station's 2006 audits were on the KUOW site. Only after I informed Roth that neither Grant nor I could find them did Roth supply a link. The station's audits weren't anywhere near the annual report, the most logical place for them, but tucked away on an "About" page with information concerning the station's board of directors.
The audits showed that nonprofit KUOW has made a sizable "profit" in the last two years, but they also show that KUOW has been investing heavily in new projects. In 2006, KUOW acquired KXOT in Tacoma, two HD channels, and an Olympia AM station (1340). "We're fortunate to have this amount of working capital—not all public radio stations do," says Roth.
Grant was mollified after seeing the financial statements.
"They were able to buy a new house without taking out a mortgage" by using the surplus, Grant says. "We should all be so lucky." Nevertheless, Grant feels the station should be more open and honest with listeners about its financial position.
"We're not stupid," says Grant. Instead of making it sound like the wolves are at the door, why isn't KUOW telling listeners that the station is on solid financial footing?
If KUOW has nothing to hide, and it would appear that the station does not, why is it so hard to find the clear information about its financial position? Could it be that it's a harder sell to would-be donors if they knew the station was sitting on a million-dollar surplus?
As staffers beg for donations on-air this week, listeners will be told that their money is desperately needed for programming, programming, programming. Listeners will not be told about surpluses or the station's expansion, its planned innovations, or new platforms being built with the money KUOW raises from its listeners. There's nothing wrong—it's commendable, even—that KUOW is using its surpluses to expand and innovate. But public radio listeners are famously well-informed and sophisticated. They can be trusted with the whole story. Perhaps the station fears it's a tougher sell, but in these days of transparency and easy information accessibility, there's no point in obscuring where the money is actually going.
Once Grant got past the sleight of hand with the audits on KUOW's website and actually dug into the numbers, he was satisfied, and ready again to financially support the station as he always has.
KUOW has nothing to hide—it ought to stop acting like it does.
Michael Hood writes about talk radio at blatherwatch.blogs.com.