Public radio station KNKX goes from the brink of doom to new downtown Tacoma digs

VIDEO: South Sound radio station KNKX celebrates new location at historic building in Tacoma

TACOMA, Wash. — Three and a half years ago, loyal fans fought to save the radio station. Now, KNKX has opened its new downtown Tacoma studio.

KNKX has spent the past five and a half months transforming the historic building at 930 Broadway into a home for the station. It’s become a 7,625-square-foot broadcasting haven, with offices and soundproof studio rooms.

The station has left a large space near the entryway open, where it hopes to hold regular community events, including live music and conversations about important issues affecting the South Sound.

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“I think it’s exciting because we’re right in the heart of the city,” KNKX’s president Joey Cohn said Tuesday as he gave news outlets a tour of the new digs. “We want to be a bigger part of the community. I don’t think we could have found a better location to put the radio station.”

Completing the new studio is the next step in KNKX’s long trajectory towards gaining independence. For decades, the station, originally called KPLU, kept its headquarters on the campus of Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland.

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In late 2015, the university announced plans to sell the station to the University of Washington's KUOW. The decision sparked an outcry among KPLU's loyal listeners, who worried for the future of the station's programming, The News Tribune reported in 2016.

Contributions rolled in from listeners, businesses and foundations. In less than six months, about 20,000 people donated $8 million, Cohn said. The Friends of 88.5 FM bought the station from the university in May 2016.

Since then, the station has been preparing to leave its location on the campus, which was part of the sales agreement. The station changed its name to KNKX in 2016, The Seattle Times reported.

Since then, the station has brought in another $3.4 million to fund the move to the new studio, Cohn said.

The station spent 53 years headquartered in Parkland and has had a Seattle location for 35 years. After it was sold, the station felt it important to maintain its presence in Tacoma, even though it meant it would need to find a new space, Cohn said.

“The decision to stay in Tacoma was largely based on our history,” he explained. “Tacoma was instrumental in saving the station. The Tacoma City Council had a save KPLU day. It was an emotional decision in that we felt a sense of loyalty to Tacoma.”

Moving a 53-year-old station to a new location has been a technical challenge.

In the past months, the station has set up a two-story tall satellite dish on top of the new building, microwave dishes to connect it with the station’s two mountaintop towers and installed a backup generator, Cohn said.

KNKX also has bought entirely new equipment, a replacement for the decades old equipment at the PLU studio.

“Some of the equipment goes back to the 1970s,” Cohn said, “so we needed to buy all new equipment. It’s all state of the art.”

The station has changed significantly since it was founded over half a century ago, Cohn said. Online listening has significantly altered the station’s work.

“We have half a million listeners a week between on-air and online, and our full-time jazz stream, called Jazz24, has listeners all over the world,” he said. “It is the most listened to public radio music stream in the country.”

The station also posts videos of recording sessions in the studio, which Cohn says they will begin to do in the new Tacoma location as well.

“It’s changed in so many ways from just being a radio station that reached Parkland to now it has an audience around the world,” he said.

The new downtown location will give KNKX more opportunities to connect with the community, he added.

“I think the big change is that we’re going to be so much more visible to everybody. We’re going to open the doors and let people in. We want this to be a destination for the community,” he said.

The studio’s grand opening on Saturday had live music performed by musicians from the Northwest and speeches by Mayor Victoria Woodards and others. Cohn said he wants it to be a celebration of the community who pulled together to bring the station to where it is now.

“Being at PLU we were living at our parents house, and then we reached a point of independence,” Cohn said. “Now we’re moving out of the house into our own place. It’s celebrating that next step of independence.