Owners of the King Broadcasting Co., the pioneering media empire in Seattle, announced today they will sell the company and devote their wealth to environmental-protection efforts throughout the Pacific Northwest.
The announcement stunned company employees, who were notified during a surprise meeting at 9:15 this morning.
Priscilla ``Patsy'' Bullitt Collins and Harriet Stimson Bullitt, sisters and longtime owners of the company, said they were sorry to sell the broadcasting business but felt they could serve the community better through environmental activism.
To that end, the two women said they would devote their remaining years to building a major environmental fund through the Bullitt Foundation.
``We believe we can best sustain our family's commitment to this region through the foundation,'' the sisters said in a prepared statement today. ``We will build a program second to none, to educate, innovate, enhance and protect.''
The family would not reveal a specific price for the broadcasting empire, which includes King 5 television station and five other TV stations; six radio stations; and a cable division that serves more than 200,000 customers. But during a noon news conference, Collins said the family would seek more than $500 million for the company and has already held ``a few private conversations'' with potential buyers. They would not disclose those contacts.
A good portion of the money could be channeled toward environmental protection through the Bullitt Foundation, which was established about 40 years ago. It grew substantially last year when Dorothy Stimson Bullitt, mother of the two women, died and her estate was given to the foundation.
Today's announcement could push the foundation's worth to about $100 million, based on Dorothy Bullitt's holdings alone. The foundation's total fund could jump by millions more, depending upon how much of the sisters' share is committed to the enterprise.
It could be substantial.
``A lot of what we get will work its way into the foundation,'' said Harriet Bullitt, declining to elaborate further.
In a statement delivered to surprised company employees, the owners stressed their intent to find a buyer who is ``deeply committed to our values of service to the community and respect for employees.
The Bullitt family did not announce potential buyers, but Collins said they wouldn't jump at the highest bid.
``It has something to do with corporate citizenship, too,'' she told reporters who gathered at the family's estate on Capitol Hill, the Stimson-Green Mansion. ``We would not want to inflict on the community a company that our employees would not be proud to work for.''
Several long-time employees listened carefully in the back of the room.
``I'm feeling a little sad,'' said anchorman Mike James. ``It's the end of the family in a way, although I'm very happy for the sisters. I'm convinced they'll do everything they can to make sure the sale goes to a sensitive buyer.''
Like other employees at the television station, James was stunned when the news was announced this morning during a general staff meeting.
The surprise was accompanied by concern about who will buy a company that has been independently owned for decades. Business interest in the company is expected to be intense nationwide.
The company has been profitable and considered well-run, despite recent management shakeups at the TV station.
The company's reputation is solid after decades of business in the Seattle area. The relationship began in 1946 when Dorothy Bullitt acquired a struggling Seattle AM radio station, KEVR. She renamed it KING and two years later bought an FM radio station.
In 1948, she acquired the first television station in the Pacific Northwest - at a time when there were only 6,000 television sets in the region.
That move helped establish the Bullitts as local visionaries - and solid business people. For many years, King-TV 5 dominated local news broadcasting. The station emphasized public service over sensational news. And it earned many awards along the way, including merits for environmental reporting.
That legacy, said the family, will live on through the Bullitt Foundation.
Its primary focus will be environmental protection, building on previous efforts to enhance the region's resources. In 1974, for example, the foundation contributed $5,000 to help inventory natural areas in the San Juan Islands.
That type of effort continued over the years, but will increase dramatically after today.
In a mission statement released this morning, the founders stressed their intent to ``protect and enhance a high quality of air, water and land throughout the Pacific Northwest.
``The Foundation supports the conservation of energy, recycling, clean air, protection of waters of Puget Sound, our rivers, estuaries and wetlands, the preservation of wild salmon and the enhancement of their habitat.''
The foundation's scope is broad and the impact could be unprecedented if the funds are used to acquire sensitive or endangered lands.
Both sisters emphasized that possibility, saying the region is faced with an ``environmental crisis'' that they want to help resolve. As examples they mentioned the pollution of Puget Sound and regional rivers in addition to severe loss of forests.
Environmentalists hailed the announcement.
``It's very welcome news in an age when the environment is being assaulted from all sides,'' said David Bricklin, general counsel for the Washington Environmental Council.
KING BROADCASTING HOLDINGS
-- Television division:
Station Market Affiliation Employees (full/part-time)
KING-TV Seattle NBC 228/41 ;
KGW-TV Portland NBC 185/24 ;
KREM-TV Spokane CBS 73/19 ;
KTVB-TV Boise NBC 76/12 ;
K38AS-TV Twin Falls NBC 5/0 ;
KHNL-TV Honolulu Fox 64/2 ;
-- Radio division:
Station Market Format Employees ;
KING-FM Seattle Classical 43/11 ;
KING-AM Seattle News/talk ;
KINK-FM Portland Soft 34/8 ;
KGW-AM Portland News/talk 34/10 ;
KSFO-AM San Francisco Oldies 44/20 ;
KYA-FM San Francisco Oldies
-- King Broadcasting also owns 13 cable-television systems with more than 200,000 subscribers in Ellensburg and cities in Idaho, California and Minnesota.
-- King also owns Northwest Mobile Television, the nation's largest mobile TV production company, specializing in live sporting events.