A Classic Case

Lack of a full-time classical format has listeners saying "Yo quiero Pachelbel."

KVOD isn't dead yet -- really. Tune your radio to 1280 on the AM dial and there it is, playing the classical music that's long been its stock in trade. But because the frequency has been purchased by Rodriguez Communications, a Dallas company that specializes in Spanish-language programming, most observers of the radio scene expect Denver's longtime commercial classical voice to eventually begin speaking in a different tongue -- and that's frustrating to Jim Conder, KVOD's program director and host of the station's weekday morning-drive show.

"Everything has been purely hypothetical at this point," he says. "Everyone seems convinced that we're going to a Spanish format, which makes it pretty hard to run a radio station. But we simply don't know what's going to happen yet."

This uncertainty has been equally exasperating for members of the grassroots community group Citizens for Classical FM (CCFM), which sprang up last May after controversial radio executive Bob Visotcky, former overseer of KVOD and five other stations once owned by the Texas conglomerate AMFM, blithely moved the outlet from its longtime home at 92.5 FM to the AM band. What CCFM's one hundred-plus active backers really want is a classical FM station, and they have more than 4,500 signatures on Visotcky-addressed petitions to prove it. Quite a few of them now see KVOD-AM as better than nothing; even CCFM president Ed Ellis admits that he listens because "I haven't found an alternative I prefer." But wouldn't it be antithetical to an association called Citizens for Classical FM if the organization began campaigning on behalf of an AM station? "That's the problem," Ellis admits.

The contradictions don't stop there. In a sense, Denver still has a classical broadcaster on FM: KCFR, the mighty parent to the ever-growing Colorado Public Radio, or CPR, network. However, CCFM wants a station that focuses on classical music 24 hours a day, just as KVOD-FM did -- and since significant portions of KCFR's programming are devoted to news and information shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered, it doesn't qualify. As it happens, KCFR is currently raising funds to buy a second Denver FM with an eye toward segregating its sound: all news on one signal, all classical on the other. Yet CCFM hasn't thrown its weight behind this concept, either, in part because many of its supporters believe that KCFR doesn't care about the local arts community.

Complaints that Colorado Public Radio has abandoned the traditional goals of public-radio stations in favor of empire building are nothing new; its critics have been making them for at least a decade. But it's still something of a shock to hear classical-music lovers such as Ellis and Doug Crane, CCFM's vice president, arguing that KVOD, a commercial entity, remains more committed to public service than does a station that runs on public funds.

"KCFR's cost structure may not be prohibitive for the Colorado Symphony, but it is for smaller nonprofits," says Crane. "I was the chairman of the Cherry Creek Chorale a few years ago, and I found that I could get ten spots on KVOD for about the same amount that I could get three on KCFR -- and those were sixty-second, fully produced spots versus ten- or twenty-second mentions that weren't in heavy listening times. And there's no time at all allocated for public-service announcements. Bottom line, they haven't really been advocates for the local arts groups."

Max Wycisk, CPR's president, counters these charges with a list of partnerships between KCFR and numerous state-based classical organizations -- not just the Colorado Symphony, whose entire season is being aired on the station, complete with commentary by its conductor, Marin Alsop, but also Opera Colorado and the Central City Opera. He insists that KCFR has been in contact with smaller arts groups as well, and hopes to offer time to them and others if CPR lands another station.

"We've been working on this a long time. Five years ago, the CPR board of directors said that this was a primary goal," Wycisk says. "The board has pledged $1 million, and we're talking to other potential donors and foundations and people who might be interested in the project."

The first step in making this notion a reality is already well under way. Two years ago, CPR obtained a frequency on Colorado's Western Slope (it's licensed to Delta, about an hour's drive from Grand Junction). Plans call for this new purchase to go on the air this fall as KPRU, an all-classical companion to the organization's other station in the area, Grand Junction's KPRN, which essentially simulcasts KCFR's output. But KPRU isn't slated to be any more local; the majority of its programming will be provided by a classical-music service CPR has developed in partnership with a Los Angeles station, KUSC, and Idaho's public-radio operation.

Wycisk will likely have a tougher time getting ahold of another frequency in Denver than he did on the other side of the state. After Clear Channel, the owner of eight stations in the market, merged with AMFM last year, six outlets had to be divested in order to comply with Federal Communications Commission regulations, yet CPR didn't wind up with any of them. Rumors continue to circulate that CPR has tried to lure other public-radio stations into its web -- jazz- oriented Denver station KUVO and University of Northern Colorado affiliate KUNC in Greeley are frequently mentioned. But Wycisk, who's renowned for playing things inside the vest, not just close to it, refuses to be specific.

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