The Little Station That Could

Boulder's KGNU finds a way to survive in the cutthroat radio world.

The recent purchase of Fort Collins's KUNC-FM -- a 100,000-watt public-radio station affiliated with the University of Northern Colorado -- by a community organization dubbed Friends of KUNC may have marked the end of a battle with Colorado Public Radio, which also wanted the property, but the war certainly isn't over. At present, the group is scrambling to turn the pledges it received during last month's emergency fund drive into hard cash, in addition to setting up behind-the-scenes management intended to carry the station into the future. And even after these tasks are completed, the Friends will confront the daily chore of raising the funds necessary to keep the doors open and the lights on without selling out or losing their souls in the process.

Marty Durlin knows all about such challenges. As the longtime manager of Boulder's KGNU, a liberal-leaning, willfully idiosyncratic public-radio station located at 88.5 on your FM dial, Durlin has fought mightily to maintain the outlet's special character in the face of radio-industry homogenization and the omnipresent threat of funding cuts -- and right now, she's winning. KGNU remains low-profile, as should be expected given that it broadcasts with a modest 1,300 watts: To assist listeners who have difficulty receiving its signal, its Web site, kgnu.org, includes instructions about how to build an FM antenna or convert a car radio to home use. But with the help of its passionate listenership, the station has made a down payment on a new building, at 4700 Walnut Street, that's nearly three times the size of its cramped current home of the past dozen years, at 1900 Folsom. Moreover, KGNU has become a leading voice in the nationwide fight against what Durlin refers to as the "corporatization" of public radio. That status is symbolized by the station's role as host for the sixth annual Grassroots Radio Conference, which takes place July 13 through 15 at Boulder's Broker Inn, as well as by the debate about the future of KUNC it aired during the week prior to that station's sale.

Nearly every caller to the KUNC-themed program supported the Friends and opposed Colorado Public Radio; CPR spokesman Sean Nethery deserved combat pay. Such responses tell Durlin that a sizable percentage of the public-radio audience wants the kind of radio KGNU delivers. "There's a split between stations that's been going on for a long time," she says. "What it really boils down to is whether you're going to be driven by a mission to provide a place for alternative voices that can't be heard anywhere else, or whether you believe you should be going for the largest possible audience by competing against commercial radio with the tools commercial radio uses. And we're definitely a member of the first school of thought."

Durlin sees her philosophy as directly opposite to the approach taken by Max Wycisk, head of Colorado Public Radio -- so it's surprising to discover that the two were once colleagues at KCFR, the anchor station of CPR. She and Wycisk worked side by side there from 1972 to 1975, when the station had considerably more in common with KGNU than it does now -- "the old free-form days," Durlin calls them. A few years later, in 1978, another of her KCFR colleagues, John Stark, was involved in launching KGNU, which sprang from a class at the Boulder Free School called "A Desperate Attempt to Start a Radio Station, Part II." ("The first part obviously hadn't gone too well," Durlin notes.) With Stark as program director and Glen Gerberg (who up until a month or so ago was the main weatherman for Channel 2) ensconced as station manager, KGNU set up housekeeping in a portion of Boulder's Harvest House that consisted of three rooms and a closet. "The production room was the closet," Durlin explains.

In the beginning, Stark and Gerberg relied primarily on volunteers, and while a great many public stations have since abandoned this often unwieldy, unreliable methodology, KGNU still uses it. Approximately 200 volunteers supplement the efforts of KGNU's five full-time employees; an orientation class for additional volunteers takes place on the first Thursday of every month. "Some say that's a foolhardy way to operate something," notes Durlin, who became station manager in 1986. "And it is true that it makes you vulnerable to all sorts of things when you open the door and let anybody in. Occasionally you get people who just aren't willing to work in a collaborative atmosphere. But we're dedicated to working with each other -- and if you don't have that kind of basic understanding, it's not going to happen. There are too many people off the bus otherwise, and you can't go anywhere."

Because so many chefs make the soup, KGNU's programming comes in a wide array of flavors, with musical specialty shows that feature jazz, blues, alternative, electronic, international and Afro-pop, among other styles. The syndicated public-affairs offerings -- many in the spirit of Alternative Radio, the David Barsamian-helmed interview hour that started its life at the station -- are similarly diverse. KGNU stopped running most National Public Radio material in the early '90s because it was also available on KCFR, KUNC and jazz-oriented KUVO, and because, in Durlin's words, "it was terribly expensive -- and they seemed to be moving rightward." In its place, KGNU matched locally generated efforts with news from the British Broadcasting Corporation and Pacifica, which portrays itself as a progressive news service.

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