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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.

However, recent changes at Pacifica have stirred up controversy at KGNU. A couple years back, the news service, which owns five stations across the U.S., temporarily shut down its Berkeley flagship amid protests over the dismissal of the station manager. Since then, critics on the left have charged it with muzzling its on-air talent, watering down content, mistreating employees and moving away from the sort of volunteerism that KGNU espouses. Things came to a head earlier this month, when picketers called for the resignation of Pacifica chairman David Acosta at a Pacifica Foundation meeting in Houston.

The Pacifica contretemps has led to no shortage of hand-wringing at KGNU. Staffers and listeners particularly prize Pacifica's Democracy Now!, a series hosted by Amy Goodman that KGNU runs weekday mornings at 7 a.m., but many don't want to support a service they see as having abandoned its ideals. Typically, KGNU has chosen to hash out these contradictions in public, asking listeners to weigh in during numerous on-air forums and inviting Goodman, who's objected publicly to many of Pacifica's actions, to appear at a fundraiser for the KGNU Building Fund last weekend.

Meanwhile, Durlin is in the midst of a one-sided negotiation for renewal of the station's contract with Pacifica. She rewrote the agreement to allow KGNU to void it at any time, but received a letter back from Pacifica giving her a deadline of February 28 to sign the standard contract. Durlin reacted by calling Pacifica executives, who haven't yet gotten back to her. "The ball's in their court," she says.

Other fundraisers are on tap for KGNU in the upcoming weeks: The station's next pledge drive begins March 30, and on April 1, the Boulder Theater is staging a benefit for the building fund, starring Tim O'Brien, Darrell Scott and Pete and Joan Wernick. All told, KGNU hopes to raise just over a half-million dollars to go toward its new headquarters, which Durlin thinks should be open for business in mid-April. Among the accoutrements are a studio devoted to live performances to replace what she now refers to fondly as "the concert hallway."

KGNU has taken a long while to get to this point -- and perhaps the station could have gotten there sooner had it taken a more businesslike approach. But Durlin has no regrets. "It's still kind of an experiment, no matter how long you've done it," she says. "But we wouldn't have it any other way."

Students in cyberspace: Like KUNC, KCFR began its life as a college-radio station. It was formed in 1970 as the result of a student initiative at the University of Denver, and it initially beamed out a blend of classical music, freak-out jazz and art rock using a ten-watt transmitter. But three years later, the station boosted its power to 30,000 watts and affiliated itself with National Public Radio. Students unwilling to support such programming promptly voted to stop funding the outlet, and in the early '80s the station's last ties to DU were severed.

Since then, DU hasn't had a student-run broadcast station, but it's now got the next best thing: a student-run Web radio station. KVDU, accessible at kvdu.du.edu, launched on February 21 with a format that includes lots of modern rock, plus hip-hop, punk, dance music and more, more, more.

According to KVDU manager Sarah Fisher, the Internet was chosen because a previous effort to gain approval for a broadcast station ran into endless roadblocks -- not the least of which was a recent congressional ruling that put the kibosh on low-power FM applications in major metropolitan areas. Fortunately, the university's undergraduate senate and student-media board ponied up $10,000 each to put KVDU on the Internet. At this point, Fisher and music manager Jeremiah Hayes are still working out the kinks, but they've got ambitious plans, including live streaming broadcasts from local clubs. Hayes is also trying to beef up the station's local-music library. He encourages area musicians to send their work to him at KVDU, University of Denver, Student Involvement, 2055 E. Evans Avenue, Denver, CO 80208.

Oh yeah: Although both Fisher and Hayes knew that DU once had a radio station, they had no clue that said outlet was KCFR. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The trouble with yakkers: As pointed out here last week, KHOW is now the home of Phil Hendrie, a syndicated talk-show host whose satirical shtick calls for him to interview fictitious, and allegedly wacky, characters whose voices he also provides. (Zzzzz.) What's worse, Hendrie's program is followed by a rebroadcast of the Art Bell show from the previous evening, which then gives way to Bell live. This means that KHOW is now entirely syndicated on weekdays from 5 p.m., when Reggie Rivers signs off, to 5 a.m., when Peter Boyles signs on.

Does this suggest that KHOW has lost interest in providing local talk by local talkers? Program director Elizabeth Estes-Cooper says no, and other station sources imply that the extra dose of Bell is a stopgap measure that will end when a new personality is found. But, since the departure of Jay Marvin in 1999, the station has had the damnedest time finding, nurturing and holding onto new talent. Consider Tom Kamb, who worked the early-evening slot for about a year before fleeing for a job in Dallas. Upon his arrival there in December, he told the Dallas Morning News, "I hated Denver. I hated it. I can't say it any more plainly than that." Kamb subsequently described the city as "cold," "sterile" and "phony."

Considering those statements, perhaps Cooper will stick with the repeats. After all, they don't talk back.

Missing in action: The sudden disappearance of Tony Zarrella, Channel 9's main sportscaster, from the Denver airwaves is a mystery that seems likely to linger for a while. Zarrella didn't return a call seeking comment, and all that Channel 9 news director Patti Dennis will say is that his absence from the city's most-watched late newscast is "a private family issue." Moreover, Dennis shies away from establishing a firm date for Zarrella's return. "A few weeks is how we've left it, but it's open-ended," she reveals. "We're going on what he told us."

Given this dearth of information, Denver TV types have been left to guess what's really going on, with some speculation centering on Zarrella's reputation as a party dude. Meanwhile, other knowledgeable insiders point to Zarrella's reputation for being difficult at times -- a quality they say contributed to his departure from Channel 7, his previous employer. In 1996, two sports producers, Hank Siegel and Patrick Martinez, left that station amid reports that they could no longer work with Zarrella. And although no one at Channel 7 will state for the record why Zarrella was let go in 1998, the powers that be obviously wanted him gone pronto, even though he'd won a local Emmy as Best Sports Anchor in each of the two previous years. Rather than allow his contract to expire, the station paid off the remainder of the pact in order to get rid of him sooner.

There's no telling if this latest incident will sour Channel 9 on Zarrella. When asked whether her station has been satisfied with his work of late, Dennis declines to answer because "you're trying to draw a parallel to something that isn't there. The two things aren't even in the same stream." She adds, "I don't want you to read into it that we're not pleased with him. I just don't think the two are related."

Perhaps not -- but Zarrella's absence is giving prime-time exposure to Channel 9 sports backups Drew Soicher, Carol Maloney and Rod Mackey, any of whom is preferable to the main man, whose on-air presence has grown smarmier with each passing year. Absence doesn't always make the heart grow fonder.

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