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Going Public

Colorado Public Radio is selling itself as a kinder, gentler network. But its critics aren't buying it.

Shortly after 8 a.m. on February 5, radio listeners tuned to Colorado Public Radio stations across the state heard hosts Mike Lamp and Monika Vischer engaging in one of public broadcasting's necessary but irritating evils: a seemingly endless fund drive. Not that Vischer used this phrase very often during the kickoff for CPR's winter campaign. Instead, she referred to her request for donations as "a celebration" of CPR's two-channel network -- a system inaugurated last year that features one channel devoted to classical music and another that focuses on news and information. According to Vischer, only generous benefactors can guarantee that these operations will continue to spread Colorado Public Radio's inherent goodness across the airwaves.

But listeners who interpreted this pitch as an indication that CPR is teetering on the brink of collapse couldn't have been more wrong. The network reaches approximately 80 percent of the state's populated areas, attracting a regular audience estimated at 300,000 people. And in its home base of Denver, its ratings are phenomenal.

Arbitron, the company that compiles listenership figures, separately classifies commercial stations (for-profit enterprises that feature overt advertising) and non-commercial signals (nonprofits like public radio or religious outlets, which pay the bills using donations, corporate underwriting and the like). This makes direct comparisons tricky. But mingling the data for the Fall 2001 ratings book reveals that among listeners ages twelve and above, CPR's classical station, KVOD-FM, is the ninth-most popular outlet in the market, with its news channel, KCFR-AM, coming in at number eleven. The combined total of both stations' ratings is even more imposing. By this measure, as many people listen to CPR as tune in to KOSI, Denver's fourth-rated station. And the sum exceeds numbers garnered by perennial favorites such as the Fox, KS 107.5, KOOL 105, KHOW and Alice. Clearly, a whole lot of folks have come to the conclusion that commercial radio reeks, and they've gone searching for better options.

Other details were left out of CPR's plea as well -- like where, exactly, donations will go. A sizable percentage of each dollar forked over by CPR's mammoth membership (25,000 strong and growing) is earmarked to pay for programs like the National Public Radio staple Morning Edition and a wide array of classical-music features.

But money is also needed to reduce debt accrued during a remarkable expansion of CPR's broadcast holdings, which currently encompass nine stations and eleven translators, with two additional stations due to join the family shortly (see story, page 26). To that end, Colorado Public Radio recently peddled $6.5 million in bonds, a total roughly the size of CPR's annual budget. Moreover, the bonds were rated "investment grade" -- nearly as secure as bonds sold by universities -- by three major bond-rating firms, including highly influential Fitch Inc.

In a January 14 press release, Fitch noted that this was its "first rating of a non-profit U.S. public broadcasting organization" and acknowledged that the move might seem risky on the surface, since much of CPR's revenue stream is "generated by purely philanthropic annual giving." But the company also pointed out that "CPR and other stations now have broad expertise in both fundraising and research into the preferences of local audiences. This expertise also helps stations secure revenue from corporations and other private entities that seek exposure among public radio's educated, affluent and growing audience base via on-air acknowledgements."

That's not the half of it. CPR, which despite its name is technically independent of NPR, is unique among statewide public-radio networks for the manner in which it's expanded. Organizations like Minnesota Public Radio added most of their stations years ago, when frequencies on the non-commercial band (anything to the left of 92 FM) were readily available. But CPR has built up during a period when the spectrum is practically full, forcing it to purchase, acquire or merge with stations to achieve its ends -- and it's done so with remarkable skill.

Given Colorado Public Radio's substantial appetite and reputation for getting what it wants, it's no surprise that representatives from so many other stations across the state look at the organization with a mixture of anxiety and distrust.

Max Wycisk, president of Colorado Public Radio and the single most controversial public-radio figure in the state, has long said CPR would go only where people wanted it. But over the past decade plus, the organization has aggressively reached into areas even when confronted with noisy protests. In Grand Junction, activists howled in vain when their public-radio station, KPRN, joined Colorado Public Radio nearly a dozen years ago. Subsequently, CPR explored moves into Durango and the Roaring Fork Valley, only to be met with passionate objections from fans of homegrown public-radio broadcasters. And last year, when the network agreed to purchase Greeley's KUNC from the University of Northern Colorado for $1.9 million, station personnel, supporters and listeners were so aghast at the prospect of their beloved signal being replaced by a satellite outfit from Denver that they collected over $2 million in less than a month to purchase the station themselves.

Today, Wycisk says he's thrilled that the local group, Friends of KUNC, was able to preserve public radio in Greeley. But CPR's decision to raise the amount of its initial proposal by $600,000 after the group was given a chance to match the previous offer smacked of something other than altruism, especially since the most prominent Friend was Thomas Sutherland, a former captive in Iran who pledged part of a monetary settlement he was to receive to the station. Getting into a bidding war with a former hostage is a no-win situation.

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