Going Public

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

The Denver media, which has generally given Colorado Public Radio a free ride over the years, hammered the network for its handling of the KUNC situation. Since then, CPR has paid greater attention to perceptions. "I think we're more sensitive to those issues than we have ever been," says Rutt Bridges, chairman of CPR's board of directors. "And there's been a change in attitude in other areas, too. Now we feel that to provide service to all the people in Colorado doesn't mean we have to own or control stations everywhere -- that there are partnership opportunities where we can add value without owning them."

To illustrate this point, Bridges notes that CPR is in the process of working out a cooperative arrangement with two stations in the Roaring Fork Valley -- Carbondale's KDNK and Aspen's KAJX -- that once seemed unthinkable. Just as unexpected are the words of praise showered upon Wycisk by KDNK's general manager, Mary Suma.

"When I went to see Max last spring, I said, 'Who's this monster I'm hearing about? I want to know who you are and what you're up to,'" she recalls. "But I think we came up with an incredible agreement, and I've never had a bad meeting with him. He's been upfront with me, truthful, a true gentleman, and totally honorable throughout the entire process."

But plenty of other radio pros have a hard time believing that the CPR lion has turned into a pussycat. Rumors continue to swirl about the network making a move in Colorado Springs, the largest population center in the state that CPR doesn't reach in any significant way, and stations elsewhere are girded for battle.

"You always have to be on your guard," says Marty Durlin, manager of KGNU, a public-radio station in Boulder and a longtime participant in the High Country Community Radio Coalition, a consortium of like-minded outlets in the region. "I expect them to do anything and everything to get what they want."


Public radio was once an amateurish medium -- and its rough edges were a large part of its charm. But CPR has set new standards for professionalism. Although some technical gaffes -- like separate programs airing simultaneously, making both unlistenable -- have occurred since the two-channel system was introduced, for the most part CPR has smoothed out its sound to a remarkable degree.

How? By pre-recording virtually everything other than (you guessed it) fund drives. Even hourly updates on the news channel made by CPR announcers are read into a computer (not tape; that's too primitive) minutes before they're aired. And the musical introductions made by Vischer and her cohorts at CPR's classical division are frequently voiced days or even weeks ahead of time. Afterward, these snippets are sent along high-speed data lines to, of all places, a broadcast center in Boise, Idaho, that subsequently transmits them via satellite to their intended destinations.

Wycisk believes that cutting everything in advance -- a method used by most NPR shows and a growing number of commercial stations -- better serves listeners. "Over the years, I've learned that one of the things people value about public radio is that the programming is distilled," he says in a voice that's soft, slick and well rehearsed. "If you get a chance to edit it, you increase your ability to make sure that what you're saying is absolutely clear."

Perhaps. But while pre-recording results in broadcasts that are generally flawless from a technical standpoint (it's very rare to hear a CPR announcer stumble over a word or interrupt his delivery with a stray "um"), the effect can feel freeze-dried, vacuum-sealed. And that, according to many CPR doubters, flies in the face of what they see as a primary goal of public radio: to break down the barriers that separate listeners from broadcasters.

"Our kind of stations are some of the only places where the community has a say in what they hear, and that are specific to their locality," says KGNU's Durlin. "We're not just a service, like a classical service or whatever kind of service. We do people-based radio that's unusual and unique, and you can only get it here."

For his part, Wycisk refrains from denigrating KGNU's approach. "Whether you're KGNU or Colorado Public Radio, the mission is to serve people with important programming," he says. "That's just the bedrock -- but there are different ways of doing it. They do things one way, we do them another." He adds that, in his opinion, CPR affiliates qualify as community stations, too -- if, that is, the state as a whole is defined as the community in question. "Even at its beginning points, Colorado Public Radio has looked at the big picture. Big issues, big connections. Its horizon has always been further out than asking 'Is there a traffic accident on my block?' or 'Did somebody's dog get lost?'"

This statement is contradicted to some degree by the launch last year of Colorado Matters, an hour-long interview program heard weekdays on the news-and-information channel that regularly looks at small-town issues, among other subjects. But CPR airs no local public-service announcements whatsoever -- the closest it comes is promoting upcoming classical events by musical groups with which it's entered into partnership agreements -- and its regular news updates consist primarily of wire copy touching upon broad themes, such as actions in the state legislature. CPR jocks undoubtedly care about your missing pooch, but they won't mention him on the air until he's elected to the Senate.

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