Going Public

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

Likewise, the only volunteers CPR uses are folks who answer calls during pledge drives. Those who are allowed to do so discover that the entrance to CPR's offices, located on South Josephine Street in a sprawling former sorority house near the University of Denver campus, is separated from the rest of the complex by a pair of black metal doors with bars across them. In contrast, KGNU's new space, a former office building the station first occupied in October, is wide open, as befits an operation that employs approximately eighty volunteer DJs, producers and so on at any given moment. The only restriction is a sign on the front door that reads: "Anyone with dirty shoes -- please remove."

These enormous cultural and philosophical differences practically guarantee conflict between CPR and less-corporate public radio. Still, nothing succeeds like success.

"They sound soulless; it's just background wallpaper," says Mario Valdez, general manager of KRCC in Colorado Springs, a more spontaneous public-radio station. "But the dilemma is, people like it. So Max is right in a way. He's discovered what people's tastes really are. In a way, though, that makes him a prisoner of that information -- because his choice now becomes, 'Do I ignore the information or do I follow the information? And if I follow the information, how far do I follow it? To the gates of hell? Until I become Satan's roommate?'"

Hope Springs eternal: KCME's Jeanna Waring wants to keep Colorado Springs independent.
Anthony Camera
Hope Springs eternal: KCME's Jeanna Waring wants to keep Colorado Springs independent.

Today CPR's flagship is called KVOD. But once upon a time it was known as KCFR, a station that, in its early stages, was as freaky as it was adventurous. In other words, it was everything CPR is not.

KCFR (the call letters stand for "Colorado Free Radio") was spawned by a DU student initiative, and when it debuted as an itsy-bitsy 10-watt outlet in 1970, the music it most often broadcast was avant-garde jazz and art rock, with a bit of classical thrown in here and there. Three years later, the station boosted its power to 30,000 watts, signed on with NPR and tidied up its music format, which began to drift toward classical. Almost immediately, DU attendees rebelled, voting to stop funding KCFR. By 1974, when Wycisk came aboard as (irony time) a volunteer, KCFR was making ends meet primarily through donations. This funding shift gave rise to an independence movement that came to fruition in the early '80s, when Wycisk, who'd become the station's manager, helped KCFR cut the umbilical cord connecting it to DU.

Expansion began shortly thereafter. In 1984, KCFR was given permission by the Federal Communications Commission to put up Grand Junction's KPRN, an "experimental" outlet that was linked to Denver by a microwave interconnection. At first, KPRN simply simulcast everything that KCFR churned out. But after the station won a grant to put a series of translators in Western Slope locales, production facilities were built. The studio setup allowed Grand Junctionites to supplement the Denver broadcast with local music programming -- jazz, bluegrass, etc. -- overseen by local volunteers.

These shows were snuffed in late 1990, when, with little public notice or debate, the boards of KCFR and KPRN merged to create Colorado Public Radio. In the wake of this fusion, Martin Krakowski, head of KPRN's community advisory board, which become a lame duck after the merger, remembers conversations about allowing the station to continue providing a modicum of programming tailored for Grand Junction listeners, albeit far from prime time. "I asked them when they were going to do this programming," Krakowski says, "and they hemmed and hawed and then admitted that they were thinking about doing it between two and six in the morning."

Ultimately, not even token shows made the air -- but Wycisk doesn't think this constitutes a broken promise. "There were no commitments," he says. "There were discussions about different possibilities, but they were rejected as not making sense at that point." Instead, Grand Junction residents were subjected to features like Denver traffic reports -- a practice that's since been discontinued even here, where they might serve a purpose. Wycisk maintains that listeners surveyed by Colorado Public Radio don't want traffic information, "because they know they can find it other places."

Within months, all of KPRN's volunteers were ordered to vacate the premises, and the station became, in essence, a KCFR simulcaster again. But while the negative publicity surrounding the event initially caused CPR's Western Slope membership to plummet, circumstances improved more quickly than many people expected. "Once the new programming came in, the audience doubled in a relatively short period of time," Wycisk says. "So clearly, it wasn't the listening public that was upset. It was volunteers who didn't have the space on the air to do their programming." To put it bluntly, Wycisk implies that former DJs were ticked off primarily because their playpen had been taken away.

Confronted by Colorado Public Radio's inflexible stance, Krakowski and the rest of KPRN's community advisory board countered by petitioning the FCC to stop the merger under the theory that it didn't adequately serve Grand Junction listeners. When these complaints went nowhere, a number of onetime KPRN volunteers in association with another local, Peter Trosclair, decided to look into starting up a station like the one they felt they'd lost. They filed a construction permit in 1993 and received the FCC's permission to build a 16-watt facility.

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