Going Public

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

Buoyed by this victory, the group later applied for another Grand Junction frequency that would have allowed them to broadcast with 50,000 watts of juice. But they soon found themselves competing for the privilege of doing so with eleven other entities, including, predictably, Colorado Public Radio. A few years afterward, the twelve parties, goaded by the FCC, held a private auction to determine who would get the signal, with the winner agreeing to divide the high bid among the other contestants. Marantha Broadcasting wound up tendering $440,000, and the Trosclair collective used its $40,000 piece of the pie to finally put its 16-watt station on the air.

The new outlet, dubbed KAFM, bowed in March 1999, and its growing popularity belies the claim that only amateur DJs with too much time on their hands care about it. KAFM's done so well, in fact, that it's in the process of purchasing a new building that will eventually include a 75-seat auditorium designed for live radio theater, concerts and community affairs seminars of the sort CPR doesn't offer, even though both of its channels reach Grand Junction: KPRN is now all news, while the classical signal is provided by KPRU in Delta.

"Colorado Public Radio gets a lot of support, especially from news junkies who like NPR," concedes Trosclair, now KAFM's general manager. "But we offer an alternative to what they do, and we're truly community-based. They do everything by satellite and computer."

Tavis Coburn
Sound off: Meet Colorado Public Radio's Max Wycisk, captain of the airwaves.
Anthony Camera
Sound off: Meet Colorado Public Radio's Max Wycisk, captain of the airwaves.

That's not entirely accurate, but close. When KPRN became part of CPR, much was made about expanding the size of the staff in Grand Junction, but that never materialized. Five employees were based there when CPR was formed, and now there are three: a producer, Laura Carlson, who contributes to Colorado Matters, plus an engineer and an "underwriting associate." The station still has a storefront prominently located on the pedestrian walkway lining Grand Junction's quaint Main Street, and its glass front affords passersby a look at a DJ set-up and other broadcasting equipment. But these days it gets as much use as a museum display.

To Wycisk, KAFM's presence isn't troubling in the slightest. "The more, the better," he says.

Over the years, most public-radio operators have worked under the assumption that there's a finite number of people in any given area who will donate to stations like theirs. By this way of thinking, each dollar a new outlet earns is a dollar a previously existing operation loses. But Wycisk rejects that theory.

"It's like restaurants on the corner: There's a reinforcement factor there that can help everyone," he says. "If you look at the metro area, we have two separate services from Colorado Public Radio when we had one before, and we have KGNU in Boulder and KUVO in Denver -- and we're all growing simultaneously. And that's how it works. If you can give people more programming that they value, the number of listeners and the number of donations will increase."

This has proven to be the case in Denver and Boulder, especially of late: Florence Hernandez-Ramos, president and CEO of KUVO, which specializes in jazz, and KGNU's Durlin confirm that their most recent fund drives went exceedingly well. But KUVO and KGNU achieved their current stability only after they de-emphasized or eliminated NPR programming -- moves made partly in response to Wycisk. Back in the '80s, KCFR, KUVO and KGNU were all running large quantities of NPR shows, which normally attract oodles of big-dollar donors. So eager was Wycisk to have an exclusive on this programming, though, that he offered to allow KGNU to place its antenna on KCFR's Lookout Mountain tower, which would have greatly improved the Boulder outlet's reach in Denver -- but only if Durlin agreed to drop NPR. Durlin refused ("I didn't like being forced to do it," she says), but the CPR marketing machine eventually attracted the vast majority of donations from NPR fans anyway.

In the end, Morning Edition and All Things Considered were no longer cost-effective for KGNU and KUVO, and both stations wound up dropping them in favor of alternatives. Today, KGNU, which also had ideological issues with NPR, uses BBC Radio and other news sources, and KUVO highlights music, leaving Colorado Public Radio with a near-monopoly in the Denver-Boulder area on the most lucrative public-radio programming.

Rather than portray this consequence as evidence of CPR's muscle, Wycisk chooses to spin things in a more benign direction. "For conscious and unconscious reasons, it became clear that each of our stations had a different purpose," he says, "and if we pursued these purposes clearly, we could come to a complementary result."

Similar logic eventually persuaded folks at Carbondale's KDNK and Aspen's KAJX, longtime Roaring Fork Valley stations that fought a Colorado Public Radio incursion into their territory for years before making peace. The dispute began when CPR applied for two frequencies that would have obliterated signals from a translator system owned by Pitkin County. Those translators brought the stations' programming into areas such as Glenwood Springs, Snowmass Canyon, Basalt, Redstone and Marble, but FCC rules state that full-power stations supersede translators. By one estimate, KDNK and KAJX would have lost 75 percent of their audience.

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