Going Public

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

True to form, locals were incensed by what they saw as a big-city invasion, turning out in force in February 1997 when Wycisk and other CPR representatives appeared at the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs to explain their proposal. Also attending was Pete Simon, a former Colorado Public Radio reporter who currently volunteers for KUVO. At the time, Simon was program director for KVNF, a public-radio station in Paonia, and, as he recalls, "I showed up at the meeting with a microphone and tape deck. But upon seeing the equipment, Max told one of his lieutenants to turn off the P.A. system." Next, says Simon, "Max spent more than an hour with his power-point slide presentation, trying to convince the mostly KDNK volunteers and staff that having CPR in the Roaring Fork would help KDNK and KAJX raise more money." The reaction was "groaning, mumbles and low laughter."

To fend off Wycisk, Pitkin County applied for the same frequencies CPR coveted. This action forced the FCC into the position of deciding which applicant should be given preference, and to do so, it used criteria that, among other things, awarded points for localism. But after this bizarre formula concluded that CPR was every bit as local as Pitkin County, it became obvious to the folks at KDNK and KAJX that they would probably come up on the short end of the stick. That left negotiation as the only choice, and after a lot of back and forth, a complicated accord was finally reached this past July. The deal calls for KDNK, KAJX and Colorado Public Radio to share a transmission facility to be constructed on Sunlight Mountain, with CPR bearing most of the construction cost. The participants also agreed to swap various frequencies, which should prevent the broadcasting area served by KDNK and KAJX from shrinking even as it allows CPR to beam classical music into an area that includes some of the state's most affluent citizens. The whole shebang should be operational in a year to eighteen months.

Mary Suma, KDNK's general manager, says, "We're not afraid of the competition" from Colorado Public Radio, in part because her station plays little classical; its schedule features a few NPR shows but is dominated by eclectic sounds, "from Broadway standards to heavy metal." (CBS journalist Ed Bradley, an occasional visitor to the Roaring Fork Valley, has helmed a handful of music shows at KDNK, billing himself "The 60 Minutes Man.") But KAJX executive director Tom Eirman has more to worry about, since classical music is among his station's specialties. KAJX has been supplying classical sounds to the folks of Aspen and beyond for 22 years, which some locals see as proof that CPR's classical service won't be filling a crying need. Hence, KAJX may have to reinvent itself or die.

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.

Eirman, though, puts on a brave front. "Max tells me that he would like to see all the stations be healthy," he says, picking his words as carefully as he can. "And I guess I'll believe him until I'm shown otherwise."

Boosters of two stations in the Durango area -- KDUR, which operates under the umbrella of Fort Lewis College, and Ignacio's KSUT, located on land governed by the Southern Ute Tribe -- aren't nearly as trusting.

Several years ago, CPR filed for a frequency in Durango even though the existing stations were already giving the area a wide variety of public-radio programming: KDUR mixes diverse music with news and information from the BBC and the progressive Pacifica news service, among other sources, while KSUT runs most of the best-loved NPR productions plus music ranging from jazz to classical.

In 1998, Wycisk traveled to the area to argue that CPR would enhance rather than undermine the public-radio scene. But the welcome he received was none too toasty. Nancy Stoffer, KDUR's station manager, sat in on a meeting with Wycisk but was unimpressed: "I didn't think there's a real necessity for them here," she says, "and I wasn't very fond of some of their practices." She mentions that around this time period, CPR sent fundraising letters to a percentage of Durango households even though the network wasn't broadcasting there at the time, creating potential confusion; some people may have thought that their checks were supporting local stations, not an operation in Denver they couldn't hear.

Beth Warren, KSUT's executive director, also had a sit-down with Wycisk, and over lunch with her and an associate, the CPR president laid out his plan. "The general theme of what he was saying was that they would do all classical and wouldn't duplicate our programming, except maybe Car Talk and Prairie Home Companion, which everyone knows is where you raise huge amounts of money," Warren notes. "He very eloquently outlined what an outsider might have thought was a concept where we could all hold hands and there wouldn't be any problem. Then he looked at us and said, 'That's my vision. Why don't you share your vision?' And I looked him in the eye and said, 'If you're assuming our vision includes you, you're mistaken.'" She adds, "He blushed -- and the rest of the lunch was pretty quiet."

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