Going Public

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

The obvious solution to this dilemma is to hire more people -- something Colorado Public Radio has done little of even as its network has ballooned. Minnesota Public Radio, which had to lay off a dozen people last month, has a workforce of 350 for its 31 stations, or more than ten per signal. In contrast, CPR employs just 44 staffers for nine stations and eleven translators, which works out to about half that average -- and including the dozen people who work for the Classical Public Radio Network joint venture doesn't raise the percentage much. No wonder that, according to CPR's financial summary of the most recent fiscal year, total revenue and support outstripped operating expenses by well over $800,000.

Dough may not be as plentiful this year, given the recession. But Wycisk says bringing on more staff remains in CPR's long-range plans "as long as we can find the resources to do it."

Fortunately, resources are something Colorado Public Radio has gotten very good at finding.

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.

In the past, public-radio stations almost exclusively raised money using capital campaigns -- fund drives that seek contributions for specific purchases. Most still operate in this manner; such a plan allowed KGNU to get into its new building. But campaigns take time that may not be available when it comes to buying radio stations, which can go on and off the market quickly. Bond sales, on the other hand, can be speedy and efficient -- and CPR is the first public-radio network to have used them.

The test run began in late 2000, when Colorado Christian University decided to sell KWBI-FM, its radio station. CPR, which was desperate to gets its two-channel system going in Denver, wanted KWBI badly, and board chairman Rutt Bridges confirms that the network offered a whopping $20 million for the signal, only to see the university sell it to Sacramento's Educational Media Foundation, a Christian organization, for around $5 million less. (Bridges says CCU took the lower bid because EMF's programming would be in the same general category as what KWBI had been broadcasting.) But this brushoff left another opportunity: The Catholic Radio Network was trying to unload KKYD-AM/1340. While purchasing it meant poorer sound quality than would have been possible on FM, experts believe that AM digital broadcasting, which is apt to gain approval in the next few years, will radically improve the spectrum's sonics. When viewed from that perspective, Bridges says, 1340's asking price of just over $4 million seemed awfully reasonable.

To come up with this amount, Colorado Public Radio turned to Public Radio Capital, a nonprofit agency intended to propagate the spread of public radio, and the Colorado Educational and Cultural Facilities Authority, which issued enough unrated tax-free bonds to pay for KKYD. Other stations and networks liked what they saw: Current, a radio-industry publication, reports that Public Radio Capital has around twenty comparable transactions ready to roll.

After obtaining KKYD, Colorado Public Radio went after Greeley's KUNC, which would have sent its signal across northern Colorado, the north portion of the Denver metro area, and Boulder. When that prospect went up in smoke, CPR again looked to the AM band, picking up KWAB-AM in Boulder. But because the purchase added to the network's debt load, CPR began looking for ways to lower its annual payments -- and again, a bond sale proved to be the ticket. This time the bonds earned investment-grade status -- another first for public radio -- and when they were made available on January 15, buyers snapped them up within a matter of hours. So popular were they, Wycisk says, "that it brought the rates down a little bit." In the process, CPR's payments on its debt were nearly cut in half, from around $900,000 to under $500,000 per annum.

With this way of raising money proven, CPR would seem ready to gulp down even more stations, but Bridges says no such conquests are forthcoming. He notes that the board of directors just passed a five-year plan in January whose major objective, beyond assimilating the purchases already made and expanding programming, is a new headquarters to replace the Josephine Street offices, which he calls "a rabbit warren." The most obvious candidate for this purpose is the facility acquired with the purchase of KKYD, on Ruby Hill in Denver -- and if the decision to renovate it is made, Bridges expects the money to be raised through an old-fashioned capital campaign.

A new building is priority one for Wycisk, too, and, like Bridges, he downplays the possibility of trolling for new stations. "Our board of directors want to beef up our financial reserves, so if something happens in the future, Colorado Public Radio is prepared to deal with it. But now we're pretty much stretched." Even so, he stops short of promising that CPR will stay on the sidelines if a plum station comes on the market. "What a plum means to us is, 'Are there a sufficient number of people in an area who want Colorado Public Radio programming?'" he says, staying on message as doggedly as a presidential candidate. "If that came about, we would talk to the people who were interested and make a decision. But nothing's automatic."

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