Going Public

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

Meanwhile, CPR has other radio projects on the horizon. In addition to putting up a new station in the Roaring Fork Valley, the network has won FCC approval to upgrade a translator in Craig to full-power status. And CPR also has an application for a station pending in Vail, where it has a single station beaming the mix of classical music and NPR shows that it broadcast prior to the two-channel split.

Also on record as wanting the Vail frequency are Denver's KUVO, supported by the local jazz society, and a Memphis, Tennessee, organization called Broadcasting for the Challenged -- and the presence of these multiple applicants has brought the FCC's frequency-awarding procedure to a grinding halt. Last July, the FCC announced a window during which conflicting applicants could attempt to determine among themselves who would get the station, and KUVO and CPR tried. KUVO's Hernandez-Ramos says there was agreement to combine NPR programming with KUVO's jazz shows during the week. But things broke down over the weekends: KUVO wanted to run its ethnic-oriented originals, while CPR insisted on high-profile NPR blocks. No Car Talk, no deal.

The third party, Broadcasting for the Challenged, wasn't involved in these talks, and Wycisk hints that the company is interested simply in receiving a payoff to go away. "There are national organizations that over the past few years have applied for hundreds of frequencies," he says. "Because of FCC regulations, you don't have to show anything about ability to broadcast. In the Roaring Fork Valley, Colorado Public Radio bought out a couple of national organizations that were happy to go away. But we don't know what the status of the one in Vail is -- whether they would be happy or not."

They wouldn't be. Stephen Simpson, Broadcasting for the Challenged's attorney and spokesman, says the operation is a branch of Flinn Broadcasting, owned by George Flinn, a wealthy Memphis doctor; Flinn's portfolio contains major commercial radio stations in Memphis and New Orleans, and he has a significant stake in KDEN-TV, a Longmont television outlet that mainly screens infomercials and home-shopping shows. Simpson refers to Broadcasting for the Challenged as a philanthropic cause for Flinn, who hopes it will turn into a national network with programming for the disabled community. A station in El Dorado, Arkansas, has been approved by the FCC, with nineteen other applications pending.

When he's told how Wycisk characterizes Broadcasting for the Challenged, Simpson bristles. "It's unfortunate when you get people like that taking potshots," he says, adding, "When you're first starting out, these big groups try to squash you. But we're not going to be squashed."


Publicly, at least, Colorado Public Radio is doing its best not to come across like a bully. Cooperation is the key, whether it's in the Roaring Fork Valley or beyond. For example, CPR's Classical Public Radio Network is making its programming available free of charge to stations in Idaho, Alabama and Washington state in anticipation of nationally syndicating it beginning this summer. Whether these productions will have fees attached down the line is unclear. "The programming marketplace in public radio is an odd one," Wycisk says. "With the exception of National Public Radio, people tend to think of programming as something they don't pay for. But that's changing, so we'll just see how it works."

The High Country Community Radio Coalition is grappling with program distribution, too. At its annual meeting, held earlier this month in Moab, representatives of a dozen community and public-radio stations (ten from Colorado, two from Utah) met to discuss ways to support each other. Among their decisions was one to set up the coalition as a nonprofit so that they can jointly apply for grants to produce programs unlike those heard on CPR -- most prominently, Thin Air, overseen by Jon Kovash. As KGNU's Durlin puts it, "We sort of reaffirmed the idea of producing shows that are viable alternatives to what they're broadcasting."

No, the coalition stations don't have any plans to charge anyone for these shows, and they haven't come up with any novel ways to raise millions of dollars, either. But one of the outlets, Durango's KSUT, recently beat Colorado Public Radio at its own game. When CPR's two-channel network became a reality, the small mountain town of Silverton suffered an unexpected consequence: Residents can receive the classical stream loud and clear, but they lost every bit of the NPR programming in the process.

Upset locals contacted CPR, which sent a representative to Silverton -- but in due course, fixing the problem was declared to be an impossibility. So 250 of Silverton's 440 citizens signed a petition asking KSUT to bring its signal to town. KSUT's Beth Warren, accompanied by station engineer Scott Henning, feared that they, too, would be unable to help, and traveled to Silverton to break the bad news in person. But once there, they discovered that a local man, Gerald Swanson, owned an FCC-approved micro-broadcasting rig that he used to transmit from a corner of a bed-and-breakfast, the Villa Dallaville Inn. With a little tinkering, Henning was able to feed KSUT's Internet signal into Swanson's equipment -- and suddenly, NPR programming was back in Silverton.

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