By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
Shortly after 8 a.m. on February 5, radio listeners tuned to Colorado Public Radio stations across the state heard hosts Mike Lamp and Monika Vischer engaging in one of public broadcasting's necessary but irritating evils: a seemingly endless fund drive. Not that Vischer used this phrase very often during the kickoff for CPR's winter campaign. Instead, she referred to her request for donations as "a celebration" of CPR's two-channel network -- a system inaugurated last year that features one channel devoted to classical music and another that focuses on news and information. According to Vischer, only generous benefactors can guarantee that these operations will continue to spread Colorado Public Radio's inherent goodness across the airwaves.
But listeners who interpreted this pitch as an indication that CPR is teetering on the brink of collapse couldn't have been more wrong. The network reaches approximately 80 percent of the state's populated areas, attracting a regular audience estimated at 300,000 people. And in its home base of Denver, its ratings are phenomenal.
Arbitron, the company that compiles listenership figures, separately classifies commercial stations (for-profit enterprises that feature overt advertising) and non-commercial signals (nonprofits like public radio or religious outlets, which pay the bills using donations, corporate underwriting and the like). This makes direct comparisons tricky. But mingling the data for the Fall 2001 ratings book reveals that among listeners ages twelve and above, CPR's classical station, KVOD-FM, is the ninth-most popular outlet in the market, with its news channel, KCFR-AM, coming in at number eleven. The combined total of both stations' ratings is even more imposing. By this measure, as many people listen to CPR as tune in to KOSI, Denver's fourth-rated station. And the sum exceeds numbers garnered by perennial favorites such as the Fox, KS 107.5, KOOL 105, KHOW and Alice. Clearly, a whole lot of folks have come to the conclusion that commercial radio reeks, and they've gone searching for better options.
Other details were left out of CPR's plea as well -- like where, exactly, donations will go. A sizable percentage of each dollar forked over by CPR's mammoth membership (25,000 strong and growing) is earmarked to pay for programs like the National Public Radio staple Morning Edition and a wide array of classical-music features.
But money is also needed to reduce debt accrued during a remarkable expansion of CPR's broadcast holdings, which currently encompass nine stations and eleven translators, with two additional stations due to join the family shortly (see story, page 26). To that end, Colorado Public Radio recently peddled $6.5 million in bonds, a total roughly the size of CPR's annual budget. Moreover, the bonds were rated "investment grade" -- nearly as secure as bonds sold by universities -- by three major bond-rating firms, including highly influential Fitch Inc.
In a January 14 press release, Fitch noted that this was its "first rating of a non-profit U.S. public broadcasting organization" and acknowledged that the move might seem risky on the surface, since much of CPR's revenue stream is "generated by purely philanthropic annual giving." But the company also pointed out that "CPR and other stations now have broad expertise in both fundraising and research into the preferences of local audiences. This expertise also helps stations secure revenue from corporations and other private entities that seek exposure among public radio's educated, affluent and growing audience base via on-air acknowledgements."
That's not the half of it. CPR, which despite its name is technically independent of NPR, is unique among statewide public-radio networks for the manner in which it's expanded. Organizations like Minnesota Public Radio added most of their stations years ago, when frequencies on the non-commercial band (anything to the left of 92 FM) were readily available. But CPR has built up during a period when the spectrum is practically full, forcing it to purchase, acquire or merge with stations to achieve its ends -- and it's done so with remarkable skill.
Given Colorado Public Radio's substantial appetite and reputation for getting what it wants, it's no surprise that representatives from so many other stations across the state look at the organization with a mixture of anxiety and distrust.
Max Wycisk, president of Colorado Public Radio and the single most controversial public-radio figure in the state, has long said CPR would go only where people wanted it. But over the past decade plus, the organization has aggressively reached into areas even when confronted with noisy protests. In Grand Junction, activists howled in vain when their public-radio station, KPRN, joined Colorado Public Radio nearly a dozen years ago. Subsequently, CPR explored moves into Durango and the Roaring Fork Valley, only to be met with passionate objections from fans of homegrown public-radio broadcasters. And last year, when the network agreed to purchase Greeley's KUNC from the University of Northern Colorado for $1.9 million, station personnel, supporters and listeners were so aghast at the prospect of their beloved signal being replaced by a satellite outfit from Denver that they collected over $2 million in less than a month to purchase the station themselves.
Today, Wycisk says he's thrilled that the local group, Friends of KUNC, was able to preserve public radio in Greeley. But CPR's decision to raise the amount of its initial proposal by $600,000 after the group was given a chance to match the previous offer smacked of something other than altruism, especially since the most prominent Friend was Thomas Sutherland, a former captive in Iran who pledged part of a monetary settlement he was to receive to the station. Getting into a bidding war with a former hostage is a no-win situation.
The Denver media, which has generally given Colorado Public Radio a free ride over the years, hammered the network for its handling of the KUNC situation. Since then, CPR has paid greater attention to perceptions. "I think we're more sensitive to those issues than we have ever been," says Rutt Bridges, chairman of CPR's board of directors. "And there's been a change in attitude in other areas, too. Now we feel that to provide service to all the people in Colorado doesn't mean we have to own or control stations everywhere -- that there are partnership opportunities where we can add value without owning them."
To illustrate this point, Bridges notes that CPR is in the process of working out a cooperative arrangement with two stations in the Roaring Fork Valley -- Carbondale's KDNK and Aspen's KAJX -- that once seemed unthinkable. Just as unexpected are the words of praise showered upon Wycisk by KDNK's general manager, Mary Suma.
"When I went to see Max last spring, I said, 'Who's this monster I'm hearing about? I want to know who you are and what you're up to,'" she recalls. "But I think we came up with an incredible agreement, and I've never had a bad meeting with him. He's been upfront with me, truthful, a true gentleman, and totally honorable throughout the entire process."
But plenty of other radio pros have a hard time believing that the CPR lion has turned into a pussycat. Rumors continue to swirl about the network making a move in Colorado Springs, the largest population center in the state that CPR doesn't reach in any significant way, and stations elsewhere are girded for battle.
"You always have to be on your guard," says Marty Durlin, manager of KGNU, a public-radio station in Boulder and a longtime participant in the High Country Community Radio Coalition, a consortium of like-minded outlets in the region. "I expect them to do anything and everything to get what they want."
Public radio was once an amateurish medium -- and its rough edges were a large part of its charm. But CPR has set new standards for professionalism. Although some technical gaffes -- like separate programs airing simultaneously, making both unlistenable -- have occurred since the two-channel system was introduced, for the most part CPR has smoothed out its sound to a remarkable degree.
How? By pre-recording virtually everything other than (you guessed it) fund drives. Even hourly updates on the news channel made by CPR announcers are read into a computer (not tape; that's too primitive) minutes before they're aired. And the musical introductions made by Vischer and her cohorts at CPR's classical division are frequently voiced days or even weeks ahead of time. Afterward, these snippets are sent along high-speed data lines to, of all places, a broadcast center in Boise, Idaho, that subsequently transmits them via satellite to their intended destinations.
Wycisk believes that cutting everything in advance -- a method used by most NPR shows and a growing number of commercial stations -- better serves listeners. "Over the years, I've learned that one of the things people value about public radio is that the programming is distilled," he says in a voice that's soft, slick and well rehearsed. "If you get a chance to edit it, you increase your ability to make sure that what you're saying is absolutely clear."
Perhaps. But while pre-recording results in broadcasts that are generally flawless from a technical standpoint (it's very rare to hear a CPR announcer stumble over a word or interrupt his delivery with a stray "um"), the effect can feel freeze-dried, vacuum-sealed. And that, according to many CPR doubters, flies in the face of what they see as a primary goal of public radio: to break down the barriers that separate listeners from broadcasters.
"Our kind of stations are some of the only places where the community has a say in what they hear, and that are specific to their locality," says KGNU's Durlin. "We're not just a service, like a classical service or whatever kind of service. We do people-based radio that's unusual and unique, and you can only get it here."
For his part, Wycisk refrains from denigrating KGNU's approach. "Whether you're KGNU or Colorado Public Radio, the mission is to serve people with important programming," he says. "That's just the bedrock -- but there are different ways of doing it. They do things one way, we do them another." He adds that, in his opinion, CPR affiliates qualify as community stations, too -- if, that is, the state as a whole is defined as the community in question. "Even at its beginning points, Colorado Public Radio has looked at the big picture. Big issues, big connections. Its horizon has always been further out than asking 'Is there a traffic accident on my block?' or 'Did somebody's dog get lost?'"
This statement is contradicted to some degree by the launch last year of Colorado Matters, an hour-long interview program heard weekdays on the news-and-information channel that regularly looks at small-town issues, among other subjects. But CPR airs no local public-service announcements whatsoever -- the closest it comes is promoting upcoming classical events by musical groups with which it's entered into partnership agreements -- and its regular news updates consist primarily of wire copy touching upon broad themes, such as actions in the state legislature. CPR jocks undoubtedly care about your missing pooch, but they won't mention him on the air until he's elected to the Senate.
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?'"
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
KSUT executives next went to the editorial board of the Durango Herald, the community's daily newspaper. The session prompted an editorial that concluded, "Tell CPR to take a hike -- and don't forget, it's an election year. Our congressman just might like to hear about an issue that pits the citizens of his district against an intruder." As a capper, KSUT looked up the mailing addresses of everyone on CPR's board of directors and sent each a letter from the chairman of the Southern Ute Tribal Council. "I was fairly certain that Max's board had no knowledge of KSUT or that we were tied to a sovereign nation," Warren says. "And we wanted to communicate that to them directly."
There's no telling how much of an impact this tack had. But CPR lowered its profile in Durango, and even though its application before the FCC remains active, Sean Nethery, CPR vice president of communications and marketing, says this won't be the case for much longer. Educational Communications of Colorado Springs, a religious broadcaster, had applied for a frequency in the Roaring Fork Valley that conflicted with CPR's -- so in exchange for pulling out of the Aspen area, CPR has agreed to give ECCS its frequency in Durango.
The other sizable population center in Colorado that CPR has yet to tap is Colorado Springs, a city that already receives much of the programming featured on the two-channel system. KRCC, a public-radio station licensed to Colorado College, broadcasts all of NPR's biggies, including All Things Considered, Fresh Air and Car Talk, interspersed with specialty shows and contemporary music. "When the Grammy nominees are announced," says KRCC's Mario Valdez, "our staff actually knows who they are." Covering the other base is nonprofit KCME, which also reaches Cañon City, Florence, Salida and Manitou Springs via translators and is dominated by classical music. "KCME has been here since 1979, and we serve the community -- the local arts community," declares Jeanna Waring, KCME's general manager. "We are staffed by real people 24 hours a day, and our roots go deep. So my question to people is, how much do they think that CPR is going to serve the community by just importing satellite programming? Because that's not my idea of localism and serving the community. If you believe that, I've got a bridge I'd like to sell you."
Despite such vehement opposition, Colorado Public Radio has made a number of attempts to get into the Colorado Springs market, most of them covert. Wycisk confirms that over the years he's had several chats with representatives of Colorado College, which his daughter attended, regarding the availability of KRCC. "Their answer was, 'We're doing just fine,'" he says.
During the second half of the '90s, Wycisk also had dialogues with representatives of KEPC-FM, a station owned by Pikes Peak Community College, which uses it as a teaching tool -- and he got the same sort of disinterested retort. But now, even as CPR's Nethery swears that Colorado Public Radio hasn't sniffed around the Springs in ages, numerous well-placed sources say renewed contact was made last summer, with one person having heard tell that a broker representing Colorado Public Radio made inquiries as recently as last month.
These reports cannot be confirmed, and neither can speculation that CPR is considering buying an AM station that it could keep or swap for KEPC. George Sanchez, spokesman for Pikes Peak Community College president Joseph A. Garcia, says a call regarding the availability of KEPC from person or persons unknown was received in August, but it was forwarded directly to the broadcasting department, whose spokesmen decline comment.
In addressing the topic, Wycisk says no recent conversations with the college have taken place, and he denies that CPR is hungry for a place in Colorado Springs to call home.
"In Colorado Springs, there's KCME, a full-time jazz and classical station, and KRCC, which doesn't do local and regional news but brings in a lot of NPR programming. And that's a major service," Wycisk says. "The question is, is there a reason for Colorado Public Radio to be there? And if there is, it might be in the form of some of our programming appearing on a station not owned by us. The main thing is to get important information to people. But there's no reason for Colorado Public Radio to be in Colorado Springs to broadcast All Things Considered."
Reassuring words -- but KRCC's Valdez isn't convinced. "They're always looking to try and find ways to get into the Springs," he says. "They just don't always say so."
Why is it important that Colorado Public Radio get bigger? In Wycisk's view, such increases guarantee that more people benefit from CPR's programming and create opportunities to improve and extend the programming itself. But there are plenty of other possible reasons, many of them having more to do with financial realities than benevolence.
For one thing, size protects against the possible elimination of funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- an oft-stated goal of conservative politicians. CPR gets a considerable chunk of change from this source, just over $450,000 last year. But this constitutes only 7 percent of its budget. Smaller stations are much more dependent on federal monies: KSUT's Warren says 35 percent of her station's revenue comes courtesy of the government. If elected officials think too many people have their hands out (a scenario that could happen if Wycisk's dream of multiple stations in every locality comes true), they may turn off the tap. While CPR is positioned to overcome a setback like this, other outlets might not be.
In addition, greater resources have allowed Colorado Public Radio to refine what's among the most sophisticated fundraising apparatuses in the state. In the late '80s, CPR began following the teachings of David Giovannoni, whose company, Audience Research Analysis, has a contractual relationship with both NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In essence, Giovannoni argues that public-radio stations should use techniques previously perfected by commercial broadcasters, like focus groups and audience surveys, to determine what listeners want -- particularly those most likely to make contributions. This methodology allows for more effective targeting of potential donors. In the past, insiders say that CPR has addressed mailings to zip codes whose residents have elevated per-capita incomes. Such ploys may not seem in keeping with public radio's most egalitarian ideals, but they sure are smart business.
Wycisk makes no apologies for CPR's Giovannoni-inspired endeavors: "It's very valuable work, and we'll do more of it in the future. But what I've always said is that its job is to give us information, not to determine our programming. The surveys we've done haven't been, 'Should we do this?' or 'Should we do that?' We've just gathered information from listeners in an effort to find out how we can provide the best service." Wycisk adds that CPR has conducted only one survey since the two-channel network came into being -- a questionnaire intended to determine whether classical music in Denver should be placed on FM or AM. Because classical fans had gone ballistic when the original KVOD was switched to AM, the groundswell for FM was inevitable.
More unexpected is CPR's apparent willingness to listen to people who haven't always been in its corner, including members of Citizens for Classical FM, a group that sprang up in the wake of KVOD's displacement. Doug Crane, CCFM's vice president, remembers Wycisk telling his group at an October 2000 meeting that broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, a KVOD mainstay, would never be heard on Colorado Public Radio -- but tune in to the classical channel on Saturday afternoons between December and April, and there it is. CCFM also grumbled that Colorado Public Radio didn't do enough to promote local music organizations, but of late, CPR has heavily hyped Colorado Spotlight, a program that's featured area organizations such as the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Friends of Chamber Music, Colorado MahlerFest, Opera Colorado and more. On top of that, CPR is sponsoring "Opera 101," a series of free lectures at the Denver Public Library intended to introduce novices to the joys of the genre -- and a previous gathering drew several hundred attendees. The next episode, titled "From Scandal to Smash: Bizet's Carmen," is slated for March 26.
All in all, Crane is pleasantly surprised by the classical wing of today's CPR. "I'd say they're doing better than I would have anticipated -- and in terms of community support, they're exceeding any expectation I probably could have had."
CPR also seems to have addressed another area for which it's been censured in the past: its musical blend. Listeners once complained that the station almost exclusively programmed "classical music's greatest hits" -- the most obvious sections of the most overplayed works. But since the launch of the Classical Public Radio Network and the hiring of London-based artistic director Evans Mirageas, a radio and album producer of international renown, the playlist has deepened and broadened considerably. Crane, for one, feels that CPR has come up with a nice balance between classical's classics and lesser-known pieces. "I don't know if they paid attention to what we told them or not," he says, "but I like what they've done."
For the most part, John Haralson does, too. A boardmember of Colorado Springs's KCME who has sometimes been critical of CPR (but supports the organization as a contributor), he thinks CPR programmers may actually have gone too far in winnowing out musical chestnuts and complains that some more difficult offerings are being played at inappropriate times of the day. But he was pleased that Wycisk recently wrote him a note asking for his opinions about the channel's progress -- something that struck him as a step forward. "Perhaps they really are interested in hearing from a variety of constituencies," he says.
On the news side, Colorado Matters can be seen as a response to gripes about CPR's commitment to local reporting, or lack thereof. The show features five hours of original information per week -- a hefty rise in the amount of time previously devoted to such programming. Moreover, Dan Drayer, the program's executive producer and host, is doing his darnedest to touch as many bases as possible. Over the past few months, interviewees have included an author, a ranch manager, a teacher, a judge, a museum researcher and not one, but two people affiliated with the Fairy Caves, an attraction near Glenwood Springs. "We're really trying to bring a broader perspective of our state to listeners," Drayer points out.
There are tradeoffs, however. In the past, news reports were dropped into programs like Morning Edition, to which oodles of people listen. But now, all of CPR's locally reported product is ghettoized outside of drive time (Colorado Matters runs at 10 a.m., with a repeat at 7 p.m.). Drayer doesn't carp about that -- he says he's thrilled by the support he's received from CPR and feels listeners are finding the program -- and he resists the urge to grouse about his workload, too, even though he'd be more than justified in doing so. Colorado Matters is put together by just four people, including Drayer, who must regularly travel across the state looking for stories. As a result, even tales that aren't completely intriguing are allowed to run on and on and on, because the space has to be filled somehow. Judicious editing of the sort Wycisk prizes would help eliminate the filler, but then the show would be short of content.
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.
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."
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.
"A woman actually started crying," Warren says. "People were in shock." Emblematic of the reaction was the first line of an article about KSUT in the Silverton Mountain Journal: "They called it a miracle."
Since then, a digital phone line has been installed to bring KSUT into Silverton more reliably. Next, locals hope to raise money to put up a permanent translator by staging a fund drive.
A necessary evil, sure, but no one seems irritated by it. Still, they can only fantasize about racking up as many pledges as CPR received during its winter fund campaign. On February 11, after nearly a full week of pleading, announcer Mike Lamp followed a news story about the Olympics with a telling comment: "We feel the thrill of victory every time the telephone rings."