Going Public

The fight is on at Colorado Public Radio, where one high-powered boardmember has resigned, and at the Denver Post, where the bloodletting has begun in earnest.

For the most part, what happens in the boardroom stays in the boardroom. But attorney Frances Koncilja, who resigned from Colorado Public Radio's board on June 6, is too troubled by behind-the-scenes events at CPR to keep silent about a range of issues, including what she sees as an ill-timed move to high-definition FM radio that could mean the sale of the statewide network's AM stations. "Public radio is a public trust," she says. "And public radio has a responsibility to all of its listeners, regardless of whether or not they have money to buy an HD radio."

In response, CPR board chair Barry Curtiss-Lusher argues that Koncilja's objections are based on "a significant misunderstanding about discussion and long-term plans and where we really are." In his view, "it's time to get to the next steps" of a transition to new technology and fresh approaches to decision-making, "but they'll be baby steps."

Koncilja has plenty of experience with bureaucracy beyond the CPR board, on which she sat for approximately four years. She served as the co-chair of the committee that planned Governor Bill Ritter's inauguration and is currently part of Mayor John Hickenlooper's infrastructure task force. As such, she's well acquainted with the often deliberate pace at which board initiatives are typically implemented — but even by these standards, she feels that the rate at which CPR tackled a number of projects, such as beefing up its news staff, has been far too slow. She was similarly frustrated by the laborious task of rewriting the organization's governing policies manual, which took place over a series of months under the supervision of Curtiss-Lusher and longtime CPR head Max Wycisk —who wasn't available for an interview (he's said to have injured his wrist) — with assistance from Bill Charney, founder of the Cherry Creek Arts Festival.

Frances Koncilja fears for the future of Colorado Public Radio.
Mark Manger
Frances Koncilja fears for the future of Colorado Public Radio.

What bothered Koncilja most, however, were a pair of proposals that she says came to light late in the manual-modification process without proper debate by the board. One concept calls for the CPR board, which totaled eighteen members before her resignation, to be reduced by attrition to nine — a move she feels would further homogenize an assembly that hasn't achieved the level of diversity she'd prefer. In conjunction with this shrinkage, remaining boardmembers would be encouraged to make a financial commitment of as much as $25,000 to CPR.

The other major matter that troubled Koncilja involves HD radio. CPR has employed HD on FM for months, but it hasn't fully taken advantage of a key technological feature: the ability to broadcast two entirely separate channels on the same frequency. Because CPR specializes in classical music and news-and-information programming, the network could conceivably use one HD stream for the former and a second for the latter, thereby rendering its AM stations obsolete. At that point, CPR could sell the AMs and use the resulting windfall to reduce debt, expand programming, etc.

Unfortunately, such a shift will only be feasible once high-definition FM receivers are commonplace in homes and cars throughout the state — and despite energetic promotion by the radio industry, only a minuscule percentage of the listening audience owns such gear. Even so, Koncilja fears that Wycisk, Curtiss-Lusher and their closest supporters will push to peddle the AMs anyway, even if it means people of limited means might lose access to at least half of CPR's offerings.

"They're talking about reducing the size of the board and selling the AM stations," Koncilja says, "and I find that an irresponsible way to govern an organization, especially when none of this was discussed at the board meetings."

According to Curtiss-Lusher, Koncilja's concerns are premature and overstated. He feels a smaller board could result in more engaged members able to work with greater effectiveness — and diversity issues could be addressed by an adjunct advisory panel that could contain twenty-plus members. (Koncilja worries that such a group would constitute powerless window-dressing, but Curtiss-Lusher insists otherwise.) Additionally, he regards the $25,000 figure noted above as a "talking point" to get people thinking about how to measure commitment to the board rather than a hard-and-fast requirement. As for the HD radio debate, he concedes that discussions have taken place about getting more HD receivers into the hands of listeners, perhaps by subsidizing them as part of pledge drives like the ongoing spring subscription campaign. But he emphasizes that no AMs will be sold if doing so will exclude significant portions of the audience — and if HD doesn't take off as soon as everyone hopes, the plan can be postponed for as long as necessary. Says Curtiss-Lusher, "We would never take any action of significance without careful planning by staff and thorough study and approval by the board," which can alter any of the aforementioned pitches, or reject them entirely, at a board retreat scheduled for September.

Regardless of such reassurances, Koncilja plans to share her unease with former colleagues at a June 20 board meeting, where many of the items will be given a first reading — and there's no telling what kind of greeting she'll receive. Interview requests went out to seven randomly selected CPR boardmembers, and all four of those who responded referred questions on Koncilja's complaints to either Wycisk or Curtiss-Lusher.

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