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.

In other words, they're restricting their comments to the boardroom.

Shortfall: Meanwhile, at the Denver Post, harsh reality has struck another blow. In April, managers announced their desire to trim the editorial roster by 37 positions through buyouts aimed at workers aged fifty and up. On June 9, Post editor Greg Moore sent out a memo revealing that just sixteen employees had accepted the deal, which sports a seven-day "recision period" designed for takers who change their mind prior to deadline day, June 15. But instead of waiting for this week to pass, Post bosses lowered the boom on five staffers whose employment isn't governed by a newspaper guild contract. Notable among them are columnist Jim Spencer, Sunday Perspective editor Todd Engdahl and Carla Kimbrough-Robinson, who was charged with recruiting — a chore there isn't much call for these days.

The contingent leaving voluntarily is led by media columnist Dick Kreck, who's a buyout veteran, having taken a deal in June 1987, when then-Post owner Times Mirror was slashing expenses in the hopes of attracting a buyer, before returning the next year. He says he was considering leaving in 2008, but he'll receive a year's pay for taking the buyout — "and I thought, why would I work another year when I can get the money now?"

Three other staffers had differing reasons for accepting the buyout. Feature writer Jack Cox took the offer because of its improved health-insurance component. Food writer Ellen Sweets experienced the deaths of three people close to her in the past year or so, including columnist Molly Ivins, and she decided she shouldn't wait any longer to travel and do other things she's been putting off. And Washington, D.C.-based political writer John Aloysius Farrell signed up because he agreed to write a biography of famed attorney Clarence Darrow before Denver was awarded the 2008 Democratic convention — and afterward, he realized that he couldn't do justice to both.

Farrell's decision represents a huge hit for the paper, since he'd been expected to head up coverage of next year's presidential race in addition to fronting the convention team — and his departure has led to speculation that MediaNews might shutter its Washington bureau to further cut costs. With the election approaching, Farrell doesn't expect such a move, but he acknowledges that the number of staffers is down by half from the bureau's high-water mark, fourteen.

More shrinkage is coming, and Kreck thinks that's unfortunate. In May, he wrote an opinion piece about the future of newspapers filled with "unsolicited advice" for improving dailies' dire situation. Among his suggestions: "Stop trimming features like special-interest columns.... Giving readers less doesn't attract more of them"; "Stop chasing 'youth' readers with allegedly hip features written by people well beyond their youth. Under-20s don't read the paper, never will"; and "Hire, don't fire reporters. More and better coverage doesn't come from fewer newsgatherers."

When asked about this essay, Kreck says he didn't hear from a single supervisor about it. Either they weren't paying attention or, more likely, they've come to very different conclusions.

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