John Quill sits in his smallish apartment-cum-recording studio in southeast Denver and tries to explain why he's been producing the weekly radio show Radio Free Colorado for more than four years when the financial rewards have been, to say the least, tiny. He soon discovers that he can't. "I probably should have gotten out of here a long time ago," he says. "But I can't seem to make myself leave."
That's good news for Denver-area radio listeners interested in hearing music by local artists. Quill's program debuted on KTCL-FM/93.3 in January 1990, and during most of the time since then, it's been the only regularly scheduled presentation to highlight Colorado musicians with and without national recording contracts. Currently airing for an hour at 7 p.m. Sundays, Radio Free Colorado is an eccentric, sometimes rough but seldom boring collage of sounds made by area artists working in a wide variety of genres and styles. "We average at least twelve songs a show, so that means we've aired between two- and three thousand songs by hundreds of bands," he says. "But I still keep finding something new to chew on and get excited about."
Like most radio professionals, Quill didn't set out to become one. A native of Connecticut, he grew up dreaming that he could use his guitar to make songs as good as the ones he loved by the Beatles and the Stones. Upon his graduation from the University of New Hampshire in 1980, he packed up a sheaf of songs he had written and headed to Nashville, determined to make a living as a tunesmith. He soon got a nibble from Al Jolson Publishers, a major publishing concern that dates back to the days when its namesake was warbling about his dear old Mammy. Quill celebrated by quitting his day job. Mistake. "I got ripped off," he says. "It was around then that I realized that Nashville wasn't for me."
Following the lead of a friend, Quill moved to Colorado and got what he calls "a real job" working for an accounting company. When that business was swallowed whole by a larger competitor, Quill again found himself on his own. He responded by forming a company called John Quill Entertainment, and subsequently was hired to book bands for the Denver club Tequila Sunrise. He immediately made a policy change there that symbolizes his interest in local music: When the venue became embroiled in a legal scrap with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) after not paying for the right to play the radio over its sound system, Quill convinced the owners to start airing recordings of Colorado bands instead.
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The Sunrise gig led to Quill being hired to book other area clubs, including the End Zone, Off the Mall and the late, lamented Zenobia's. The experience he gleaned convinced him to branch out into radio, and with the help of his friend Henry Broz Rowland, he conceived a program called "Denver Radio Stars," which he pitched to the defunct acoustic-rock station KDHT-FM. When KDHT passed, Quill rethought the concept, and Radio Free Colorado was born, with KVOD-FM personality Sheri Lynn Mozer as master of ceremonies. Originally a half-hour in length, it expanded to a full hour in the middle of its first year--and when Mozer bowed out in 1993, Quill took over the hosting duties himself.
Quill says that the production and sound quality of the recordings he's received since then are notably better than those he heard during the early days of Radio Free Colorado. "The whole scene has improved dramatically," he adds, "and there's still so much diversity here that's gone completely untapped. That's what's so great about the scene--it hasn't pigeonholed itself into an alternative or granola or hard-rock sound. There's something for everybody."
This realization hasn't made Quill rich. He's his own chief ad-seller, and although he's got a core of businesses that support him, the profits earned by Radio Free Colorado are barely enough to keep him going from week to week. In the hope of adding to his income, he's developed a clothing line called Radio Free USA, but he made just $400 from this enterprise last year. "I can safely say that I know everybody in the music business here in town," he notes, "but that and fifty cents will buy you a cup of coffee."
Still, he persists, confident that his efforts will eventually bring Colorado music to more than just Coloradans. "It does seem like things are moving forward, but ever so slowly," he says. "It'd be nice to see the pace quicken.