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A Classic Case

Susan Goldstein

KVOD isn't dead yet -- really. Tune your radio to 1280 on the AM dial and there it is, playing the classical music that's long been its stock in trade. But because the frequency has been purchased by Rodriguez Communications, a Dallas company that specializes in Spanish-language programming, most observers of the radio scene expect Denver's longtime commercial classical voice to eventually begin speaking in a different tongue -- and that's frustrating to Jim Conder, KVOD's program director and host of the station's weekday morning-drive show.

"Everything has been purely hypothetical at this point," he says. "Everyone seems convinced that we're going to a Spanish format, which makes it pretty hard to run a radio station. But we simply don't know what's going to happen yet."

This uncertainty has been equally exasperating for members of the grassroots community group Citizens for Classical FM (CCFM), which sprang up last May after controversial radio executive Bob Visotcky, former overseer of KVOD and five other stations once owned by the Texas conglomerate AMFM, blithely moved the outlet from its longtime home at 92.5 FM to the AM band. What CCFM's one hundred-plus active backers really want is a classical FM station, and they have more than 4,500 signatures on Visotcky-addressed petitions to prove it. Quite a few of them now see KVOD-AM as better than nothing; even CCFM president Ed Ellis admits that he listens because "I haven't found an alternative I prefer." But wouldn't it be antithetical to an association called Citizens for Classical FM if the organization began campaigning on behalf of an AM station? "That's the problem," Ellis admits.

The contradictions don't stop there. In a sense, Denver still has a classical broadcaster on FM: KCFR, the mighty parent to the ever-growing Colorado Public Radio, or CPR, network. However, CCFM wants a station that focuses on classical music 24 hours a day, just as KVOD-FM did -- and since significant portions of KCFR's programming are devoted to news and information shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered, it doesn't qualify. As it happens, KCFR is currently raising funds to buy a second Denver FM with an eye toward segregating its sound: all news on one signal, all classical on the other. Yet CCFM hasn't thrown its weight behind this concept, either, in part because many of its supporters believe that KCFR doesn't care about the local arts community.

Complaints that Colorado Public Radio has abandoned the traditional goals of public-radio stations in favor of empire building are nothing new; its critics have been making them for at least a decade. But it's still something of a shock to hear classical-music lovers such as Ellis and Doug Crane, CCFM's vice president, arguing that KVOD, a commercial entity, remains more committed to public service than does a station that runs on public funds.

"KCFR's cost structure may not be prohibitive for the Colorado Symphony, but it is for smaller nonprofits," says Crane. "I was the chairman of the Cherry Creek Chorale a few years ago, and I found that I could get ten spots on KVOD for about the same amount that I could get three on KCFR -- and those were sixty-second, fully produced spots versus ten- or twenty-second mentions that weren't in heavy listening times. And there's no time at all allocated for public-service announcements. Bottom line, they haven't really been advocates for the local arts groups."

Max Wycisk, CPR's president, counters these charges with a list of partnerships between KCFR and numerous state-based classical organizations -- not just the Colorado Symphony, whose entire season is being aired on the station, complete with commentary by its conductor, Marin Alsop, but also Opera Colorado and the Central City Opera. He insists that KCFR has been in contact with smaller arts groups as well, and hopes to offer time to them and others if CPR lands another station.

"We've been working on this a long time. Five years ago, the CPR board of directors said that this was a primary goal," Wycisk says. "The board has pledged $1 million, and we're talking to other potential donors and foundations and people who might be interested in the project."

The first step in making this notion a reality is already well under way. Two years ago, CPR obtained a frequency on Colorado's Western Slope (it's licensed to Delta, about an hour's drive from Grand Junction). Plans call for this new purchase to go on the air this fall as KPRU, an all-classical companion to the organization's other station in the area, Grand Junction's KPRN, which essentially simulcasts KCFR's output. But KPRU isn't slated to be any more local; the majority of its programming will be provided by a classical-music service CPR has developed in partnership with a Los Angeles station, KUSC, and Idaho's public-radio operation.

 

Wycisk will likely have a tougher time getting ahold of another frequency in Denver than he did on the other side of the state. After Clear Channel, the owner of eight stations in the market, merged with AMFM last year, six outlets had to be divested in order to comply with Federal Communications Commission regulations, yet CPR didn't wind up with any of them. Rumors continue to circulate that CPR has tried to lure other public-radio stations into its web -- jazz- oriented Denver station KUVO and University of Northern Colorado affiliate KUNC in Greeley are frequently mentioned. But Wycisk, who's renowned for playing things inside the vest, not just close to it, refuses to be specific.

"We are talking to various radio-station owners, and I don't really want to go any further than that right now," he says. "There's at least the possibility of the most major changes we've ever seen in the Denver market, so timing is not under our control. But we want to make sure that we have the resources we need, and we're working very hard to be prepared in case of an opportunity."

Because of CPR's proven ability to get things done, Citizens for Classical FM has maintained contact with its representatives, and Crane even offers CPR mild praise for improving the quality of its selections, which have often been derided as "Top 40 classical" -- excerpts from the most obvious sections of the most obvious symphonies played over and over again. "They're programming complete works more often, including some vocal works, and it's gotten a bit less baroque," he says. Nonetheless, CCFM as a whole seems reluctant to fully embrace the Wycisk model, and Crane emphasizes that it is keeping its options open by, for instance, contacting companies that operate classical outlets in other cities. "We've also incorporated as both a nonprofit and a for-profit corporation, so that if somebody was to come along and say, 'I've got X millions of dollars to get a station going, and I'll give it to you if I can issue stock,' we'd have all that in place so it could happen quickly," he says. "We don't anticipate that happening, but you never know."

In the meantime, KVOD's Conder is doing his darnedest to remind Denverites that his station is still here. But the relocation to AM drastically reduced its audience (the 1.1 audience share it received among listeners twelve and over in the winter Arbitron ratings is just under half the total it was earning immediately prior to the switch), necessitating cost-cutting measures. For instance, the station has filled the hours between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. with beamed-in music from Chicago's Beethoven Satellite Network since the first of the year. There's also been some tinkering with the music: CCFM's Ellis describes it as a move away from pure classical to "a fine-arts mix -- this big catch-all of movie music and lots of really short pieces so they can get more ads in." Yet the station still offers staples like Adventures in Good Music, a syndicated show hosted by Karl Haas that KVOD has been airing for a quarter-century, plus personalities such as Wendy Wham, Christopher Matthews and Denver longtimer Gus Mircos.

Whether any of these people will be working at KVOD this time next year, or if there even is a KVOD by then, will likely turn on Conder's ability to convince execs at Rodriguez Communications that classical music can make money in Denver -- and he fervently believes it can. He notes that classical stations do well in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Boston and San Francisco, where a commercial classical outlet, KDFC, regularly finishes among the Bay Area's ten most-listened-to signals. "They're making money hand over fist," Conder says, "so obviously, it's possible. All you have to be is frugal, and we have been. Even though our numbers are down, we're still in the black; we're at 130-some-odd percent of our budget for this month. And we've absolutely been swamped with letters and e-mails and words of support from people telling us 'Don't give up. We're behind you. We love your station. It's better than ever.'

"We're still here," Conder concludes. "And we hope we're not going anywhere."


Radio 1190, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, remains in place as well, and thank goodness: It's an earful of fresh air in an otherwise polluted radio environment. But the outlet's first general manager, Jim Musil, has left the building in favor of a content-development post at www.gogaga.com, an Internet music provider in the Boulder area. "My whole deal with the station was to get it up and running and to establish some precedents before I left, and I think I did that," says Musil, whose new job includes, appropriately enough, supervising college radio programming. "I still listen to the station, and it seems like it's in really good shape."

 

Thanks for that is owed in part to John Quigley, who took over as Radio 1190's interim general manager last month. A thirty-year-old who is finishing up a master's degree in journalism at CU, Quigley was in the right place at the right time -- and while he understands that his assignment may be only temporary, he's hoping to stick around. "The university is planning to do a search for a new general manager, and however long it takes, I'm fine with it," he says. "I may even apply for it myself."

Quigley isn't new to college radio; he was a DJ on the student outlet at the University of Vermont in Burlington during the late '80s and early '90s, specializing in punk, industrial and techno music -- "kind of edgy stuff," he allows. He kept doing his show even after graduation, but his focus in radio became freelancing for alternative public-radio outlets such as Pacifica and National Native News. Upon moving to Boulder, he hooked up with KGNU, Boulder's public radio outlet, and wound up doing some news reading and field reporting. When he enrolled at CU, he planned to shift his focus from radio to television, but he realized after a while that "a lot of TV news is crap." When the opportunity to get back into college radio came his way, he leapt at it.

At this point, Quigley doesn't plan major changes in Radio 1190's music programming, but he's hoping to up the percentage of news and public-affairs items to include man-on-the-street interviews and more. He's proud, for instance, of so-called "roots" segments that provide mini-profiles of influential artists ranging from Nina Simone to Black Sabbath. "It's nice to do something like that, because part of our mission is educational," he says.

Earlier this month, Radio 1190 concluded its latest fundraiser, a "Watt Attack" intended to help fund a new transmitter that should clean up the station's signal in many parts of its broadcast range. With luck, this equipment will be in place by next fall, "which would be really cool," Quigley says. "Because we think it'll make it easier for more people to check out what we're doing."

Especially since what they're doing is actually worth checking out.

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