Gene Craven, the recently named president and general manager of public-radio outlet KUVO/89.3 FM, sees the economic challenges bedeviling the operation in simple terms.
"The station has experienced a downturn in reserves, and expenses rose faster than the revenue coming in to cover them," he says. "Over the course of three years, a chunk of that reserve fund has been eaten up. The station is riding in the black right now, but unless some changes are made and expenses are brought in line, the station could dip below what reserves it has."
Such blunt talk explains in part why Craven was hired. But words alone won't restore either fiscal health or confidence at the signal, which is just emerging from a period marked by tumultuous change and tremendous uncertainty. Granted, plenty of challenges remain, but so, too, does hope that's epitomized by the commitment of Carlos Lando. The veteran program director served as interim general manager for around twelve months and actively campaigned to take over the post permanently, only to be passed over in favor of Craven last November. Rather than leave the station in a huff, however, Lando agreed to return to the program-director slot, and he's currently working side by side with Craven to put KUVO on the right path. "Any time you're in the running for a position of this nature and you're not the anointed one, so to speak, you have some personal disappointment," he acknowledges. "But the bottom line is, I want to do what's best for the radio station."
KUVO was born in 1983 with a mandate to serve Hispanics in the community. Bylaws require that the majority of the board be of Hispanic descent, and a multitude of prominent locals such as current senator Ken Salazar have served in that capacity over the past quarter-century. But even though a lot of the programming on weekends, especially, is produced with the Latino community in mind, the prime-time focus is on jazz, a musical style that's become increasingly rare on the nation's airwaves of late — particularly more authentic examples of the genre, as opposed to the slicked-up instrumentals and neutered R&B that have come to characterize the format dubiously dubbed "smooth jazz."
The broadcaster's devotion to authenticity has earned plenty of acclaim from the likes of JazzWeek magazine, which honored KUVO as the major-market jazz station of the year in both 2005 and 2006, and DJs often hear from jazz aficionados across the globe who've discovered the outlet online. But these accomplishments haven't translated to a donations windfall. There's plenty of competition for the hearts and minds of public-radio listeners in the area, what with the unyielding money-collecting machine run by Colorado Public Radio's two area branches, KCFR/1340 AM and KVOD/90.1 FM, plus lower-key entreaties from the Denver and Boulder affiliates of KGNU (at 88.5 FM and 1390 AM) and Fort Collins-based KUNC/91.5 FM, whose improved signal is reaching more metro households than ever before. As a result, KUVO raised $190,000 less than the $1.6 million it spent in 2006.
Given digits like these, something had to give, but few at the station expected the changes that actually came down. In November 2006, KUVO's outgoing board chairwoman, Dolores Atencio, blindsided employees with a memo announcing that three positions were being eliminated, spelling an employment end for longtime staffers such as Lando's wife, Tina Cartagena. The following month, Florence Hernandez-Ramos, who'd served as the station's general manager since it was founded in 1983, abruptly resigned. At the time, Hernandez-Ramos declined to talk about her reasons for stepping down, offering only a statement of support for Lando. In addition, more than a half-dozen KUVO boardmembers contacted by Westword either did not respond to requests for comment or referred inquiries to Atencio's successor, Michael Marez — a reaction notably out of tune with the "public" part of public radio. This lack of communication only increased anxiety over the station's status, as did the extreme length of the general-manager search.
In the end, Marez feels the wait was worth it, partly because of Craven's "years of experience in public radio" — and his track record is certainly impressive. Craven managed WUGA-AM, based at the University of Georgia in Athens, from 1989 until 1997. Afterward, he became associate general manager at Florida Gulf Coast University's WGCU; the facility encompasses a TV station that's part of the Public Broadcasting System and a National Public Radio affiliate on FM. Seven years later, in 2004, when he was in his late fifties, Craven moved to Aspen with his wife and went into semi-retirement — but he didn't stay inactive for long. He started a consulting business that specialized in helping local nonprofits such as Aspen Public Radio and KDNK-FM. Then, about a year ago, Craven's wife got a new job in Westminster, and after relocating, Craven heard about the KUVO opening.
"That was when I got excited about coming back to work full-time," Craven says. "From what I was able to gather about the station, it was at something of a crossroads in its existence. It's been a successful station in the past, and to a certain degree, it still is. But I also knew the station had hit a bump in the road and its financial situation had turned south a little bit."
Craven doesn't lay the blame for these circumstances on his predecessors, yet he believes KUVO can do more to secure funding — particularly corporate underwriting. "The station hasn't had enough people trained and out seeking that kind of support, and we're going to put more emphasis on that," he says. "This being the 22nd largest metropolitan market in the country, there are plenty of potential sponsors out there, and the station offers a very attractive demographic profile: usually fairly high-income and educated, socially active people."
As for membership, Craven thinks "that looks pretty good, but it could probably grow some more" — and he senses potential for expansion in a construction permit that could bring the signal to Vail, a new HD-radio stream that could be launched this year and potential programming tweaks. "We need to take a look at what we're doing every day to see if there's anything that might cause listeners to go to other stations," Craven says.
Such comments are likely to cause some KUVO fans to fear that jazz may be dumped, but Craven rejects this interpretation. In his words, "I see no reason at this time to even look at changing the format of the station." Nevertheless, he stops short of swearing such a thing could never happen. "The whole media marketplace is changing," he points out, "and people can get jazz on other types of services now — satellite radio, Internet radio and all that. The secret for KUVO, and for any broadcast station, is to adapt itself to the changing times and look at ways we can serve the communities we broadcast to that are not replaceable by nationally delivered programs."
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Fortunately, Lando, the architect of KUVO's sound, remains on hand to oversee day-to-day operations, and Marez, who's also supportive of the jazz approach, views that as good news. "It was important that Carlos stay and be a part of we want to do," he stresses. "It took a little work to make sure everyone felt comfortable with the situation, but Carlos very graciously and in a dignified way said, 'I see a role for me. If it makes the station stronger, that's what I'm going to do.' He stepped up — everyone did — and I really appreciate it."
Still, questions remain. Craven is dedicated to meeting with all of KUVO's stakeholders in order to "come up with a new mission statement, and from there build a strategic plan that will position the station for the next five years." And beyond that? "I can't tell you," Craven concedes. "If I'm able to accomplish all those goals, maybe I'll be having such a good time that I'll want to stay. Or maybe that'll be time to walk away."
With luck, such a transition won't be as traumatic as the last one.