Going Public

he term "public radio" implies that stations operating under this banner conduct business in a more open and transparent way than do their commercial cousins. Nevertheless, the changes that have taken place at public signal KUVO/89.3-FM in recent months -- including the resignation of the outlet's general manager/co-founder and the pending departure of other longtimers -- blindsided lots of employees and volunteers, not to mention donors and listeners. As a result, there's been conjecture aplenty about what happened and why, along with rumors hinting at a potential change from a jazz format to a mix more directly targeting the Hispanic community.

Carlos Lando, KUVO's veteran program director and interim general manager, shoots down this last theory. "People have opinions about what's going on," he says, "but they're not founded on any facts."

In an effort to defuse further speculation, Lando and Michael Marez, the new president of KUVO's board, stressed a continuing commitment to jazz at a January 16 meeting and laid out an ambitious strategy intended to move the station forward. However, the board also distributed fresh details about KUVO's fiscal status that reveal the scope of the challenge ahead. In 2006, expenses for general operations and special projects added up to slightly more than $1.6 million -- a number approximately $190,000 higher than revenues the station collected during the same period.

Projections for 2007 are sunnier; a $23,000 surplus is forecast. Marez feels this figure is realistic, emphasizing that he "wouldn't disrespect boardmembers by presenting them with a budget that wasn't achievable." He acknowledges that meeting the goal will require increased proceeds from membership, grants and underwriting at a time when radio advertising is down throughout the area and competition among nonprofits is fiercer than ever. Still, he thinks KUVO can flourish in this environment anyhow. "It's a very, very strong product," he says. "We just need to raise the profile of the station -- to let people know what a wonderful resource it is, and how lucky we are to have it."

KUVO was conceived in 1983 as the first public-radio station in Colorado to be primarily overseen by Hispanics; its bylaws require that at least 51 percent of boardmembers fit this description. Florence Hernandez-Ramos, the only general manager the station knew until her December resignation, loomed large from the beginning, as did several political heavy hitters. Federico Peña let KUVO types use his law office as a headquarters around the time he was running for mayor; future Senator Ken Salazar served as a boardmember in 1985, when the station first hit the airwaves; and Mayor Wellington Webb worked to put the station into the Five Points Media Center, at 2900 Welton, circa 1994. Marez notes with pride that KUVO has formally acquired the space.

During the past decade, the vast majority of jazz stations across the U.S. have either dumped the style entirely or switched to the so-called smooth-jazz sound -- a watered-down approach dominated by pop-oriented instrumentals and creamy R&B. But KUVO has stayed true to the genre without getting stuck in a rut. Specialty programs, many of which are heard on the weekends, provide opportunities to enjoy blues, soul, funk, world music and more. There's also Jazz Odyssey, an offering heard weeknights at 10 p.m. in which assorted DJs concentrate on what Lando calls "the hipper elements of the music," and Canción Mexicana, a mélange of Latin-music styles and community information presented by Hernandez-Ramos, who's committed to keeping the show going regardless of her resignation. As a bonus, Denver artists pop up frequently on KUVO playlists and during sessions conducted in its live-performance studio, and hosts such as Ed Danielson aren't forced to spin tunes chosen for them by supervisors. "They have free rein to pull a CD and play it," Lando notes. "A lot of stations don't allow that anymore; they become very predictable and basically contribute to their own demise."

Although such trend-bucking has won KUVO some well-deserved national accolades -- JazzWeek magazine named it "major market jazz station of the year" in 2005 and 2006 -- and a growing online audience, it hasn't been able to inoculate the broadcaster against financial pressure. Not that insiders are eager to talk about specifics on the record. Seven boardmembers were sent two interview requests apiece via e-mail, but only one responded. In her reply, outgoing board chairwoman Dolores Atencio deferred to Marez and Jeff Martinez, a boardmember who does public-relations work for the City of Aurora. As for Hernandez-Ramos, she declines to talk about her resignation, saying only, "We really look forward to the future. Carlos is a great guy, and he's got some great plans."

Lando is equally reticent to discuss personnel shifts, and for good reason. In early November, Atencio sent out an e-mail letting staffers know of three big changes: the elimination of positions held by business manager Frank White (who started working at KUVO in 1988), office staffer Barbara Burdick (she came aboard in 1998), and membership director Tina Cartagena, an employee since 1990 who happens to be Lando's wife. Despite this announcement, the three are still around, but that's only temporary. Marez says White agreed to stay through March, while Cartagena is operating under a consultancy contract that expires on June 30.

According to Marez, these moves "flatten the organizational chart" in ways that should help the station run more efficiently even as they save money. "We had to cut some expenses," he says, "and this was one way to do it." By acting as both general manager and program director, Lando helps out as well, but no one sees this as a long-term situation. A search committee will be appointed to look for a permanent general manager, and if Lando chooses to enter the contest, Marez says he'll be seriously considered.

In the meantime, Lando has a lot of ideas about how to expand on KUVO's accomplishments. The station was the first in the state to air in high definition, a technology that can squeeze multiple channels into a station's available spectrum; Lando hopes to get a second one going in the next year or two, and says a focus on Hispanic community fare is among the options that may be considered for it. In addition, he's eager to revive Caliente!, a Latin jazz program hosted by eight-time Grammy winner Eddie Palmieri that KUVO produced; the first series of shows, which were heard on more than 125 radio stations nationwide, received support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and, says Lando, "We're in another funding round for more programs." Improving KUVO's studio facilities, increasing training for staffers and expanding on the success of Live at the Oasis, which features local high school and collegiate bands, are also on his agenda.

Marez, for his part, intends to concentrate on stabilizing KUVO's bottom line. But he's similarly interested in preventing the kind of misunderstandings that have cropped up in recent months. "One of my objectives," he says, "is to make sure we can have better communication with the board, the volunteers, the staff members and so on."

That's the public radio way.

Snow job: Most metro-area dwellers pray we've seen the last blizzard of the season -- but Denver Newspaper Agency employees have more reason to hit their knees than most. On December 21, government facilities, schools and the frigging "all-weather" airport were closed, and officials ordered the public to stay off the roads. Yet if DNA toilers didn't disobey (and most weren't able to), they either had to use vacation or personal time to make up for their absence, or else they were docked a day's pay.

The Denver Newspaper Guild's Tony Mulligan heard lotsa complaints about this decision. Even so, he says, "there's nothing in the contract that requires them to pay for a day that prevented people to get in because of the weather." Adds DNA spokesman Jim Nolan, "It's a longstanding policy that we don't have paid snow days. We recognize that a lot of people tried really hard to get to work, but we're a daily newspaper -- a 24/7 operation -- and we need to have certain people to publish the newspaper. It's not anyone's fault; it's a reality of the daily publishing business."

The impassable roads were just as real. Or didn't you read the news? Money woes shake public radio's KUVO, one of America's last great jazz stations -- but a new team is determined to keep the music swinging.