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Colorado Public Radio dropping plans to expand news programming

In the July 2008 blog "Colorado Public Radio Plans Two-Hour Weekday Info Block," CPR vice president of programming Sean Nethery said an announcement about expanding Colorado Matters, the service's thirty-minute weekday news program, and launching a one-hour weekday talk show would be made "in a matter of weeks." But things changed, as Nethery conceded in the January blog "Colorado Public Radio Dials Back on New Talk Show." At that time, Nethery said the revised strategy called for an hour-long Colorado Matters four days a week, with an hour-long talk show hosted by Dan Drayer popping up on Fridays.

Less than two months later, even this less ambitious approach is on the shelf. According to Nethery, CPR has indefinitely delayed a talk-show launch and will leave Colorado Matters at its current length for now. In a related move, the net has also stopped advertising for two new positions related to the previously anticipated expansion -- and it may not replace vice president for new media and technology Jim Paluzzi, who's leaving CPR next week to take a general manager position with KJZZ, a public-radio station in Phoenix.

Producing a one-hour version of Colorado Matters is "something we still want to do," Nethery says, "but right now, we can't stretch to do it under the circumstances, due to the same darn economy everyone else is talking about. The fact is, things are changing faor us every month in terms of what revenue is coming in."

CPR's regular on-air pledge marathons aren't to blame. "The drives have been doing well," Nethery insists. "In fact, the drives have been record-breaking" -- a development he chalks up to the move of the service's news outlet, KCFR, from 1340 AM to 90.1 FM last summer. "It's made the difference we expected it to make, so we're seeing a lot more new people coming in because of the drives, which is great."

So what's the problem? "The mail is much slower, and a lot of our money comes through the mail," Nethery says. For instance, CPR regularly sends out missives to so-called "lapsed" members -- folks who have pledged in the past but haven't done so in a while. These efforts typically trigger a sizable response, but the amount of cash they've generated has diminished of late. Renewals have also dropped off. "If 10 percent decide not to renew, or decide to wait, or give less money, it has an impact," Nethery confirms. And while "underwriting has been doing very well," he goes on, "we're seeing that not all companies can do it or give as much -- so it's beginning to decline a bit."

Nethery emphasizes that the situation isn't "dire." But covering the organization's $9 million annual budget can be challenging even in good times, let alone in a fiscal climate that's hurt nonprofits nationwide. CPR had hoped to lessen this pain by selling its 1340 AM signal, as well as 1490 AM in Boulder, both of which have been made redundant by the aforementioned FM shift -- but no one's interested. "We're not in a position to say that they're about to be sold," Nethery notes, in a considerable understatement.

At present, CPR is simulcasting on the AMs because, under Federal Communications Commission rules, it could lose the licenses if they're allowed to "go dark," in radio parlance. But Nethery says the expense of keeping them on the air is relatively minor compared to "the cost of paying the debt" on the outlets -- particularly 1340 AM. "We have an extra half-million dollars of debt service every year" associated with the stations, he reveals. "And our reserves are linked to that debt. So we don't have as much flexibility."

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Because of this combination of factors, CPR managers decided they couldn't afford to hire two new staffers -- and without them, Nethery believes, beefing up Colorado Matters and creating a talk showcase for Drayer would be impossible. Not that the network is abandoning its so-called "news initiative," which is frequently mentioned in promotions. Nethery points out that Drayer will remain on the staff, and his presence will allow existing reporters and hosts to do more of the reporting that's been heard during National Public Radio updates on the hour and half-hour.

As for why CPR packages are heard on NPR less often than ones originating from smaller area operations, such as KUNC, Nethery says there's no prohibition against the practice; it's just that CPR keeps its employees so busy that they seldom find the time to create extra content. That could change if more reporters come aboard, but Nethery thinks that's unlikely in the near term without the sort of grant that allowed the service to hire health expert Eric Whitney a while back.

Regarding the departure of Paluzzi, Nethery says a final determination about hiring a replacement hasn't been made. Nevertheless, he says, "I would estimate that we're going to handle it from within. We don't have a policy of a freeze on positions, but that doesn't mean we're hiring for open positions, either."

Although all of these developments are subject to change, they probably won't until the economy improves and/or the AM stations are sold. Until then, the only thing that's expanding at CPR are the number of on-air pledge campaigns: Listen for a one-day mini-drive in April and two-day sequel in May prior to a week-plus rally in June. And when the on-air hosts say they need donations, they really mean it.

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