Why CPR's OpenAir Is Now Indie 102.3

Willobee Carlan's Twitter profile pic.
Willobee Carlan's Twitter profile pic. Twitter
Just shy of eight years since its October 2011 launch, OpenAir, the indie-rocking affiliate of Colorado Public Radio, is no more. But that doesn't mean CPR has given up on the concept.

Today, July 1, the powerful statewide public-radio network is premiering Indie 102.3, a rebranded station, at 102.3 FM, that aims to expand on the audience built by OpenAir over the lion's share of the decade without alienating current listeners.

Willobee Carlan, a veteran of commercial radio programming and music management whose most recent launch was NV89, the independent arm of Nevada Public Radio, is the man charged with striking this delicate balance. Based on a recent interaction with a new colleague, he's cautiously optimistic he'll be able to pull it off.

"We have an employee here who's been a massive OpenAir fan for years," notes Carlan, who is succeeding recently retired program director Mike Flanagan. 'When he heard we were going to do a little refresh here, he kind of freaked out — like, 'No, no, you can't do that!' So we made a four-hour sample of what we're doing using our hosts and our new presentation, and when he heard it, he said, 'Oh my God, this is great!'"

He adds, "If everybody feels that way, I can probably sleep at night."

Plenty about Indie 102.3 connects to OpenAir. For instance, all of the air personalities, including Jeremy Petersen, Alisha Sweeney, Jessi Whitten and Bruce Trujillo, are being retained — a true rarity for an industry in which flipping a station usually means jettisoning everything that had to do with the prior incarnation.

But in addition to the new moniker, CPR has hired Zach Gilltrap to come up with updated imaging, the term used to describe intros, bumps, links and other audio elements played before and after songs that help establish a station's overall sound and style. Moreover, the format will be tightened, with a greater focus on core artists — among the acts Carlan mentions are Beck, Florence + the Machine, Mitski, Radiohead, Interpol and St. Vincent — that listeners will hear more frequently than they did under the previous approach.

These changes suggest Indie 102.3 will move in a more commercial direction than OpenAir despite remaining a public-radio station, à la The Colorado Sound, at 105.5 FM. Aside from expressing his fondness for the Colorado Sound but stressing that Indie 102.3 will be very much its own thing, Carlan pushes back against this conclusion.

click to enlarge A vintage shot of Willobee Carlan with Joan Jett. - COURTESY OF WILLOBEE CARLAN
A vintage shot of Willobee Carlan with Joan Jett.
Courtesy of Willobee Carlan
"There will be some artists who are more familiar and more recognizable, because we think we've been missing some that people know and like and maybe didn't hear enough of," he says. "But our core values are the same. Indie 102.3 will still be a public-radio experience, and we'll continue to support the Colorado music scene."
However, he continues, "people will notice there's a different presentation, because we're trying to reach a wider audience that may have a preconceived notion of what public radio sounds like. We want to break down that wall, remove that obstacle from anybody who thinks they're not going to enjoy public radio. Because they are."

Indie 102.3 will remain "a new music discovery platform or destination," he points out. "But we're also going to tap into the next generation of public-radio listeners, which is a generation of subscription services: Spotify and Pandora and Apple Music. The millennial generation is used to signing up to subscription services to discover music, and they'll be able to do that with us, too. But we're also going to bring a local element that subscription services don't. Spotify and Pandora aren't going to be hanging out at the Larimer Lounge or the Mission Ballroom, but we will be. We're going to be going to shows and supporting the local music scene and sponsoring events like UMS. You can reach out and touch us, as it were. So if you're paying ten dollars a month for a subscription service, why not pay ten dollars a month for CPR? Because we're going to be doing more for you."

Carlan is a radio lifer. He began broadcasting while still attending high school in the New York City area, and his first professional gig was at WLIR, one of the most famous signals on the East Coast. Since then, he says, "I've worked my way across the country as a programmer. I've worked in probably half of the fifty states."

Along the way, Carlan worked as a manager for a wide variety of prominent acts: hard-rocking Korn, the English Beat post-ska spin-off General Public, jazz crossover performers Tuck & Patti, the hip-hop combo Compton's Most Wanted, the rap-rocking Phunk Junkeez and various versions of the alternative-rock band Flesh for Lulu. He also opened up a nightclub in Austin which he describes as "a mistake" that eventually led him back to radio. His success in Nevada convinced the new braintrust at Colorado Public Radio — led by Stewart Vanderwilt, who also worked in Austin before taking over as CPR's president last July following the retirement of longtime top dog Max Wycisk — to give him a chance to see what he could do with OpenAir.

Upon his arrival in Denver, Carlan initiated a research roundup and discovered that OpenAir's name "wasn't resonating with a big enough audience. There was a little confusion about what it meant or stood for. So we went out into the market to see what words kept coming up, and the one that kept floating up was 'independent.' Everyone was talking about independent radio and independent music. People understood what indie meant, which is why we became Indie 102.3."

At the same time, Carlan wants the station to "offer a broader invitation" to folks. For instance, "when we champion a new artist, we'll want to make sure the artist gets enough exposure through the week, the month, the album cycle that our airplay is going to register with listeners. So there will be some repetition, but there's a good reason for that. Everybody's radio-listening habits aren't the same, and if we discover something that's great, we want to share it and make sure everybody hears it — not just play it one time and then it disappears."

He admits that he's "not sure how everyone is going to feel about that. I'm sure there are going to be some people we'll never be able to please. But I think we're on the right path, and I can't wait to get started."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts