Colorado Public Radio Purchases FM Signal

Colorado Public Radio has finally landed a second FM signal in the Denver area. On January 16, the network announced that it had agreed to acquire KFDN, at 88.1 FM, from California-based Educational Media Foundation for $8.2 million. Once the Federal Communications Commission approves the transaction, as all parties expect will take place sometime this spring, classical programming that's now on 90.1 FM will migrate to 88.1 FM and the news broadcasts will shift from 1340 AM to 90.1 FM. As for the AM frequency, CPR president Max Wycisk (pictured) makes it clear he'd like to unload it as soon as possible. "1340 is for sale," he says.

Good news for all involved? In many ways, yes. But as with anything involving Colorado Public Radio, the story is more complicated than it seems at first blush.

In autumn 2000, as reported in this Message column, CPR purchased KKYD-AM/1340 from the flailing Catholic Radio Network and renamed it KCFR. While the service originally planned to program the outlet with classical music, a number of factors, including complaints about fidelity from classical-music buffs, eventually convinced CPR to move its news and information fare to AM and broadcast classical at 90.1 FM under the KVOD banner. This approach placated classical afficionados, but news junkies weren't thrilled -- and CPR higher-ups didn't seem all that excited about the situation, either. They clearly aspired to own at least one more Front Range FM, but they had big problems making this dream a reality. Witness CPR's attempts to buy Greeley-based KUNC, which turned into a public-relations disaster when the sale was opposed by KUNC boosters led by former hostage Tom Sutherland (a twist documented in this February 2001 offering).

The sale of 88.1 will certainly go more smoothly. Don't expect any protests from listeners, since the contemporary Christian music that's been heard at the frequency will continue to air at 91.1 FM, another EMF station. Likewise, public-radio listeners who've been tuning to 1340 AM will undoubtedly cheer the relocation to FM. "The biggest audience complaint we hear is, 'We're used to finding public-radio news on FM, and it's not there anymore,'" Wycisk allows. "People expect public radio on the left-hand side of the FM dial, and when people come into town, it's hard for them to discover that public-radio news is in Denver."

That won't be an issue anymore. Because 90.1 FM boasts 30,000 watts, the signal will boom across the Front Range. But power could be a problem for 88.1, which is licensed for just 1,200 watts. Wycisk insists that "88.1 will cover metro as well as 90.1 does." Even so, listeners north of Denver's borders who once were able to tune in won't be able to do so unless they use a computer instead of a car radio.

Fortunately, a possible fix looms. At present, CPR can't file for a power increase at 88.1 because KRMA-TV/Channel 6, also known as Rocky Mountain PBS, broadcasts its television audio at 87.7 FM, just south of the standard dial. But this anachronistic anomaly will come to an end in early 2009, when TV stations will formally abandon the analog spectrum in favor of digital. At that point, CPR could ask the FCC to let it turn up the juice -- although Wycisk stops well short of confirming that the network is planning to do so. "There is some possibility of that after TV goes digital," he says.

Then there's the matter of paying for everything. While Colorado Public Radio will be able to offset a considerable portion of the $8.2 million it's promised with proceeds from a 1340 sale, the service may have a hard time breaking even on its unwanted AM station. CPR paid $4.4 million for the outlet in 2000, which was hardly a bargain for a signal rated at just 1,000 watts, and in the years since then, the rise of satellite and Internet radio, as well as the slow decline of terrestrial-radio listenership, has caused the value of AM properties to slip. Still, Wycisk is confident that the additional money can be obtained without inflicting enormous pain on either station personnel or listeners. According to him, "We will issue tax-exempt bonds in the same form we did seven years ago," with the assistance of Public Radio Capital, a Denver nonprofit with a great deal of experience in such matters. He adds that "there will not be additional on-air fundraising."

The decision to buy the FM station demonstrates that CPR isn't ready to prematurely bet its future on the rise of HD radio -- one of the prospects that caused former board member Frances Koncilja to go public with her complaints in a June 2007 Message. "This is a long, gradual shift," Wycisk says. "It'll probably happen the same way that AM and FM switched in the early '70s. The tipping point was when FM became standard equipment in cars, and once HD becomes standard in cars, I think there will be more more of an effect." But that's a ways off. Even though Ford has announced that it will make HD available in its full line of cars next year, it will be only be an option, not a regular feature.

Until the FCC gives its blessing to the CPR plan, Wycisk emphasizes that it's business as usual for his stations -- and among the projects he touts is the beefing-up of the network's homegrown news programming. Thus far, there's been more hype than tangible improvement in this regard. Indeed, CPR's signature public-affairs show, Colorado Matters, is now half the length if was before the much ballyhooed news initiative began. Even so, he says listeners will begin hearing the difference before too much longer.

"We're looking at expanding our news programming over the next couple of years in a number of ways," he says. "It won't just be Colorado Matters-centered. We're looking at expanding reporting. We've just gotten a three-year grant from the Colorado Health Foundation to hire a beat reporter in the area of health, and we're looking at expanding both the newscast and the longer-form interview programming." Among those who'll be helping the net move forward is Dan Drayer, the onetime Colorado Matters host who returned to CPR last September after stints at a handful of public-radio outlets across the country. "It's wonderful to have him back," Wycisk stresses, "and we're playing with a whole bunch of ideas. Over the next three to six months, we'll have some concrete things to share."

And some new homes on the dial, too. -- Michael Roberts

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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