Colorado Public Radio's arts initiative -- and the rival proposal it beat to the funding punch

While other media outfits shrink, Colorado Public Radio is expanding via the planned launch of an arts-news initiative that will include an online arts hub intended to serve as a one-stop shopping place for Colorado cultural info. Because another local group has been shopping a similar idea in recent months, some observers on the scene think CPR swiped the idea. But Max Wycisk, the service's president, says nothing could be further from the truth.

After CPR announced that it had received a three-year, $900,000 grant from the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, allowing the service to hire three employees dedicated to the project, we learned about a rival proposal whose backers had also been making the funding rounds. But Wycisk says he knows nothing about this other group -- and while discussions with Bonfils-Stanton about the latest arts idea revved up in September, he stresses that the groundwork for the collaboration was laid starting the better part of a decade ago.

"We've been talking to the foundation about various projects for six, seven, eight years," Wycisk allows. "They funded the grand piano that's in the Colorado Public Radio performance studio. And we've been talking with them seriously about arts coverage over the last three or four years."

In fact, Wycisk reveals, "they had actually turned down an arts-coverage proposal from Colorado Public Radio a couple of years ago, but with the proviso that this was a conversation worth considering again in the future. And it took another two years, but we had that conversation -- and it resulted in the grant."

Regarding the plan itself, Sean Nethery, CPR's senior vice president of programming, offers details.

"We've had a couple of beat reporters for several years that were funded by foundations -- the Colorado Health Foundation, the Gates Family Foundation, the Piton Foundation," Nethery says. "But we began looking at a bigger effort that could go beyond the value one person can bring. And an arts-news bureau is a terrific addition in an area where we've been, frankly, spotty."

Plus, Nethery goes on, "it takes advantage of our two music services" -- CPR Classical and Open Air, which focuses on indie rock.

The grant provides $300,000 per year to fund three full-time positions: an arts editor and staffers focused on broadcast and digital. "This is the first time we've really looked at a position for online rather than on-air content," Nethery says -- and the crew will be supplemented by "a fleet of contributors: folks who will be working with us doing previews of events or critics reviewing different kinds of arts activities."

Not all of the specifics are in place. "We may do blogs in different arts areas," he maintains. "We're going to be getting much clearer on that in the coming weeks and months, but the funding includes these people, too, on a kind of stringer basis." Partnerships with other media organizations are also likely but undefined thus far.

Nethery says the arts-hub idea wasn't specifically dictated by the loss of arts coverage at other outlets, epitomized by the closure of the Rocky Mountain News back in 2009. Rather, it fulfills a longtime CPR ambitious -- "to create a destination for people who want a full range of news stories about what's going on in the arts: trends, innovations, what's going on nationally and how it connects locally. We want to engage people about the arts, and go beyond Colorado Public Radio's audience to the community as a whole."

In terms of radio, Nethery says, "the arts content is going to be on all three services," including the news arm. "This is driven by being a news bureau, but it doesn't end there at all."

The three new CPR positions have just been posted, and Wycisk hopes they'll be filled by late spring, with the full-scale launch of the arts project to follow. The concept, Nethery says, is to create "something of genuine value -- and something new."

Presumably, those backing their own arts project are now in the position of doing likewise.

More from our Media archive circa 2010: "Colorado Public Radio: Max Wycisk is positive even though ratings outlook for bonds is negative."

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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