Going Public

Page 3 of 11

For his part, Wycisk refrains from denigrating KGNU's approach. "Whether you're KGNU or Colorado Public Radio, the mission is to serve people with important programming," he says. "That's just the bedrock -- but there are different ways of doing it. They do things one way, we do them another." He adds that, in his opinion, CPR affiliates qualify as community stations, too -- if, that is, the state as a whole is defined as the community in question. "Even at its beginning points, Colorado Public Radio has looked at the big picture. Big issues, big connections. Its horizon has always been further out than asking 'Is there a traffic accident on my block?' or 'Did somebody's dog get lost?'"

This statement is contradicted to some degree by the launch last year of Colorado Matters, an hour-long interview program heard weekdays on the news-and-information channel that regularly looks at small-town issues, among other subjects. But CPR airs no local public-service announcements whatsoever -- the closest it comes is promoting upcoming classical events by musical groups with which it's entered into partnership agreements -- and its regular news updates consist primarily of wire copy touching upon broad themes, such as actions in the state legislature. CPR jocks undoubtedly care about your missing pooch, but they won't mention him on the air until he's elected to the Senate.

Likewise, the only volunteers CPR uses are folks who answer calls during pledge drives. Those who are allowed to do so discover that the entrance to CPR's offices, located on South Josephine Street in a sprawling former sorority house near the University of Denver campus, is separated from the rest of the complex by a pair of black metal doors with bars across them. In contrast, KGNU's new space, a former office building the station first occupied in October, is wide open, as befits an operation that employs approximately eighty volunteer DJs, producers and so on at any given moment. The only restriction is a sign on the front door that reads: "Anyone with dirty shoes -- please remove."

These enormous cultural and philosophical differences practically guarantee conflict between CPR and less-corporate public radio. Still, nothing succeeds like success.

"They sound soulless; it's just background wallpaper," says Mario Valdez, general manager of KRCC in Colorado Springs, a more spontaneous public-radio station. "But the dilemma is, people like it. So Max is right in a way. He's discovered what people's tastes really are. In a way, though, that makes him a prisoner of that information -- because his choice now becomes, 'Do I ignore the information or do I follow the information? And if I follow the information, how far do I follow it? To the gates of hell? Until I become Satan's roommate?'"

Today CPR's flagship is called KVOD. But once upon a time it was known as KCFR, a station that, in its early stages, was as freaky as it was adventurous. In other words, it was everything CPR is not.

KCFR (the call letters stand for "Colorado Free Radio") was spawned by a DU student initiative, and when it debuted as an itsy-bitsy 10-watt outlet in 1970, the music it most often broadcast was avant-garde jazz and art rock, with a bit of classical thrown in here and there. Three years later, the station boosted its power to 30,000 watts, signed on with NPR and tidied up its music format, which began to drift toward classical. Almost immediately, DU attendees rebelled, voting to stop funding KCFR. By 1974, when Wycisk came aboard as (irony time) a volunteer, KCFR was making ends meet primarily through donations. This funding shift gave rise to an independence movement that came to fruition in the early '80s, when Wycisk, who'd become the station's manager, helped KCFR cut the umbilical cord connecting it to DU.

Expansion began shortly thereafter. In 1984, KCFR was given permission by the Federal Communications Commission to put up Grand Junction's KPRN, an "experimental" outlet that was linked to Denver by a microwave interconnection. At first, KPRN simply simulcast everything that KCFR churned out. But after the station won a grant to put a series of translators in Western Slope locales, production facilities were built. The studio setup allowed Grand Junctionites to supplement the Denver broadcast with local music programming -- jazz, bluegrass, etc. -- overseen by local volunteers.

These shows were snuffed in late 1990, when, with little public notice or debate, the boards of KCFR and KPRN merged to create Colorado Public Radio. In the wake of this fusion, Martin Krakowski, head of KPRN's community advisory board, which become a lame duck after the merger, remembers conversations about allowing the station to continue providing a modicum of programming tailored for Grand Junction listeners, albeit far from prime time. "I asked them when they were going to do this programming," Krakowski says, "and they hemmed and hawed and then admitted that they were thinking about doing it between two and six in the morning."

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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