Going Public

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Ultimately, not even token shows made the air -- but Wycisk doesn't think this constitutes a broken promise. "There were no commitments," he says. "There were discussions about different possibilities, but they were rejected as not making sense at that point." Instead, Grand Junction residents were subjected to features like Denver traffic reports -- a practice that's since been discontinued even here, where they might serve a purpose. Wycisk maintains that listeners surveyed by Colorado Public Radio don't want traffic information, "because they know they can find it other places."

Within months, all of KPRN's volunteers were ordered to vacate the premises, and the station became, in essence, a KCFR simulcaster again. But while the negative publicity surrounding the event initially caused CPR's Western Slope membership to plummet, circumstances improved more quickly than many people expected. "Once the new programming came in, the audience doubled in a relatively short period of time," Wycisk says. "So clearly, it wasn't the listening public that was upset. It was volunteers who didn't have the space on the air to do their programming." To put it bluntly, Wycisk implies that former DJs were ticked off primarily because their playpen had been taken away.

Confronted by Colorado Public Radio's inflexible stance, Krakowski and the rest of KPRN's community advisory board countered by petitioning the FCC to stop the merger under the theory that it didn't adequately serve Grand Junction listeners. When these complaints went nowhere, a number of onetime KPRN volunteers in association with another local, Peter Trosclair, decided to look into starting up a station like the one they felt they'd lost. They filed a construction permit in 1993 and received the FCC's permission to build a 16-watt facility.

Buoyed by this victory, the group later applied for another Grand Junction frequency that would have allowed them to broadcast with 50,000 watts of juice. But they soon found themselves competing for the privilege of doing so with eleven other entities, including, predictably, Colorado Public Radio. A few years afterward, the twelve parties, goaded by the FCC, held a private auction to determine who would get the signal, with the winner agreeing to divide the high bid among the other contestants. Marantha Broadcasting wound up tendering $440,000, and the Trosclair collective used its $40,000 piece of the pie to finally put its 16-watt station on the air.

The new outlet, dubbed KAFM, bowed in March 1999, and its growing popularity belies the claim that only amateur DJs with too much time on their hands care about it. KAFM's done so well, in fact, that it's in the process of purchasing a new building that will eventually include a 75-seat auditorium designed for live radio theater, concerts and community affairs seminars of the sort CPR doesn't offer, even though both of its channels reach Grand Junction: KPRN is now all news, while the classical signal is provided by KPRU in Delta.

"Colorado Public Radio gets a lot of support, especially from news junkies who like NPR," concedes Trosclair, now KAFM's general manager. "But we offer an alternative to what they do, and we're truly community-based. They do everything by satellite and computer."

That's not entirely accurate, but close. When KPRN became part of CPR, much was made about expanding the size of the staff in Grand Junction, but that never materialized. Five employees were based there when CPR was formed, and now there are three: a producer, Laura Carlson, who contributes to Colorado Matters, plus an engineer and an "underwriting associate." The station still has a storefront prominently located on the pedestrian walkway lining Grand Junction's quaint Main Street, and its glass front affords passersby a look at a DJ set-up and other broadcasting equipment. But these days it gets as much use as a museum display.

To Wycisk, KAFM's presence isn't troubling in the slightest. "The more, the better," he says.

Over the years, most public-radio operators have worked under the assumption that there's a finite number of people in any given area who will donate to stations like theirs. By this way of thinking, each dollar a new outlet earns is a dollar a previously existing operation loses. But Wycisk rejects that theory.

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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