Going Public

Page 5 of 11

"It's like restaurants on the corner: There's a reinforcement factor there that can help everyone," he says. "If you look at the metro area, we have two separate services from Colorado Public Radio when we had one before, and we have KGNU in Boulder and KUVO in Denver -- and we're all growing simultaneously. And that's how it works. If you can give people more programming that they value, the number of listeners and the number of donations will increase."

This has proven to be the case in Denver and Boulder, especially of late: Florence Hernandez-Ramos, president and CEO of KUVO, which specializes in jazz, and KGNU's Durlin confirm that their most recent fund drives went exceedingly well. But KUVO and KGNU achieved their current stability only after they de-emphasized or eliminated NPR programming -- moves made partly in response to Wycisk. Back in the '80s, KCFR, KUVO and KGNU were all running large quantities of NPR shows, which normally attract oodles of big-dollar donors. So eager was Wycisk to have an exclusive on this programming, though, that he offered to allow KGNU to place its antenna on KCFR's Lookout Mountain tower, which would have greatly improved the Boulder outlet's reach in Denver -- but only if Durlin agreed to drop NPR. Durlin refused ("I didn't like being forced to do it," she says), but the CPR marketing machine eventually attracted the vast majority of donations from NPR fans anyway.

In the end, Morning Edition and All Things Considered were no longer cost-effective for KGNU and KUVO, and both stations wound up dropping them in favor of alternatives. Today, KGNU, which also had ideological issues with NPR, uses BBC Radio and other news sources, and KUVO highlights music, leaving Colorado Public Radio with a near-monopoly in the Denver-Boulder area on the most lucrative public-radio programming.

Rather than portray this consequence as evidence of CPR's muscle, Wycisk chooses to spin things in a more benign direction. "For conscious and unconscious reasons, it became clear that each of our stations had a different purpose," he says, "and if we pursued these purposes clearly, we could come to a complementary result."

Similar logic eventually persuaded folks at Carbondale's KDNK and Aspen's KAJX, longtime Roaring Fork Valley stations that fought a Colorado Public Radio incursion into their territory for years before making peace. The dispute began when CPR applied for two frequencies that would have obliterated signals from a translator system owned by Pitkin County. Those translators brought the stations' programming into areas such as Glenwood Springs, Snowmass Canyon, Basalt, Redstone and Marble, but FCC rules state that full-power stations supersede translators. By one estimate, KDNK and KAJX would have lost 75 percent of their audience.

True to form, locals were incensed by what they saw as a big-city invasion, turning out in force in February 1997 when Wycisk and other CPR representatives appeared at the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs to explain their proposal. Also attending was Pete Simon, a former Colorado Public Radio reporter who currently volunteers for KUVO. At the time, Simon was program director for KVNF, a public-radio station in Paonia, and, as he recalls, "I showed up at the meeting with a microphone and tape deck. But upon seeing the equipment, Max told one of his lieutenants to turn off the P.A. system." Next, says Simon, "Max spent more than an hour with his power-point slide presentation, trying to convince the mostly KDNK volunteers and staff that having CPR in the Roaring Fork would help KDNK and KAJX raise more money." The reaction was "groaning, mumbles and low laughter."

To fend off Wycisk, Pitkin County applied for the same frequencies CPR coveted. This action forced the FCC into the position of deciding which applicant should be given preference, and to do so, it used criteria that, among other things, awarded points for localism. But after this bizarre formula concluded that CPR was every bit as local as Pitkin County, it became obvious to the folks at KDNK and KAJX that they would probably come up on the short end of the stick. That left negotiation as the only choice, and after a lot of back and forth, a complicated accord was finally reached this past July. The deal calls for KDNK, KAJX and Colorado Public Radio to share a transmission facility to be constructed on Sunlight Mountain, with CPR bearing most of the construction cost. The participants also agreed to swap various frequencies, which should prevent the broadcasting area served by KDNK and KAJX from shrinking even as it allows CPR to beam classical music into an area that includes some of the state's most affluent citizens. The whole shebang should be operational in a year to eighteen months.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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