This week marks the first time in decades that Colorado Public Radio has had a president other than Max Wycisk, who took on that role in 1978 and built a single station, KCFR-FM, into a state-spanning multi-channel operation prior to the late 2017 announcement that he would be retiring at the end of June.
Wycisk's successor is Stewart Vanderwilt, previously the longtime general manager of legendary KUT in Austin, who brings loads of experience and a different style to the gig.
"I see as my job to take what Max has built and bring it to another level of service," Vanderwilt says.
Vanderwilt had a Colorado connection even before signing up with CPR. As he recalls, "I spent a couple of summers working construction out here when I was in high school. I worked for a bricklayer in Denver, and he did jobs from Colorado Springs to Boulder — and what a great summer it was. I was living with a friend whose father was doing graduate studies at the University of Denver, and that led to me spending a year of high school at Campion Academy outside of Loveland. We skied at Winter Park — Mary Jane — every weekend. I grew up in western Canada and skied all the time there, so it was a wonderful opportunity."
He feels the same way about the chance to oversee Colorado Public Radio. "It's the kind of thing that's only going to come around once in a career," he maintains, "and I hope I can bring to it my experience building a journalistic organization, building a statewide news program, building a music-discovery station. There are a lot of parallels to that work and the work Max has done here."
True enough. Founded in 1970, KCFR evolved from a relatively free-form station licensed to the University of Denver to a classical-music service with a National Public Radio news component that branded itself as Colorado Public Radio in 1991. A decade later, in 2001, music and news were put on separate tracks — and in 2011, CPR launched OpenAir, which concentrates on contemporary music made by national and local artists.
Austin's KUT, for its part, began as a University of Texas affiliate, with roots that may stretch all the way back to 1912. Classical music and NPR programming have been part of the package there over time, too. Then, in 2002, when Vanderwilt was at the helm, the station assembled its first news department. KUT Public Media Studios debuted in 2012, and the next year, Vanderwilt helped birth KUTX, a 24-hour music service dominated by music from the local Austin scene.
To Vanderwilt, such projects made his position "a dream job. But it's also one I've been doing for eighteen years, and those services are at their peak. So it's probably a good time for someone else to get a chance. And I'd say the same thing about Colorado Public Radio."
A case in point involves CPR's news operation, which Vanderwilt sees as a place where growth can happen. The net's signature news show, Colorado Matters, is, for the most part, an interview program, whereas KUT's Texas Standard is a daily news showcase with a broader reach. "We built a collaboration with stations in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio — as far away as Marfa," he explains. "So we didn't build remote operations, but we worked with remote operations in those communities. And there's definitely a desire that I support to expand the editorial resources here in Colorado. I think a service that speaks to the state should also speak from the state, and I feel it's important to do that type of expansion. I will help promote and drive that in a judicious way."
The shrinking of the Denver Post and other traditional media organizations underscores the need for such an endeavor, Vanderwilt allows: "We're owned by the community in which we operate, and the return we need to deliver is back to the community — and by community, I don't only mean Denver. I mean the entire state of Colorado. So our commitment is long-term. It's in our charter and in our name. Our mission dictates it, and the community that supports us demands it. No one entity will fill that gap, but we will do our best to step up."
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Such an effort is possible because "Colorado Public Radio is a fiscally solid operation that has been carefully managed by Max and the team here," Vanderwilt emphasizes. "That's what you would expect from a community-focused public-media institution. The business model is about value and reach, and the audience deeply values news that they can trust and music and cultural experiences to soothe their soul. Those are long-term attributes this service delivers, and if we continue to do that, our audience will voluntarily support us so that we can reinvest into delivering an even more valuable service. If we can keep that virtuous cycle going, we will continue to grow and expand."
He would like to see the same kind of thing happen at OpenAir, whose music connects with him on a personal level much as does KUTX's soundtrack. He speaks knowledgeably about his love for combos such as Spoon and Austin performers like Tamiko Jones — "and it's not pandering when I say [Denver-based] Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats is one of the most fun bands I've seen and heard."
Bidding farewell to Austin wasn't easy, Vanderwilt concedes. "It's really difficult to leave a community that has been so supportive and embracing of both our family and the work that we've done. But at the same time, I'm feeling that same embrace from everyone I've met and talked with at Colorado Public Radio."
He pauses before adding, "And the summers are better."