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Easy Listening

What's missing on Colorado Springs' public radio stations?



A spin across the far left end of Colorado Springs' radio dial turns up four strong signals, and those of us who listen in the 88 to 92 range regularly have gotten pretty used to the offerings. They are somewhat diverse but largely predictable.

KCME, classical music and jazz at 88.5, bills itself as "The Cultural Voice of the Pikes Peak Region." Pikes Peak Community College's KEPC offers "maximum variety" in music at 89.7. Christian music on KTLF plays at 90.5 and venerable KRCC at 91.5 delivers free-form music, jazz, Celtic, reggae, blues, a variety of features and, of course, National Public Radio.

One could argue that in a city with more classic rock stations on commercial radio than art galleries in the downtown, and in a country where consolidation in broadcast ownership and programming follows the trend toward monopolization of just about everything, our four distinct voices on public radio blow a refreshing breeze.

Or do they?

You might be surprised to discover how much public radio programming is out there that we are not hearing. The Grassroots Radio Conference in Boulder this July made it painfully clear what we're missing. A vast array of challenging and interesting radio programming has never reached the airwaves in Colorado Springs, from Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac to Amy Goodman's Democracy Now!, from local news like that produced by hundreds of little stations across the country to the RadioGirls! youth program in Urbana, Ill. There are as many different voices as there are community radio stations.

Why we don't hear these voices has much to do with the specific missions, objectives and biases of local public programmers.

Mission impossible

The only Colorado Springs radio station funded entirely by listener contributions is KTLF, whose mission, according to station manager Jeff Jacobsen, is "to fulfill the great commission of Jesus Christ."

Eighty-five percent light Christian music, the station also airs Focus on the Family broadcasts by Dr. James Dobson and a syndicated bible teaching program. Having a station funded totally by listeners, with "no foundations, or organizations, no denominations ... not even any underwriting" is a challenge, Jacobsen said. "They take ownership, which is fine, but ...," he pauses, "especially with music, it is a challenge to try to please everybody."

While KTLF caters to a somewhat insular community, Pikes Peak Community College's KEPC testifies in another kind of isolation. The music plays on with a preternatural regularity, and when you call the office or the studio line, the phone rings and rings. Even when the college is in session, the music plays and a voice comes on at the top of the hour, but it doesn't seem like anyone is actually there. A periodic student DJ enlivens things with a refreshingly human, not-so-professional presence, and student-produced public service announcements reflect KEPC's position as the only teaching college station in town.

KEPC's listeners, according to program director Kurt Grow, listen for the music. The station only runs talk in a few very short modules such as The Weather Notebook. KEPC delivers a pleasant mix of pop music in various eddies just out of the mainstream -- an old '80s number here, a Lucinda Williams lament there. If you do hear something new and exciting, the chances are that no one will come on to tell you what it was.

You will never hear a volunteer or a student on classical station KCME. The cultural voice of the Pikes Peak region uses only paid professionals on the air. "We feel the work should be honored," says general manager Jeanna Wearing. "You know, classical music -- you have to know a great deal about music and history and art -- both fine and applied. You can't just come and say, 'Gee, I want to be on the radio.' "

Behind the scenes, two volunteer groups and a volunteer board of directors support the station.

The only local broadcaster of classical music, KCME's mission is, according to Wearing, "to provide cultural enrichment with classical music and jazz, and support the arts and cultural community." Syndicated educational programming and musical broadcasts connect KCME to the national scene, and local services such as Colorado Springs Symphony broadcasts address and celebrate the home front.

KCME is the only producer of local feature programming in town. Interviews of distinguished youth in classical music and jazz air on Kid's Know the Score. On ArtsPeak, a weekly, half-hour radio arts magazine, host David Sckolnik presents criticism and interviews with local and visiting artists.

"We want to stay local," notes Wearing. "We want to serve the local community and people who live and work and perform here."

KRCC, the local National Public Radio affiliate, has avoided local programming except in the formatting of its well-loved music programs, staffed by professionals like Jeff Bieri and "your friend and neighbor" Vicki, as well as community and Colorado College volunteers.

KRCC offers a smorgasbord of standard public radio fare, mostly news and features from National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Radio International (PRI). Although its activities are no longer part of the curriculum, KRCC is owned and operated by Colorado College. In its philosophy statement, Colorado College "charges KRCC to offer programming which reflects to its college and community audiences the college's commitment to the liberal arts and a concern for a diversity of ideas and people."

The person interpreting that ambiguous statement is Mario Valdes, station manager for some 20 years.

Valdes began as a volunteer in 1978, when KRCC was still broadcasting from a little antenna behind Rastall Center on the CC campus. A group of students introduced the idea of NPR membership in 1974, but it wasn't until 1984 that the station made its first NPR broadcast. A transmitter on Cheyenne Mountain and translators for Manitou Springs and Salida--Buena Vista went up at about the same time. Programs have come and gone since then, the broadcast range has expanded, but KRCC today sounds pretty much the same as it did 10 or 15 years ago.

The sonic view at Grassroots

Carol Pierson, president of the National Association of Community Broadcasters, believes the greatest asset of community radio stations is that each is so unique. The Grassroots Radio Conference coalition agrees.

A very loose consortium of stations, programmers and supporters, GRC's sixth annual conference this year in Boulder included broadcasters from St. Catherines, Ontario to Tampa, Fla. The GRC philosophy statement calls community radio stations "cultural institutions in their communities" that reflect the unique concerns and passions of the people who live there. And sometimes what's left out of the mix reveals as much about those passions as what's included.

Logging on to the NPR or PRI Web sites gives a glimpse into the vast offerings these networks provide. KRCC already runs an assemblage of both news and entertainment from these sources, and KEPC runs a couple of the short ones.

But after years of listening to Morning Edition and All Things Considered, it's a surprise to learn of the vast offerings in news and current affairs programming.

Boulder's KGNU, for example, runs world news from the BBC, giving a European perspective to the day's events. That's a refreshing contrast to the news domination of New York and D.C., as is the blunt, no-nonsense interview style of BBC reporters. To break out of that mold, Valdes said he is considering NPR's world news service.

When KRCC listeners recently learned that KRCC and Colorado College objected to former host Jerome Davis' liberal-leaning commentary on the news, some were surprised. After all, NPR news seemed pretty liberal leaning when compared to the prevailing winds in Colorado Springs.

On the left hand, however, supporters of progressive programming from the Pacifica Network, Free Speech Radio News and Alternative Radio would disagree. They consider NPR to be just another corporate-funded mega-media outlet that ignores anything off the beltway and out of the mainstream.

Pacifica's reporters are the type who ask former President George Bush for a comment on charges that he is a war criminal for his role in Operation Desert Storm, a subject as about as likely to get exposure on NPR as it would on NBC. Amy Goodman, host of Pacifica's Democracy Now!, says, "Our role is to go where the silence is."

Death row qualifies as such a place, she contends, and she went there to record a commentary by Mumia Abu Jamal, who was sentenced to die for the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia police officer. Abu Jamal, an activist with former ties to the Black Panthers, maintains his innocence, claiming to be a political prisoner. A search of the NPR archives yielded only one story on Abu Jamal's 20-year case.

Activists and dissident intellectuals can also be found on David Barsamian's Alternative Radio, a weekly program aired by many public radio stations, but not by ours.

When asked if he ever considered running something like Pacifica, Valdes responded, "No." Free Speech Radio News? "No." Alternative Radio? "No! Hello? The answer is no!"

It is not KRCC's job, he explained, to be the liberal alternative to conservative talk radio, or to the Gazette, but to present quality news.

This Way Out, the news magazine of the gay, lesbian and transgendered community, and Latino USA may cross into politics, he admitted, but added, "There is nothing wrong with a news show being critical. There's something wrong, as far as I am concerned, with a news show being advocacy."

Advocacy for a particular polemic should be "clearly marked as such -- it's a journalistic standard. You cannot pretend that it is news."

Local news

When asked why KRCC provides no local news coverage, Valdes cited Radio High Country News, which airs Tuesday evenings on KRCC. Produced in Paonia, Colorado and focusing on Western land-use issues, HCN walks a fine line between industrial, agricultural and environmental perspectives in its weekly broadcast. Valdes praised its evenhandedness in contrast with the polemics of Pacifica and Alternative Radio, but it's hard to make the case that High Country News qualifies as local.

Alamosa's KRZA also deals with environmental issues, but on a very local level. Board member John Kretsinger, a farmer with white hair and a long white beard, attended GRC. Their San Luis Valley station, he said, with a translator in Taos, N.M., serves diverse communities: Native Americans, Hispanics and tourists as well as mining, business, commercial and agricultural interests. "We feel that our primary mission is to bring community to our listening area," he said.

Elaine Erb of KGNU, this year's GRC host, noted that "producing news is very labor-intensive," a sentiment echoed by all the news directors at GRC. "You have to really want it," said Kretsinger. "You must invest in a news director, someone who is selfless, who will feed and nurture volunteers, take a long-term view, have patience."

News doesn't just take time and effort; it also takes money. Valdes estimated that local news would cost KRCC as much as its commitment to NPR if it were to produce something of comparable quality.

Would listeners cough it up? They have in communities like KRZA's where, Kretsinger said, "It's always been part of our vision."

Local feature production

Aside from KCME's art programs and the occasional Pikes Peak student's public service module, locally produced entertainment and features also get short shrift in the Springs. No station here provides a forum for community members to be "radio active" except for volunteer DJs spinning discs on KRCC's music shows.

A score of volunteer programmers and producers at GRC demonstrated that many stations commit themselves to local contributions in this arena as well as in news.

One example that stands out is the youth programming that finds a home at KGNU and at Urbana, Illinois' WEFT. Sevillah Mann, 17-year-old co-host of RadioGirls!, said that WEFT is full of "local, upstart productions." Her program grew out of a girl-empowerment group, Girlzone, which offers girls from elementary age and up opportunities to explore traditionally male-dominated activities such as construction work. Once the older girls were trained in the technical side of radio, they took over the show, inducting younger members of the group, passing the skills down.

Mann and fellow RadioGirl Sarah Carsey played a sample show that aired on the eve of last year's presidential election. A mock debate, written and played by Mann and Carsey, the program effectively and hilariously skewered both Bush and Gore. While the show isn't as slick as those turned out by public radio professionals, RadioGirls! is well-written, thoughtful and brings the refreshment that only the voice of youth can provide.

Fairview High School junior Amory Schlender, of KGNU's Overdub, stresses the need for programming by youth as well as for youth. Schlender began as a volunteer DJ at age 14, then created Overdub to counteract what he calls "the criminalization of a generation" by getting youth voices out into the media. Issues that affect youth are reported secondhand by adults, he notes, who usually miss or distort the point. Schlender stresses that teens have the same broad range of opinions as adults, and Overdub seeks to express balanced perspectives and find common ground.

Overdub's pilot program tackled such issues as Boulder High School's same-sex "kiss-in" and the Boulder Valley School District's recent installation of video surveillance cameras (a move that occurred last year in Colorado Springs District 11 with little media notice). Schlender and his associates interviewed students and district officials, and hosted a call-in discussion with guests on both sides of the issue.

Same old same old

David Barsamian, who is also author of the upcoming book, The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting, spoke at GRC of how public broadcasting has strayed from its original vision, which, according to the Carnegie Commission Report of 1967, was "to be a forum for debate and controversy, to provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard, to help us see America whole in all its diversity, and to create programs not to sell products, but to enhance citizenship and public service."

Barsamian decried public radio's financial ties to corporate "underwriters," whose messages, he said, are too often explicitly reported in public radio news.

"On Morning Edition," pointed out Barsamian, "hosted by the venerable Bob Edwards who seems to set new standards in ennui and boredom -- on March 4, there was an underwriting credit for Merrill Lynch ... immediately followed by a report on a current downturn in the stock market and which stocks were really going to do well and which weren't. And there was actually advice to shift to more safe and secure conservative investments."

Barsamian argues that deep pockets drive public radio programming, thereby diminishing the number of diverse voices allowed to be heard.

"Independent producers who approach NPR and PBS -- and I have -- are immediately asked, 'What does your underwriting package look like? What kind of money are you bringing to the table?'," he said. "And then we can talk about scheduling programming."

But KRCC, at least according to station manager Valdes, does not feel the need to add more independent or alternative programming to the regular playlist and sees no problem with National Public Radio's current offerings.

Already the most diverse station in town, Valdes argues, KRCC feels the most pressure to, as Valdes put it, "be all things to all people." He complained that "no one ever goes to KCME and tells KCME to be something else. No one ever goes to Pikes Peak Community College and insists they be significant. It's just us."

With policy set by Colorado College, Valdes says he is aware of all kinds of programming, but feels he must steer the station away from changes that don't fit KRCC's purpose.

"It's my job to keep all of the various screaming, shouting people from killing this station after 50 years of existence because they are hungry for political wing [sic]. Believe me, if there was a large audience of people who agreed with them there would be someone doing that already."

Valdes remains unapologetic for not taking chances on local news or more alternative national news.

"I'm sorry that people are upset about that, but it isn't going to change me; it hasn't changed me 'til now, and I've done this for 22 years."

The airwaves belong to the pros

We must keep the community in community radio because "the airwaves belong to the people," said GRC organizer Cathy Melio. The trend toward greater and greater homogenization, with slick, corporate-funded offerings from NPR and PRI dominating the lower end of the dial so outraged Melio and her cohorts that they began GRC to support stations dedicated to grassroots principles.

In Colorado Springs, the principle of community access receives scant consideration. Although its license is held by a private college with no obligation to provide community service, KRCC's training manual does list community access, along with quality, as one of its two primary goals. But it also notes that "[e]xcellence and public access are often in conflict."

It's clear which of the two goals has dominated KRCC's mission for the last 20 years. But perhaps public broadcasting needn't be on that professional level. When a recent stand-in for Jeff Bieri fumbled a few words and spun some unexpected discs, the effect was refreshing.

That's about as much change as we're likely to hear. For better or worse, public radio in the Pikes Peak Region, and translated throughout southern Colorado, plays a comfortable, well-polished and professional mix that's not likely to change much in the near future.

Grassroots and Public Radio Resources on the Web

For more information on alternative programming available for broadcasting on public radio, see these Web sites:

Alternative Radio

David Barsamian presents views "ignored or distorted" in the mainstream.

Independent Media Center

Streaming net-casts, especially of events such as the worldwide anti-globalization protests.

National Public Radio

Check out the programming as well as the underwriters' section describing the elite demographic you can sell your product to by underwriting.

National Radio Project

Progressive public affairs programming by this grassroots supporter of independent producers.

Pacifica Network

This progressive network of stations is under siege from within and without. They have fired many, and are accused of terrorizing any who speak out against the current management. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! remains under, she says, intolerable conditions. Find out about their programming and hear their side of the story.

Free Speech Radio News

Fired and striking Pacifica Network reporters have their own newscast of the fired, banished and banned. The progressive network has recently been charged with selling out to an NPR-style corporate homogenization.

Prometheus Project

Stealing fire from the gods, Prometheus supports low-power FM stations from FCC application to programming. 100-watt stations will be on the air soon. Next up: applications for 10-watters.

Radio Left

Hear the Women's International News Gathering Service (WINGS) and Earth First! Radio.


Independent radio documentaries.

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