Friday, February 1, 2008

Crazy Eights: Taking off in 2008 with 88.1-FM in Play

Crazy Eights: Commentary by First Responder

Taking off in 2008 with 88.1-FM in Play: An under-utilized Denver radio frequency is gaining much-needed traction, but at what cost?

This is an eye-opening event to start what is bound to be a wild and crazy year in politics and mass media. With declining audience numbers for radio, especially for commercial stations, Colorado Public Radio (CPR) has bought 88.1-FM from a religious broadcaster based on the left coast; which has done nothing with this rare commodity except rebroadcast what Front Range listeners can already hear over KWBI’s main signal at 91.1-FM.

The industry works in mysterious ways. Two years after 88.1-FM began broadcasting, we see what simply sitting on a frequency (repeating another signal’s content, and operating with low overhead) can bring in these times: $8.2 Million dollars, the amount CPR (the only public radio entity in Colorado able to afford such a steep price) is paying for the frequency.

Under the “guidance” of today’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that sum of money is acceptable because it is what the market will bear. Under a previous version of the FCC, such financial speculation involving a rare public asset would be disallowed. If we go back to the days of FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson, the religious broadcaster in this case would have had its license rescinded for lack of providing public service. 88.1-FM would have been placed on the block so any number of non-commercial entities could apply for the license. During the Lyndon Johnson era, community groups had equal access to the process. Today CPR is the only player that could realistically compete for the 88.1 FM frequency. What does this mean in today’s world? This CPR purchase marks only the beginning of what could be a CPR spending spree for radio signals along Colorado’s Front Range. While the 88.1 buy-out has no downside for listeners, the same cannot be said for future acquisitions.

CPR is the only public radio entity in the state with an estimated dollar value in the seven figure range ($12 to 15 Million), and it continues to throw its financial weight around Colorado. With this clout, they carryout an empire-building mission to provide two streams of programming to all of the significant population centers in the state. One of the places where the two-stream approach hasn‘t been realized is in Larimer and Weld Counties, but that could change in the near future with several options for expansion in view.

During the week of January 28th, the Fort Collins Coloradoan ran a story which in essence reported that CPR’s classical music service will be ending when KVOD switches to the 88.1-FM signal expected by April (due to public television’s Channel 6 audio interference issues, 88.1-FM in Denver is authorized to operate with less than 3,000 watts). The switch by KVOD will mark the return of KCFR to 90.1-FM (licensed for 40,000 watts); its original home, with News and Information programming. In a stagnant world, classical music listeners in Fort Collins, Loveland, and Greeley would be out of luck. But the Coloradoan piece did not delve into the possibilities for CPR expansion into Larimer and Weld Counties. Options include:

  1. CPR buys a commercial FM station in the Fort Collins, Windsor, Loveland area. FM stations in this part of the state do not have clear signals throughout Denver metro, but they adequately reach listeners in Larimer and Weld counties. This condition is the primary reason why KTCL (93.3-FM) is now a Denver station, instead of having its broadcast antenna atop Horsetooth Mountain, west of Fort Collins. FM stations here suffer the same problem that lower powered FM stations have in metro Denver which cannot reach Larimer and Weld counties. Two stations with such coverage problems at 101.5-FM and 107.1-FM recently filed for bankruptcy. The same economic forces affect commercial FM stations up north. It’s only a matter of time before one or more of them are ready to sell out. Since 88.1-FM will cover metro Denver with classical music, the commercial FM CPR buys in Larimer-Weld will be a perfect fit. Aside from staff lay-offs, the downside for this option is minimal for audiences, because the programming on Northern Colorado commercial FMs offer nothing that other stations on the FM dial from Denver metro also provide.

  2. CPR President Max Wysick could pay another visit to the CSU President’s Office, as he did 15 years ago, when he had a closed-door meeting with CSU President Albert Yates. KCSU-FM Fort Collins and the other radio stations in the CSU system (KDUR-FM in Durango and KTSC-FM in Pueblo) could have been part of the discussion. Nothing came out of that meeting involving the sale of CSU system radio stations, but as with the situation then, the KCSU signal could be enhanced to cover the Fort Collins-Loveland-Greeley triangle (with the proper investment and political savvy). CSU coffers could be filled with a few million dollars, and the CSU President could justify the sale by calling it a “community service” (especially after hundreds of classical music listeners in town become vocal over the loss of this unique music on the radio). If Wysick were to succeed with this option, he’d be following in the footsteps of Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), which bought university radio stations across the state to help build their state-wide network. The downside for this option is high from a political standpoint. It involves a student-run radio station which started in 1964. The fallout from such a sale would produce very unsettling results, especially as the CSU President’s office deals with issues surrounding the possible sale of the student newspaper, The Collegian, to Gannett. *See this article by Michael Roberts of The Denver Westword.

  3. Max Wysick puts together a package for financially-strapped KUVO, which includes the 88.1-FM frequency and a few million dollars for their 89.3-FM frequency which covers metro, as well as Larimer and Weld Counties. The downside here is immense because it involves a station with a rich history and legacy that was founded after a hard-fought effort spearheaded by key members of Denver’s Hispanic community, including U.S. Senator Ken Salazar. In this case, the sky is the limit on protests coming from all sorts of sectors along the Front Range, not the least of which is the fact that KUVO is one of only a handful of Jazz radio stations remaining in the country.

  4. CPR carries its classical service over 88.1-FM and on an HD channel of 90.1-FM, which reaches Larimer and Weld. As part of this option, CPR agrees to pay a portion of costs for classical music listeners in Larimer and Weld counties to purchase an HD radio for their homes. This is the easiest and least invasive option for continuing classical music radio in Northern Colorado. The downside is the initial cost involved to CPR; a cost that over several years could be recovered in uninterrupted listener support from Fort Collins, Loveland, and Greeley. Those with the ear close to the ground say CPR has already panned the idea of placing classical music on one of their HD channels for 90.1-FM, in favor of adding more news and information programming instead. We’ll see.
Those are some of the possibilities, still to be determined. STAY TUNED!