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Colorado Public Radio expands into Springs' community radio landscape 

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click to enlarge Tammy Terwelp can't wait to move KRCC. - COURTESY COLORADO COLLEGE
  • Courtesy Colorado College
  • Tammy Terwelp can't wait to move KRCC.

In 1951, Colorado College's KRCC became the state's first noncommercial educational FM radio station.

Since then, the station at 91.5 FM in Colorado Springs has survived competition from other radio stations, newspapers, television, the Internet, streaming radio and podcasts — despite relying on donations from listeners to pay its bills. One thing KRCC hasn't had to deal with much, at least in its Colorado Springs hub: competition from other public radio stations.

Sure, a few years back the community public radio station KCMJ launched, and it's picked up some choice programming since. KCME and Colorado Public Radio's 94.7 FM both play classical music locally. But KRCC is still unquestionably king.

That landscape, however, stands to shift.

Come spring 2017, Colorado Public Radio — an independent powerhouse based in Denver — will make a power move into the Springs. It just makes sense, says Sean Nethery, CPR's senior vice president of programming. "We cover more than 90 percent of the population of Colorado," he says, "but we have never had our Colorado news service — our 24-hour news service — heard in the second-biggest municipality."

Tammy Terwelp, general manager of KRCC, doesn't seem worried. "A little competition is good," she says, adding, "We're going to be fine. We're the home team."

Part of her optimism likely stems from the fact that KRCC has seen listeners, donors, and streamers increase. It's also planning a summer move out of its longtime home in a cramped 1910 Victorian to a 9,500-square-foot building at 720 N. Tejon St., which CC purchased in December.

"We were at a point where we were trying to outfit a stairwell for our sales manager," says Terwelp, whose own office is in a drafty enclosed porch. The new building, in contrast, will be able to easily host musical performances, townhouse forums, meetings and discussions. It also features a much more up-to-date electrical system, and it's located between CC and downtown, on the main drag. To Terwelp, that means that KRCC will be physically representing what it already is on a deeper level — a bridge between CC and the community.

Terwelp doesn't see that momentum stopping just because the market is changing. "We program what we know in our area to our people," she says.

CPR will be heard on 1490 AM and 102.1 FM, assuming the Federal Communications Commission approves the move. CPR says it will also hire a reporter who will be based in Colorado Springs. It's one of five new additions CPR just announced — the others include three positions at CPR's Centennial headquarters, and one reporter in Grand Junction. Nethery explains that the Springs-based reporter will create stories for the 24-hour news channel that CPR runs on stations statewide. In other words, this isn't news tailored to a Springs audience; it's news about the Springs tailored to a statewide audience.

In addition to running National Public Radio shows like Morning Edition, CPR's news channel features unique content, most notably its one-hour weekday news broadcast, Colorado Matters. Asked to recall some recent stories covered by his reporters, Nethery said the subjects ranged from the state Legislature to U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, retail marijuana spreading in the conservative Western Slope, fracking moratoriums and a graphic novel by a Colorado author focused on police shootings.

But that local content costs at least three times as much to produce as buying all the national radio programs CPR runs, Nethery notes. Yes, CPR and KRCC will be running some of the same programs, but Nethery says CPR's news station functions fundamentally different — 24/7 news instead of KRCC's mixed format of music and radio.

Meanwhile, KRCC is focusing on upping local content of all stripes, which might be surprising to some since, in mid-2016, Terwelp cut the popular local program Wish We Were Here. The reasons, she says, were simple: It cost $10,000 per show, ran once a month and was an hour long in an age where listeners' attention spans tend to max out at 30 minutes. Still, she says, she loved the show and hated to pull the plug.

"9/11 was the worst day in my career," Terwelp says, "and this was like the second to have to let this show go."

But she insists she hasn't abandoned local programing — instead, she's seeking new partners. In fact, she just announced a partnership with Rocky Mountain Food Report, led by former Independent reporter Bryce Crawford.

KRCC also pays part of the cost for Bente Birkeland, a state legislative reporter whose show airs on multiple public radio stations. KUNC (FM 91.5) of Greeley, another station with a huge footprint, provides the other half of Birkeland's salary.

When you head north of Colorado Springs and pick up a signal after Monument Hill — that's KUNC. Michael de Yoanna, who reported for the Independent nearly a decade ago, works as news director at the station, which partners with KRCC. He's also a former CPR employee.

He says the growth in public radio in Colorado Springs isn't unique. KUNC is growing too — last February, it went from a single dual-format station like KRCC to two stations, one for music and one for news. That expansion is a common story across the state, he says.

"Journalism is growing," de Yoanna says. "Newspapers are shrinking. I don't think radio can grow fast enough to fill that void."

He says he hears from listeners that different public radio stations have different "sounds" and they enjoy them for different reasons. Having just won a prestigious 2017 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for his CPR work, de Yoanna agrees that a variety of stations can do worthwhile work. He says he hopes KRCC, CPR and any public radio station will embrace its role in producing local news that makes a difference.

"I think that any public radio entity in Colorado Springs right now has to ask themselves how they are going to cover the important stories to that community and also show how the stories in that community are important to the rest of Colorado," de Yoanna says. "And I think that the station that does the best job doing that deserves the listeners it gets."

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