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Locals will bid against offer for Greeley FM

Originally published in Current, Feb. 26, 2001
By Karen Everhart Bedford

Competing visions for the future of public radio have collided again in Colorado, where passionate supporters and listeners of Greeley's KUNC-FM are working against a tight deadline and steep fundraising goals to keep local control of the station.

Colorado Public Radio aims to add Greeley to its network map. Stations in Ft. Collins, Colorado Springs and Boulder are independent.

Friends of KUNC have until Feb. 28 to come up with $2 million to buy the station from the University of Northern Colorado. Colorado Public Radio, an expanding network based in Denver, has offered to pay $1.9 million for KUNC. Under CPR's ownership, KUNC's "diverse music" format would be replaced by a 24-hour news and information service [Feb. 12 article].

The competition revives long-term tensions between CPR and supporters of smaller community-based stations around the state. "I think we all know in Colorado that KCFR [CPR's flagship station] is interested in expanding its empire," said Marty Durlin, manager of KGNU in Boulder.

Supporters of KUNC want to preserve the unique local flavor of its service, which blends popular NPR series with an eclectic range of music programming, and announcements about cultural events in the region. Under CPR's ownership, the "local, eclectic, unique voice that the station has will be lost," predicted Myrna Johnson, a member of Friends of KUNC.

"We know we've got a real treasure here, and we don't want to lose it," said Patricia Thomas, a Friends member who is preparing the group's formal bid to the university. "I just wish it had been a fair fight in the beginning." KUNC supporters are unhappy with the University of Northern Colorado and CPR for pushing forward on the sale in ways that undercut KUNC's management.

"We were simply trying to work with the license holder in whatever way they wanted to work," said CPR President Max Wycisk. "We were dealing with the owner, and couldn't think of a way to deal with anyone else. If the owner wanted to open it up for bids or talk to the staff, that was the path for them to choose."

Wycisk said CPR's plan to serve the state with two public radio channels--one all classical, the other all news--will give listeners more of the programming they say they want. "Public radio and television have historically been under-funded, so a lot of that local premise is never realized," he said. "Putting our resources together gives us the ability to generate more and deeper local and regional programming."

CPR wants to acquire KUNC as part of its expansion next month into a two-channel operation. The network will switch news programs and KCFR's call letters to KVOD, a Denver AM station that it acquired last fall. Classical music will air round-the-clock on the current KCFR frequency, 90.1 FM. If the network succeeds in acquiring KUNC, the Greeley station will broadcast the network's news/information stream to listeners in Colorado's "Northern Front Range." The two services will reach 80 percent of the state's population.

The West's spirit of independence has inspired passionate supporters of small stations to resist earlier consolidation efforts pursued by KCFR-FM and KRMA-TV, the state's biggest public broadcasting outlets. In the early 1990s some listeners of Grand Junction pubradio station KPRN unsuccessfully fought KCFR's plan to absorb it and create Colorado Public Radio. More recently, in public TV, Denver station KRMA upset a small but vocal group of viewers in Pueblo when it bought KTSC from the University of Southern Colorado.

In the Greeley conflict, opponents of KCFR's expansion resent the stealth with which the Denver station and the University of Northern Colorado worked out a deal. KUNC management and supporters, who had recently dealt with a phase-out of the university's direct cash contributions, were surprised by CPR's takeover bid.

Some were especially upset that the university agreed to include in the KUNC sale a "quasi-endowment," now worth $600,000, that the university established for the station three years ago within its foundation. The endowment was to be a cushion to aid the station during emergencies and to "help build the future of the station," as KUNC told supporters in a direct-mail appeal for donations. Those funds are not available to the Friends of KUNC as they scramble to out-bid CPR.

After a public outcry over the proposed sale, trustees of the university on Feb. 9 agreed to open up the bidding process to other parties, and deferred a decision until the end of the month. A committee authorized by trustees to evaluate the bids and proceed with the sale includes University President Hank Brown, a former Republican senator; Dick Monfort, a meatpacking executive and part-owner of the Colorado Rockies, who chairs the UNC board of trustees; and Kay Norton, v.p. of university affairs, who worked with Wycisk in preparing CPR's offer.

The Friends of KUNC, formerly a community advisory group, officially morphed into a nonprofit corporation Feb. 10 and will bid against CPR.

"I'm a little tender about the fact" that the university's rules for presenting proposed bids allow CPR's Wycisk to make a second offer, and "this will be our first chance and our only chance," said Thomas.

At Current's deadline last week, the Friends had received pledges and donations totaling nearly $700,000, according to a website charting progress of the fundraising campaign. Former Iranian hostage Tom Sutherland, a Friends member, had pledged $250,000 of an anticipated multi-million dollar compensation package to be awarded by the federal government. More than 1,000 donors contributing $25 to $25,000 had responded to the campaign as of Feb. 23, and several benefit events were planned for last weekend.

Colorado Public Radio has offered to pay $1.3 million for KUNC's license, and another $600,000 for the endowment. CPR's board of directors made "personal pledges" to finance the acquisition, said Wycisk. "Everything we're working on here is the board of directors' goal and plan."

"They've proposed two payments, one year apart, and will guarantee the second payment," said Norton, referring to CPR's bid. The endowment transfer will occur when the deal closes and will be set on the value of the account at the time. "If there are donors who made a gift to the endowment and don't want it to go to Colorado Public Radio, we will figure out a refund process."

"What should we be doing?"

It's not clear how and why interest in selling KUNC's license moved rapidly to the top of the university's agenda this winter. Norton said CPR's bid came in "unsolicited" in January. Wycisk said the university "asked us for an offer two years ago," prompting discussions of the sale.

UNC did actively consider selling the station two years ago, and explored other ways to finance or operate KUNC, such as establishing a university-based network of stations, said Norton. The university's administration, under new President Hank Brown, wanted to focus resources on its mission of educating students. Operating the station was not "closely aligned" with that mission, Norton said in a news account.

But rather than selling the license, the university opted to phase-out its cash contributions to KUNC. "We were successful in stepping up our fundraising," said Neil Best, KUNC manager. Last year, the station met a $1.1 million budget with no cash support from the university. The endowment was established in 1998 and grew steadily as cash flow allowed.

"We've done a number of things to help the university," said Johnson. "They asked us two years ago to cut back on support from university, and we were successful in getting it to zero. We indicated through that process how committed we were to station, and created an endowment that would give us a cushion once we became self-supporting. Now it's to be sold with the license."

"We're in an awkward position," acknowledged Best. "Because we work for and are owned by the university, we ask, 'What should we be doing?'" Best received positive feedback from university officials when the station met its own budget. He and the advisory board had begun working toward a bid for complete independence, but "we didn't see that there was an urgency to go from the university."

"With hindsight, I see that I was short-sighted."

"The present management has been in a position to pursue independence for the station for the last couple of years," said Norton. "It was clear that the station needed to be community-based or it would be put up for sale."

She didn't warn Best of CPR's bid for the license. "Until there was a formal offer to take to the board, I didn't think it was appropriate to start an auction process."

Because the endowment was established by the university foundation on KUNC's behalf, and not by a donor, it is "not the same as a true endowment." The monies accumulated in the account came from various sources and were not earmarked for an endowment.

If KUNC is to become independent, "another entity has to exist and raise the money to buy it," she added. "The money set aside now was raised by the university."

Whichever bidder acquires KUNC's license, she notes, the university will have conducted the sale in a way that preserves public radio services to the region. "The format that's planned by Colorado Public Radio will have expanded coverage with much, if not all, of the programming that's currently on KUNC, plus more. The difference is the music format."


University trustees give KUNC a chance to gain independence

Originally published in Current, Feb. 12, 2001
By Mike Janssen

Trustees at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) in Greeley agreed last Friday [Feb. 9, 2001] to give the university's public radio station, KUNC, a chance to buy its independence.

Denver-based Colorado Public Radio (CPR) had offered to buy the station for $1.9 million, but UNC trustees gave station leaders until March 1 to raise enough money for a counter-offer. If CPR acquires KUNC, the station would expand the network's range into northeastern Colorado.

News of the possible sale surprised KUNC staffers, who first heard of it last Thursday, according to the Greeley Tribune. The same day, the paper reported, KUNC employees started a last-ditch fundraising effort to top CPR's price.

CPR also said last week that it will serve Denver with two separate programming streams. It wants to simulcast KUNC's proposed all-news format on an AM station that it bought from a religious broadcaster last fall. KFCR, its mixed-format Denver station, will go all-classical under the plan, taking the call letters KVOD from a defunct commercial classical station in town. If CPR succeeds in buying KUNC, it will switch the formats on all three stations in late March.

. To Current's home page
. Earlier news: Earlier merger attempt fails--Greeley and Ft. Collins stations, 1990.
. Earlier news: Despite some resistance, Colorado Public Radio adds Grand Junction to its network, 1991.
. Earlier news: University cuts aid to KUNC after considering spinoff, 1999-2000.
. Outside links: Colorado Public Radio, KUNC.

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