Aspen Public Radio removes bulk of music programming, moves to focus on news
Aspen Public Radio has decided to eliminate most of its local music programming to make way for more community-driven news initiatives, according to station officials.
The decision was announced Friday evening to the roughly dozen locals who hosted a variety of music shows on the KAJX Aspen Public Radio station, like “Jazz from Aspen.”
For Tammy Terwelp, executive director of APR, and her staff, the decision to cancel all of the afternoon and evening music programs — except for the grant-funded classical music programming hosted by Chris Mohr over the summer — was the result of months of research and discussion on the future of APR and its drive to be a “local news of record” source for Aspen and the valley.
The station is adding renowned national and international programs such as Fresh Air and BBC Newshour to its afternoon and evening schedule starting Monday, Terwelp explained, and has a handful of new local community engagement and journalism programming in the works.
But for Jeannie Walla, a longtime “Jazz From Aspen” host who has been a part of APR in one capacity or another for decades, and many of the KAJX music hosts, Friday was the day the music died for Aspen Public Radio and “a slap in the face” of its longtime volunteers.
“To have this group of dedicated and talented music hosts on air for three-hour shows, which took hours to prepare for, and who were all volunteers is extraordinary,” Walla said Sunday. “Now they are more than insulted after getting kicked to the curb and receiving no thank-you for up to 30 years of work for no pay.”
On Sunday, The Aspen Times talked with six of the now-former KAJX volunteer DJs about the recent decision to cancel the Aspen radio station’s local music programming.
Most expressed feelings of shock and disbelief, stating that their music shows were a “labor of love” and they felt disrespected at Friday’s meeting when staff canceled their programs immediately and reportedly didn’t show appreciation for their volunteer efforts.
The hosts, many sharing their musical expertise on air since the late 1990s, talked about connecting with the Aspen community through their jazz, classical, blues or oldies music shows, and of how the public radio’s music programming aligned with “the Aspen Idea,” or longtime guiding vision of Aspen as a place where people can nourish their body, mind and spirit.
“Information in and of itself isn’t enough,” said Stu Huck, longtime “Jazz from Aspen” host. “Music programming is so important and was in the very beginning at Aspen Public Radio. It’s been there from the very beginning and is what the community has come to expect.”
Huck went on to say APR’s music programming, particularly its jazz shows, not only supplements the station’s news reporting but also is what makes the station uniquely Aspen. He and other longtime DJs said they feel doing away with it may be an irreparable mistake.
“It’s hard to quantify the impact. I can read off a list of compliments or tell you how many people called to say they loved what I was playing,” said Andrea Young, longtime host of the “Aspenbeat” show. “That kind of connection through music has been a significant part of the fabric of Aspen Public Radio and of Aspen life for a long time. But how much does that matter to the community? I don’t know.”
For locals like Greg Poschman, who serves on the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners, it means a lot. Poschman said he’s spent countless nights listening to his favorite local hosts on KAJX, and is sad he won’t be able to moving forward.
“These people are authorities on these genres of music and I know I’m not the only one who appreciates that,” Poschman said, noting that the recent APR decision has been a hot topic of discussion in-person around town and on social media.
“There’s something unique about the connection you share with someone spinning records on the radio … it’s irreplaceable and helps us hold this small community together.”
According to Terwelp, the decision to cut the bulk of APR’s music programming wasn’t made overnight, nor pursued starting when she joined the APR team almost exactly one year ago.
Terwelp said based on her more than 20 years of public media and radio experience, along with local listener survey data and feedback that highlight a steady decline in APR music program listenership over recent years, she, her staff and the APR board of directors felt moving toward a more news-focused station was in its best interest.
She explained that the feedback she and APR staff have received about its programming created a “push-pull environment,” as some listeners wanted to hear less news and others wanted to hear less music.
“We felt this decision would help stop the push and pull, which wasn’t serving anyone,” Terwelp explained. “It is difficult to maintain and grow two different audiences.”
That’s why Terwelp said the Aspen station’s focus is on growing its news-based audience through adding more national and international programming to the weekly schedule and launching new local journalism initiatives like the “Rocky Mountain Why?” program that answers listeners’ questions and curiosities about Aspen life, encouraging a sense of place; the “Tell Me More Tour,” a community engagement initiative where APR’s reporters will travel up and down the valley to learn more about what news listeners feel needs to be reported on; and “Gen Z Tea,” a podcast hosted and driven by the experiences of two local Gen Zers set to launch Jan. 28.
APR is also looking to hire a news director, who Terwelp said will be tasked with facilitating more local news content, in the coming months.
In response to the feelings of disrespect and lack of appreciation expressed by many of the local music hosts as a result of the Friday meeting, Terwelp said the APR staff intent was to help make the transition easier on the volunteers, not harder.
“This is really hard and I don’t want to come across as patronizing because I’m not,” Terwelp said. “We handled things the way we did because dismissing someone and then expecting them to continue on for another week just felt wrong. But it kills me because it’s very difficult. I’ve really taken this to heart. … We are thankful for all of our volunteers and their hard work.”
Terwelp also explained that although APR is cutting the majority of its music programming, one of its partner stations, KDNK, is known for its eclectic and multi-genre music platform for volunteer DJs up and down the valley.
On Thursday, APR staff reached out to KDNK, which is based in Carbondale but also serves Aspen-Snowmass, to see if its staff would consider bringing on some of the former KAJX music hosts, according to Gavin Dahl, KDNK station manager.
Dahl said the station is more than happy to have the KAJX hosts on air at KDNK, but noted that there are already over 100 adult and 50 young adult DJs who share their music, so space is limited.
“Our schedule right now is packed full of passionate music lovers. We can’t promise anything, but are really excited to have the KAJX hosts get involved if they want to,” Dahl said, noting that two of the former KAJX volunteer DJs have already reached out to KDNK.
Dahl also said that survey data collected in 2019 show KDNK listeners ranked local music as what they enjoy hearing most on the station, and that it has already successfully welcomed a former KAJX music host, Dan Sadowsky, or Pastor Mustard, into the KDNK weekly schedule.
But regardless of what the data show and where each station is headed, both Dahl and Terwelp expressed their passion for public radio to thrive locally as a whole, and are both grateful for their stations’ collaboration and the diverse radio offerings the Roaring Fork Valley has to offer.
“It’s not an either/or thing,” Dahl said of the two public radio stations. “I think the distinction between KDNK and KAJX is clear and that both are worthy of support.”
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