Board balks but funds Aspen Public Radio

The Aspen Public Radio exterior. The public radio station, also known as KAJX, is located in the Red Brick Center for the Arts on East Hallam Street. (Maddie Vincent/The Aspen Times)

Recent programming changes at Aspen Public Radio prompted Pitkin County commissioners to come close Tuesday to taking the unusual step of not honoring a contract with a local nonprofit.

The discussion came during a presentation about the property tax-supported Healthy Community Fund and the latest grants to local nonprofits recommended by a citizens committee that decided this year to cut many requests by 20% in the face of more COVID-era need than available funds.

“While I don’t go to (APR) board meetings, I vote with my wallet,” Commissioner George Newman said. “I was the poster child for KAJX for many years and we don’t contribute anymore.”

Commissioners mostly approved more than $3.1 million in Healthy Community Funds for local public health and for Roaring Fork Valley nonprofits that benefit community health. Of that amount, more than $1.8 million was pre-approved for “mandated services,” including core public health, senior services, detox, mental health, substance abuse, integrated health care and management of the fund.

That left a little more than $1.2 million for recurring annual requests and new requests, which amounted to about $240,000 more than was available to spend, according to a memo from the committee to commissioners. In order to fund 66 different agencies, the citizens committee decided the most “equitable decision possible” was to cut annual requests by 20% from last year’s grant and cut new grants by the same 20%.

“The (committee) reported that they have never had to make decisions like this, as most requests in the past receive their requests, and very rarely did a nonprofit receive less than the year prior,” according to the memo.

Many HCF grants come in the form of partnerships, where organizations agree to a three-year funding contract with the fund. Those were not affected by this year’s 20% cut because of the contracts.

Aspen Public Radio was entering the third year of a partnership in which it receives $9,000 in HCF funds annually. The station — also known as KAJX — removed most of its local music programming in January, leading to controversy in some local circles.

Lisa DeLosso, APR’s development and community engagement manager, told commissioners Tuesday that while it might be hard for some to believe, the jazz, classical and other music the station used to play wasn’t a majority draw.

“The feedback we got from listeners is that they would turn off the radio when the music came on,” she said. “It was the push and pull of two audiences and it was not serving the public effective to our mission.”

Commissioner Greg Poschman criticized the station for major “disturbing and controversial” changes that replaced local programming and volunteers with nationally syndicated shows available elsewhere. He wondered whether the board ought to keep supporting a localless station, and warned that “funding is not a given.”

Poschman suggested placing the station on equal footing with KDNK, the community station in Carbondale that applies for Healthy Community Fund money on an annual basis. KDNK received $7,200 this year because that was 20% less than the $9,000 it received last year.

Board Chairman Steve Child supported that plan, but Newman and some members of the citizens committee balked.

Newman suggested reducing APR’s funding to the same amount KDNK will receive.

“That’s really bad precedent we’re setting,” he said.

DeLosso said APR continues to have robust local news reporting and, in fact, claimed to be the first local media outlet to confirm the presence of COVID-19 in Aspen and Pitkin County in March at the beginning of the pandemic.

“I’m a little disturbed by the idea that we are no longer fulfilling our mission,” she said. “We’re still engaging in a lot of local reporting. We’re still deeply invested in our community.”

Child said many former KAJX listeners have switched to KDNK, where some former volunteer APR DJs transferred after the change.

“It has that messy vitality that all DJs used to have on KAJX,” he said. “In a sense, they gave up on getting that messy vitality back and changed to another station.”

DeLosso said the station couldn’t host volunteers for fund drives because of the pandemic and hasn’t seen a noticeable loss in listeners.

“We just don’t have any evidence that we lost a massive amount of listenership based on our programming changes,” she said.

Molly Brooks, a member of the citizens committee, stuck up for KAJX and said she remains a faithful daily listener.

“Just because the programming is different doesn’t mean it’s bad,” she said, noting that it may be attracting a younger audience like her daughter.

Child and Commissioner Patti Clapper did not want to go back on the contract and promised a robust discussion about Aspen Public Radio next year. In the end, board members decided to provide the $9,000 grant to KAJX and revisit the issue this time next year when the station’s contract comes up for renewal.

Aspen City Council members Oct. 26 questioned why the municipal government is giving KAJX $100,000 as part of its annual nonprofit grants awards, citing reduced local programming in both news and music.

“For the vast majority it is a repeater feed from national NPR that I can pick up from a bunch of other stations,” Councilwoman Rachel Richards said in October.

Councilwoman Ann Mullins agreed with her colleague during the Oct. 26 meeting.

“I also would like to take a little closer look at Aspen Public Radio,” she said. “I’ve been disappointed in the changes they’ve made, and feel like they are moving away from being strong local radio.”

Richards brought up the issue again Tuesday during City Council’s regular meeting when the board discussed reviewing the arts grants committee’s analysis and decision-making criteria.

“Aspen Public Radio station doesn’t have much public in it anymore,” she said.

The only other grant county commissioners questioned Tuesday was a $3,000 request from the Aspen Historical Society — whittled to $2,400 under the 20% doctrine — to fund educational programming. The historical society is partially funded by an annual property tax and commissioners wanted staff to check Healthy Community Foundation ballot language to make sure they were allowed to fund an already publicly-funded institution.

The Healthy Community Fund dedicated property tax was first approved by voters in 2006, again in 2011 and for a third time in November 2018, when it was OK’d through 2027. The citizens committee that recommended the grants includes Brooks, Barbara Reid, Brenda O’Conner, Steven Wickes and Lupita Ortiz, an Aspen High School senior.