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Public radio talks to tune out public

Allyn Harvey

Pitkin County officials and radio executives will meet behind closed doors tonight for the second time in less than month to discuss the fate of public radio in the lower Roaring Fork Valley.

The county’s Translator Advisory Board and executives of the valley’s two public radio stations will discuss a recently completed engineering study on the lower end of the FM broadcast spectrum. Colorado Public Radio undertook the study in an effort to find a broadcast solution satisfactory for everyone. The executive session will take place in Basalt Town Hall sometime after 7 p.m.

No one – county officials, Colorado Public Radio executives nor representatives from either local public radio station – is willing to divulge the study’s conclusions, even though it will apparently be used to decide how to divvy up the narrow portion of the broadcast spectrum available to nonprofit radio stations.

The wall of silence surrounding the issue comes in stark contrast to the very noisy, two-year public relations battle between local stations KAJX and KDNK, and CPR, a Denver-based public radio giant that broadcasts classical music and news from National Public Radio on five stations across the state.

CPR executives made a lot of noise and sent tremors through the valley in 1996, when they announced that they were applying to broadcast on 88.9 FM in Glenwood Springs.

The proposal drew immediate fire from management at KAJX, the public radio station in Aspen, because 88.9 is one of the frequencies it uses to reach listeners between Basalt and Glenwood. Radio stations can’t control more than one frequency, according to Federal Communications Commission spokesman David Fisk, but they can use a piece of equipment known as a translator to extend coverage on unused frequencies.

Pitkin County owns a network of translators that relay radio and television signals up and down the valley and into most of its side valleys. KAJX and KDNK in Carbondale both make use of the translator system to reach listeners throughout the valley.

Following CPR’s bid for a broadcast license, the county filed its own application for 88.9 FM with the FCC.

Facing months, or perhaps years of delays while the FCC dealt with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which required the agency to devise new rules for awarding broadcast licenses, CPR also applied for a license to broadcast on 88.1, threatening KDNK. The Carbondale public radio station uses a translator signal at 88.3 that would be disrupted by transmissions on 88.1.

“If Colorado Public Radio gets a license to broadcast at 88.1,” explained KDNK general manager Alan Scott, “then we have to vacate 88.3.”

The county has also applied for a license at 88.1 FM to protect KDNK. For opponents of CPR, the timing could not have been better: FCC spokesman Fisk said there still aren’t any rules for awarding licenses when more than one nonprofit organization is seeking the same slot.

After an unsuccessful public relations blitz aimed at convincing the county to join in the study, CPR decided last summer to commission the engineering study itself. The county declined to help pay for the study because it felt it already had all the information it needed.

“We already knew what the engineering was, so we didn’t feel we needed to spend any money on it,” said Michael Munroe, chair of the county’s Translator Advisory Board.

CPR presented the study’s conclusions to the Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners in an executive session last month, said Munroe. Before acting on the information, however, the commissioners asked the Translator Advisory Board to get feedback from managers from KAJX and KDNK.

Munroe said he would like to go on the record about the study, but was not sure he was in a position to disregard the order to maintain secrecy.

County Public Works Manager Stan Berryman, who has been at the forefront of discussions with CPR, said today’s meeting will closed because a “letter of intent” will be on the table. He declined to elaborate and said secrecy is being maintained at CPR’s request.

County Attorney John Ely was not able to comment specifically about keeping CPR’s study under wraps, but he expressed confidence that county officials are obeying state law on open meetings and public access. “We don’t have much trouble with that,” he said, “because everyone knows and follows the rules.”

CPR spokesman Sean Carpenter said the study was commissioned because Colorado Public Radio felt it needed more information to makes its case. The secrecy is meant to tone down the acrimony that marked the debate over CPR’s bid to move into the valley in its early going.

“The reason we’re being private,” Carpenter said, “is because we’re trying to reach an agreement.”

Carpenter said Friday that CPR is trying to connect its coverage along the I-70 corridor, which is interrupted from Glenwood Canyon to Parachute.


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