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Public shut out of public radio negotiations

Allyn Harvey

Pitkin County has apparently entered into a written agreement with a Denver-based broadcaster to keep the public out of discussions that may decrease the listening audience of two local public radio stations.

News of the agreement came to light Monday night at a meeting of the county’s Translator Advisory Board. The board met in executive session with representatives from KAJX and KDNK.

The discussion centered on a recently completed engineering study about broadcasting in the Roaring Fork Valley and possible resolution of an ongoing dispute with Colorado Public Radio.

A spokesman for CPR, which paid for the study and penned the privacy agreement, confirmed that the agreement exists. He said it was signed in either October or November. The county attorney’s office has yet to respond to a request for a copy of the agreement.

Colorado Public Radio broadcasts classical music and news from National Public Radio on five stations around the state. When it announced in 1996 that it planned to open a sixth station in Glenwood Springs, CPR met stiff resistance from Aspen’s KAJX and Carbondale’s KDNK. Part of that resistance stemmed from fears that the plan would disrupt two of the frequencies used to boost their signals.

KAJX and KDNK rely on a county-owned network of translators to boost their listenership into all the nooks and crannies of the Roaring Fork Valley.

KDNK, for instance, broadcasts on 91.5 FM, but many listeners who live out of range of its transmitter receive its translator signal at 88.3 FM. Although the station does not hold a license for 88.3, said KDNK’s Allen Scott, it is allowed to use it as long as it doesn’t interfere with other radio stations.

Both stations would have to surrender translator signals – and listeners – if the Federal Communications Commission licenses CPR to broadcast on 88.9 or 88.1, the two frequencies it has applied for.

Pitkin County responded to CPR’s plan by applying for licenses on the same frequencies, which, given the current state of disarray at the FCC, halted CPR in its tracks. The FCC currently has no method for awarding broadcast licenses to nonprofit organizations.

From 1996 until last summer, CPR was very public about its desire to to set up shop in Glenwood Springs. Press releases touting CPR’s case were churned out regularly on fax machines at local newspapers, and dozens of news stories were written about the subject. CPR announced last August that it was commissioning the engineering study to see if a compromise could be reached.

“The reason we did the study,” explained Sean Carpenter, the CPR spokesman, “was because we needed a lot more information than we had.”

Carpenter declined to share the results of the study, and he’s not alone. County officials who have been asked about the study have declined comment, citing the privacy agreement.

Denver attorney Steve Zansberg said state law requires meetings to be open and documents available to the public unless certain conditions are met. Just because CPR and the county want to keep it all secret doesn’t mean they legally can.

“They can’t just sign a confidentiality agreement and make it a justification for meeting in closed session,” said Zansberg, who is on retainer with the Colorado State Press Association and The Aspen Times.

Zansberg conceded that state law gives elected officials a long list of reasons – discussions on litigation, purchase or sale of real property, security issues and personnel issues – for excluding the public from their deliberations.

He also said the law doesn’t require the county commissioners to be that specific. They are allowed to close the public out of discussions that “determine positions on matters that may be relative to negotiations.”

The Times left a message with the county attorney asking what section of the state law on open meetings was being used to close the meetings. It also requested copies of the engineering study and the privacy agreement.

In response, assistant county attorney Debbie Quinn left a message at the paper that said, “We are in settlement negotiations in connection with the FCC proceedings. As a part of our settlement negotiations and in connection with the study that was done, specifically, we agreed to maintain confidentiality pending settlement. For that reason, those documents are confidential.”

CPR spokesman Carpenter said there are no contract negotiations under way with the county. “There is no contract under discussion. That’s going too far ahead,” he said.

“We’ve given them the study and we’ve given them some recommendations,” Carpenter continued, “and they need to respond.”

Nor, at this point, is the FCC conducting any proceedings. In an interview last week, FCC spokesman David Fisk said the agency is currently devising new rules for awarding broadcast licenses to nonprofit organizations when more than one is applying for the same frequency.

Last night’s secret meeting between the Translator Advisory Board and representatives from KAJX and KDNK did not reach a conclusion, because the county’s translator engineer could not attend due to a family emergency. The meeting was continued until Feb. 8.

None of the approximately 15 people at the meeting was willing to comment after it adjourned.


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