Meredith Carroll: Aspen Public Radio: all things inconsiderate
It’s possible that NPR member station Aspen Public Radio wasn’t wrong last month when it eliminated virtually all music from its schedule. After all, radio programming isn’t a science, plenty of stations change formats from time to time, there is no consistently reliable ratings system available in this market, and the ways in which people can now access music and news programming is limited only to the type of device they are inescapably in proximity to at any given moment.
As an entertainment industry colleague in New York once told me: “That’s why they call it ‘show business,’ not ‘show friends.’”
What was emphatically not right, however, was how APR (where I worked in the 2000s) abruptly and coldly dismissed the volunteer DJs who collectively donated tens of thousands of hours over several decades to transforming dead air into enduring jazz playlists and other assorted noise that helped shape Aspen’s coming-of-age soundtrack.
A small slice of locals’ jazz could have been carved out to remain on, say, Sunday nights with hosts Stu Huck, Scott Harper and Jeannie Walla. The board of directors and staff could have passed around Champagne-filled public radio coffee mugs to celebrate and heap gratitude on the volunteers, some of whom devoted as many as 30 years to the station. Instead, the unpaid labor responsible for hours and hours of prime air time each week was summoned unceremoniously to APR’s nearly empty West End offices on an icy Friday evening in late January and dismissed in a matter of minutes during which time, by all accounts except one, not a single “thank you” was uttered.
The plan moving forward is for APR “to continue our principal and most imperative role of being a highly trusted source for news and information in a world filled increasingly with untrustworthy and unreliable voices,” Board President Doug Carlston wrote in a letter to the editor about the day the music died.
The problem, though, is that if the highly trusted source couldn’t be a more thoughtful and decent steward when disposing of its priceless assets, can it really be trusted to manage the stuff with actual price tags?
The station generated over $1.3 million in revenue in 2018, according to tax records that are public because APR is a nonprofit organization. That figure includes listener and board contributions, underwriting income, and a Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant for $160,000, which all but zeroed out APR’s $163,000 NPR programming bill. Eleven full-time salaries ate up more than 50% of the station’s budget two years ago, with not a single dime going to jazz programming (ask any of the former DJs how much they spent out of their own pocket on CDs over the years).
The city of Aspen announced its annual cash and in-kind awards to Roaring Fork Valley nonprofits Tuesday, with APR once again coming in as the highest non health-and-human services grantee, receiving $100,000 for 2020 (at $171,000, only Pitkin County Detox Services received more). In the needs assessment portion of APR’s 2019 grant application, the requested money was said to be, in part, for the station’s commitment to promoting “music shows with cultural value … as one of the few remaining stations in the country to offer locally produced music shows dedicated solely to classical and jazz music.” No mention was made of music in APR’s 2020 COA grant application, although the amount of funding it requested increased by $15,000.
So how has APR been filling the holes since January? Mostly with more of the same NPR programming, including now twice-daily airings of “1A” and “Fresh Air.” While more Terry Gross is never a bad thing, it seems superfluously anachronistic to even the geekiest public radio fans and junkiest of news hounds for the station to add programming repeats when everything can be streamed on a smart speaker or downloaded as a podcast.
To be sure, APR board member Katy Frisch said Sunday she “wished we could have done a better job in how we executed’’ the recent format change. According to APR executive director Tammy Terwelp, a specific plan is underway to boost the quantity and quality of the station’s local news programming, including through the search for a news director adept at “developing and crafting” community broadcasts that will more closely resonate in this media-savvy (and saturated) valley. A few promising-sounding locally produced shows also have been announced, even if arguably nothing has yet to come over the airwaves since the music stopped that reveals anything more meaningful than a good-faith use of the station’s abundant resources.
And regardless of APR’s brighter radio days sure to come, it’ll always be hard to understand how an organization built from the ground up 40 years ago by passion, sweat equity and the generosity of friends and neighbors devolved into a place so tone deaf when (mis)handling beloved members — whether employees, donors or volunteers. APR may not owe music to anyone, but it still owes an apology to everyone.
More at MeredithCarroll.com and on Twitter @MCCarroll.