Life According To… Max Wycisk

The longtime president of Colorado Public Radio talks to 5280 about creating good citizens, the medium of radio, and the future of public broadcasting.

June 2011

I moved to Colorado from Minnesota in the late ’60s to go to graduate school at the University of Colorado Boulder. I came out with a Ph.D. in literature and philosophy and began to volunteer at Colorado Public Radio as a DJ. We played everything: classical, jazz, rock. It was a very eclectic mix.

I was attracted to the station because noncommercial radio is grounded in the same principles as the academic system I came out of. Here, we try to get information and music out to people.

Our job is not to just entertain. It is to give people substance on topics like social issues and politics. People describe what we do as continuing education.

We differ from other media because we’re not just a media organization. We want to foster the public good and introduce people to new kinds of things. We want to help people learn and give them the background to become good citizens.

One of the most important things about the medium of radio is that everyone has one. You wake up to the radio, you listen to it in your car, and at work. It’s an easy way to receive news and music.

People love radio because the human voice is powerful. The speaker comes through in a very personal way—you can get a sense of a situation and whether the person’s words are honest or not.

How public broadcasting is funded is very vague for most listeners. Federal funding was critical in the beginning and is still important, but if we lose that funding, public broadcasting will go on. Six percent of our funding is from the federal government. That’s $688,000—and it makes a difference. But it’s not life or death.

We cannot continue to finance our government the way that we have been. Congress is looking at cutting Medicare and Head Start—they’re looking at everything. I think some people with ideological views want to cut public broadcasting, but overall, the drive is for deficit reduction.

I grew up in Minnesota a long time ago, but I think the general difference between the states is that Minnesotans tend to be less transitory than Colorado. People grow up and stay there, so they have a longer-term perspective. There is always a major influx of people in Colorado, and that leads to shorter-term thinking.

Colorado is great at all the things you need to create a whole person—there’s such an emphasis on lifestyle and recreation and being active. There is a curiosity here, a focus on culture and neighborliness.

One time, we brought in some listeners and asked them to talk about their perceptions of Colorado. We asked them to draw a picture. Uniformly, they draw a sun in one corner, the mountains in another, and then cultural and sports facilities down below—and they connect that to their neighborhoods.

In a town like Denver, if you want to talk to an elected official or your children’s principal, you can do that. There is a kind of informality and accessibility that you don’t find in a lot of places.

I don’t think much about the past. I’m focused on doing better work in the coming years. But we’ve come a long way from being a student station at the University of Denver in 1970.