When Max Wycisk turns his radio dial to 90.1 (CPR News) on July 1, it will be the first day in more than 40 years that he can sit back, relax, and just listen. As the president of Colorado Public Radio, Wycisk has overseen more than 550,000 hours of radio and online programming. His retirement on June 30 comes with a legacy that includes transforming CPR from a tiny, 10-watt college outlet to a statewide station—or rather, three stations: CPR News, CPR Classical, and CPR OpenAir—and thriving website that’s raked in 26 national awards and an audience of about 900,000 across all platforms. We spoke with Wycisk (whose successor, Stewart Vanderwilt, is an Austin, Texas, public radio veteran) about funding, the decline of newspapers, and the evolution of radio.
Name: Max Wycisk
Occupation: President of Colorado Public Radio
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5280: You started as a DJ on the University of Denver’s station in the mid-1970s. What was your show?
Max Wycisk: It was music. This was the mid-’70s; it was very eclectic, what they then called free-form music. A little bit of everything.
What was public radio like back then?
The original station, KCFR, was started by University of Denver students in 1970. It came out of a student initiative, but the philosophy was the same as it is now: How can we introduce things to people that they might not know about that are important? The majority of public radio organizations began as part of academic institutions. Even to this day, most public radio organizations are licensed and operated by colleges and universities.
Ninety-five percent of CPR’s $18 million budget comes from foundations, underwriters, and individual donors. How do you elicit such an enthusiastic response from your audience members?
That is a little amazing, isn’t it? It comes from giving people programming content that matters to them. So it’s not a matter of eliciting; it’s a matter of, here is programming, music, news, the whole range that has some importance to people, and the amazing thing is they make voluntary contributions to support it.
Much has changed in four decades. What’s the biggest way CPR has changed?
I’d say public radio is producing more and better content. And secondly, finding additional ways to distribute that content. It’s really an audio medium, but it can be distributed a number of ways. You can access it through a smartphone, all kinds of online ways. So the technology of radio is not what drives it, it’s the content.
How are you feeling about the future of public radio?
Public radio journalism and public radio music are growing. We think that in the next five or 10 years, our news staff will double or triple in size. It’s because so many things need to be put into context. One way I describe it is so much of the world we live in is focused on entertainment and opinion, and our role is to give people genuine information and cultural experiences that have some depth. That role isn’t going to change—it just gets bigger. It’s a responsibility to the state
But newspapers are having such a hard time. Why is public radio going strong?
The print business model has been hugely threatened. That whole advertising business model. The public radio model is voluntary contributions, which are really voluntary subscriptions in some ways.
So why is now the right time to call it a day and move on?
Colorado Public Radio is in excellent shape. It’s producing a great deal of important programming; it’s healthy financially. It’s just a very good time to say I’ve done enough and let someone else take over.