After 40 years, Max Wycisk will officially retire from his role as president of Colorado Public Radio (CPR) on June 30, paving the way for a newcomer to steer the local institution into the future. His successor, Stewart Vanderwilt, is certainly up to the task. A radio veteran, Vanderwilt has been the director and general manager of Austin’s KUT and KUTX radio stations for 18 years. Prior to that, he spent 15 years at Indiana Public Radio. While he was born in Cleburne, Texas, Vanderwilt grew up 1,000 miles north of Denver in Lacombe, Canada. He returned to the U.S. for college, earning a bachelor’s degree in business and marketing from Ball State University.
Starting in July, Vanderwilt will expand on Wycisk’s vision to solidify CPR as a vital resource for Coloradans. Two of his goals? To broaden the station’s coverage to reach communities outside of Denver, and continue to cultivate the station’s focus on classical music. Here, we talked to Vanderwilt about his thoughts on our local media landscape, what he reads and listens to daily, and how he hopes to carry CPR into the future.
How did you get into the radio industry?
Like many, it was in college. I didn’t go to college to study radio; I went to college initially to study political science. I switched to business, but found the college radio station as one of those extracurricular activities that changes your life. For me, like in many universities, it was walking down into this basement where I saw this sign that said “Radio Station,” and thought, ‘Well, I’m going to go explore that.’ It ultimately became my career.
How do you think your leadership of CPR might be different?
First, I have to say that CPR is a remarkable organization built over the course of decades by Max Wycisk and his team. It’s with both honor and excitement that I have the opportunity to carry on that work. My role is to create an atmosphere in which talented people can enjoy and do their best work. If I do that, the organization will continue to progress. I feel a sense of urgency about it, because of the important role that journalism plays in a civil and healthy society. I think there is a hunger for sources of news that, one, you can trust; and two, are also committed to the communities in which they serve.
Are there certain areas where you’re interested in increasing coverage?
CPR is a growing news organization. So, as it invests in journalism, I think its inevitable that it expands coverage. What those specific areas are is something that has to be discovered. Coming in from the outside, I couldn’t immediately point to what they are. I think listening to the community and the team and supporting them in making those decisions will be my role.
Given what’s going on at the Denver Post and the cuts made there, their ability to cover every story has diminished. Do you see that as an opportunity to step in and fill that void?
I see responsibility to making Colorado Public Radio as broadly available as possible and to expand its role as a source of news throughout the state. I think that responsibility is certainly heightened by the current state of the Post and other sources. However, it will never be a replacement for it. I think communities are healthiest when there are multiple trusted and accessible sources of local journalism. The potential demise of the Denver Post is not beneficial for the community in any way. I hope that a community-focused solution is reached there. CPR will fill its role regardless, but it can’t replace having an institution such as the Denver Post.
How does public radio fit into today’s world of journalism? Why should people still listen to the radio?
I think, as a media organization, we should deliver a trans-media experience that—what you experience on mobile, tablet, audio—uses the attributes of the platforms that are delivering that content to you. There are two really special things about radio and audio, and the power of the human voice to connect to the listener in a very personal way: You are directly engaged in a uniquely human experience when you listen to audio. Whether it’s a podcast or real time on radio. The attribute of radio that continues to be uniquely powerful is its real time and live delivery, through which you can describe to people things that are happening as they happen. You can very quickly deliver to audiences important—both life-saving and life-changing—information. And the portability of it; People can listen to radio as they drive to work. I feel like radio is the most democratic of mediums, because it is universally accessible across the state. Anywhere you are, you can turn to an AM or FM radio and receive, for free, this service.
I have to ask—what is your favorite CPR program?
The CPR program that I hear most regularly is ‘Colorado Matters.’ That is their signature show. I have had the opportunity to be on the program and was pleased that I got kind of a grilling, and that was a great introduction to the strong and independent voice that CPR has. I listen a lot to ‘Open Air’ because I’m a fan of new music—being in the community that we are—that has really been fun to listen to.
What do you read and listen to everyday?
As a daily consumption, I split my time between KUT and KUTX. From a podcast, I—like many people—subscribe to way more podcasts than I end up listening to but recently one I really like is called “the Science of Happiness,” produced by Public Radio International. It’s really fascinating. Another one is one from the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) called “Out in the Open.” “Out in the Open” is conversations about deeply human topics that just don’t get had as much as they should. It’s done from a real personal place. Piya Chattopadhyay is the host, and it’s really gripping. I read the Austin American Statesmen and the Daily Texan every day. And in many ways, news finds me.
How do you see yourself adjusting to Colorado life? Do you participate in any outdoor activities?
Moving to Colorado in July seems to be perfect timing. The last two summers, my wife and I had sought out Colorado, usually in August, for a couple of weeks, but I actually grew up in the Mountain West about 1,000 miles north of Denver, outside of Calgary. I grew up basically skiing in the backyard and I hadn’t skied for about 30 years, until two years ago when a friend invited me to Telluride and I put on a pair of skis for the first time in more than a few decades. I realized that I could still do it at a relatively safe level, and I love it.