Colorado Public Radio, Colorado Symphony part ways after 15 years

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Colorado Public Radio and the Colorado Symphony have ended their 15-year relationship after a disagreement over the value of the symphony’s performances to the station and a demand for editorial control over coverage of the ensemble.

CPR stopped airing symphony performances as of Nov. 30, ending an arrangement that had been in place since 1999.

Colorado Symphony CEO Jerome Kern said that in addition to providing performances to CPR free of charge, the symphony had bought underwriting on the station, to the tune of about $91,000 in the last fiscal year. In the symphony’s eyes, it was giving CPR not only valuable content but cash as well, Kern said.

“In return for which, they gave us nothing,” Kern said. “Their position has been that the exposure itself is compensation enough.”

Kern, who took over as c.e.o. in January 2013, said that when the symphony received a request to renew its agreement with CPR, it felt that the arrangement in effect did not reflect the value of the broadcasts. Rather than charge for the content, Kern issued a counter-proposal asking for concessions that included mentioning the symphony website, promoting concerts and interviewing guest conductors and others associated with the symphony.

“We produce some of the greatest music in the country, and we aren’t going to just give it away,” Kern said.

But the symphony’s requests regarding editorial content such as required interviews proved to be a sticking point. In CPR’s view, agreeing to such content would amount to a breach of editorial protocol and values, and the network declined the symphony’s counter-offer.

“They said, ‘Sign the old agreement or the relationship doesn’t move forward,’” Kern said. “So we said, ‘What we’re hearing is, it’s our way or the highway.’ And we said, ‘We’ll take the highway.’”

Sean Nethery, CPR’s senior v.p. of programming, said the editorial request was a non-starter and not open to negotiation. Such an agreement would breach CPR’s firewall between its underwriting and editorial departments, he said.

“It ran counter to the agreement we’ve had over the last 15 years,” Nethery said. “It just wasn’t tenable. We can’t have any other organization telling us how to do editorial, just as we wouldn’t tell the symphony how to do their shows.”

Agreeing to the symphony’s conditions would also have put the pubcaster at odds with other community arts organizations it works with, Nethery said.

“We always carried [the symphony] because we thought it served Coloradans,” Nethery said. “But any agreement we had with them had to be clear and consistent with the agreements that we do with everyone. We have to treat everyone the same way.”

The symphony would have been happy to work out another deal, Kern said, but would not agree to one under which it felt the organization didn’t receive its due.

“They don’t have to do it that way — they can just pay us for the content,” Kern said of the symphony’s counter-offer. “We’re one of the best symphonies in the country, and we’re done giving it away.”

Like many other symphonies in the U.S., the Colorado Symphony has been struggling with its finances and finding new sources of revenue. According to the group’s IRS Form 990 for the year ending June 30, 2013, the symphony posted a loss of $1.3 million on $10.8 million in revenue. The previous year, the symphony lost $788,069 on $11.7 million in revenue.

Kern did not draw a salary and loaned the organization $400,000 in fiscal year 2013. He said he did not have the results for fiscal year 2014 but that losses have dropped, and the symphony expects to at least break even in fiscal year 2015.

According to the Colorado Symphony, close to 150,000 people attend its 90 annual performances. New events like a “Classically Cannabis” event and a push to find support from corporations and nonprofits should help the symphony become profitable, Kern said. It may also try streaming a January concert online.