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We can celebrate — and learn from — KUNC's win

Volunteers, staff and listeners of the public radio station in Greeley, Colo., fended off an out-of-town takeover this year, raising millions in a fortnight to buy KUNC from the University of Northern Colorado. Neil Best, still manager of the station in its newly independent status, told the story in a luncheon address at the Development Exchange's Public Radio Development/Marketing Conference in July 2001.

Originally published in Current, Aug. 6, 2001
By Neil Best

Thank you very much for the opportunity to join you today and to have the chance to tell you a little bit about a public radio success story, I guess we should say, and to invite you to celebrate. What happened to KUNC should be celebrated, I think, by all of us.

A special thanks to all of the friends in the room who have been so supportive for years and especially in February. Our Friends of KUNC capital campaign is dotted with names that we recognize from throughout the country and public broadcasting. Your calls, your letters, your notes, your suggestions and your assistance have all been greatly appreciated the last few months.

I was asked to tell you a little bit about our story and share with you why we were able to raise $2 million in 20 days and to create something that didn't exist in February. On July 10, the FCC transferred the license for KUNC from the University of Northern Colorado to Community Radio for Northern Colorado. It's been an exciting ride.

Some of you have said what happened to us was really a Jimmy Stewart, It's a Wonderful Life kind of a thing. (I always thought of myself more as Neville Brand than Jimmy Stewart, but I guess we'll go with the flow on that.)

Our story really does begin 35 years ago this coming January, when KUNC signed on the air as KCBL ("kissable") radio or Colorado Broadcast Laboratory, depending on where you came from.

But before I go back to some of those things that happened over those 35 years to create where we are today, let me be go back over the last 155 days.

I got a call on Wednesday, Feb. 7th at 4 in the afternoon from the administrative assistant for our vice president of university affairs, Kay Norton. From the tremor in her voice I knew immediately something was going on. She said, "Kay wants to meet with the staff tomorrow morning at 9 o'clock. Can you have everyone there?"

And I said, "Well, we're in broadcast, we don't all show up 9 o'clock, necessarily." She says, "Well, Kay says everyone needs to be there." I said, "Can I ask what this is about?" And she says, "I don't know."

I said, "Can I speak with Kay?" She said, "No, she's not available."

So I got a hold of my staff, got a hold of my community advisory board. We met the next morning and were informed that the following day the administration was recommending to the University of Northern Colorado Board of Trustees that our license be sold the next day. We would be sold for $1.3 million to KCFR in Denver to allow KCFR to pursue its dream of providing two channels statewide in Colorado.

We kind of sat there stunned. I had no idea this was coming. It had been presented to me about two years prior as a possibility. The university couldn't find a buyer two years before and told us if we took a path of financial independence, it would keep us. And, as of July 2000, we were financially independent of the university except for in-kind support. We thought we were doing what we had been asked.

When I went to see Kay about an hour later I asked her whether we could make a counter bid for the station. She said, "You should have been doing so the last two years, Neil." And I said, "Well, I kind of work for you and you never gave me that marching order, so I didn't." I asked, "Can we make a bid tomorrow?" She said, "Well, I suppose you could." I said, "Could we ask for a special price consideration for service to the community and giving back to the community that has supported the station over the last 30-some years?"

She said, "Two million has a nice round ring to me, Neil." I said, "Could we ask for 60-90 days to raise $2 million and have a nice round ring?" She said, "The other folks have a check ready for tomorrow."

I said "okay" and went downstairs. I told the staff to go call their families and take care of business as they needed to. We broke the story at 3 o'clock because that's when KUNC does local news. I didn't think it was appropriate that we go on the air and start going, "Oh my God!" So we broke it as a news story. My news department handled it the way they would any other story.

By 4:30 that afternoon, I had talked to eight different media outlets and started getting calls from listeners and I went back up and reported to my vice president. And something had already happened.

She said, "You know, Neil, it wouldn't hurt for you to come to the trustee meeting and make your presentation and ask for some 60-90 days." And I thought, something's already happened.

We went the next day. I brought along a small stack of e-mails that I had received overnight. We asked for 60 days to raise a counter bid based on what our listeners had told us — particularly a couple of messages that I got that Thursday night. One was an e-mail from the wife of an employee, who thanked me for giving her husband opportunities when she said no one else believed in him. And then she quoted from Dylan Thomas: "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Late on Thursday night I said, "Well, Hell, we're going to rage on. What can they do? Fire us tomorrow?" So we went. Folks, you don't have to have a plan for a capital campaign. You just show up.

We showed up the next day. I took the chair of my community advisory board and some of my staff with me. And I had this little stack of e-mails to show there was support. I made our presentation, followed by the chair of our advisory board.

And then a guy got up from Louisville [Colorado] and he brought his CD covers. And, you know, you've got this hard-nosed board of trustees and this guy's up here and he goes, "I want to introduce you to the friends I've met through KUNC." And he starts holding up CD covers and telling about musicians he's learned about. He starts describing to them the living room concerts that he now does in his home, and that his fondest dream is that some day John Diliberto of Echoes will come to his house for a living room concert. And I'm kind of panicking at this point because I'm thinking, how long are they going to deal with this?

But something remarkable happened — they listened. My son's girlfriend's mother had worked a 14-hour shift at the hospital. I didn't know she was a KUNC listener. She had never spoken in public in her life, but she got up and spoke for us. In the end, the trustees gave us until the end of the month to raise $2 million. That was just 20 days. As the chair of my advisory board said, "They couldn't even have picked a month to do this that had 31 days in it." She said, "Hell, they couldn't even have given us a leap year."

Then we left the media for a moment to go downstairs. We told them: "You're going to have to wait — I need to thank these people who came to speak on our behalf."

The very first thing that happened — and I think it was the most important event of our capital campaign — was that a woman came up to me and said, "Here, I am, a single mother, a UNC student, and please don't cash this check until the end of the month, but you're important to me." She gave us a check for $250. And that's when our capital campaign got underway.

How did we then end up with $2 million in 20 days? Well, a couple of big gifts helped a lot. One couple who had been $1,000-a-year members for several years, and always very private, called us and said they'd like to visit. They came and asked 15 questions. At the end of it, they asked if the staff would stay. I explained to them we wanted to stay if allowed. They said we'll think about it and call you back.

The next day they gave us a million dollars — with the condition that we keep it secret until the very last possible moment. They did not want this to turn into a bidding war. That was our second most important gift, after that initial gift of $250.

About a week later we heard from a good friend of ours, a member of our community advisory board — you may have reported on him in years past — Tom Sutherland, who went to Beirut to be a professor and ended up staying for six-and-a-half years on an extended vacation he hadn't planned. [The former hostage and his family won a $353 million suit against the Iranian government in June.] He said, "Look, I'm going to get a settlement from the Iranian government, and I'm going to give $250,000." We announced that gift, and that told people that there was hope.

And within 20 days we raised more than $2 million from more than 2,000 families, friends, colleagues. We submitted our bid, and within 24 hours — thanks to the chairman of the board of trustees of the University of Northern Colorado, Dick Monfort — we had a radio station and a new organization called Community Radio for Northern Colorado.

How did we get that done? Well, I think it goes back to a lot of things. We morphed our community advisory board into a Friends of KUNC group. By that Saturday afternoon, a friend had arranged for us to have our website — we couldn't use any on-air time to promote what we were doing; that was deemed inappropriate. We reported it as a news story only. And we resisted the temptation to make it an hourly news story.

And I think that's key. We have to respect what my news department did there. They maintained their professionalism throughout. When it was all over (we got the word about 1:30 in the afternoon on March 1, they asked if they could break this story on the air — and I said, "No, we'll break it at 3 o'clock, when we do local news." And the second question I answered was, "Can we be in the control room and cheer?" and I said, "We don't go in the control room to cheer any other story — we won't do it for this one."

And that's what happened. We had the use of the Web, which was critical. We didn't use our air, but our friends at KGNU in Boulder used their air on our behalf. Thank you. It's also worth noting that the media love to cover the media, and they love underdogs. That all worked out on our behalf. And on March 1, we had KUNC.

But let me tell you how an earlier development helped us achieve this remarkable success for public radio. I'll let you draw your own conclusions about what is applicable to your stations.

About 1980, the university had a new vice president — John Burke, who many of you know as the founder of VisAbility, the big vendor of pledge premiums. John came to us and said, "What are you doing?" And we said, "We're doing Castor Oil public radio. It's public radio that's good for people, whether they're listening or not." And he said, "I don't mind supporting public radio, but I want to make sure that people are listening." What a remarkable concept.

In other words, he was the first one to tell us we were in a business. About the same time, Tom Church started sending out postcards, and I think the RRC ought to send those postcards out again. They said: "Think audience" and "People are listening." What a remarkable concept.

Another thing happened to us in the early '80s. CPB ended its requirement that stations have community advisory boards. An awful lot of stations got rid of theirs. We didn't. And on Feb. 8 of this last year, when we were given 20 days to raise the money, it was our community advisory board that led the charge for us. It wasn't a save-the-jobs action at KUNC. It was a save-the-station action, because the station was so important to our community.

Since we formed our board of directors, its nine members have insisted that I re-form the community advisory board. They're not afraid to have that group looking over their shoulder — they encourage it. And I think that's been very, very important to us in the growth of the station over the years and will be in the future.

I also want to mention some folks on my staff who never backed away from the challenge, never panicked. Jim Beers, my news director, and Kirk Mowers, my music director — who both spent 15 years with us — never once said, "We need to get out of here." When I hired Tara Tecu to do corporate support a couple of years ago, I told her I didn't know what was going to happen with the station, but I invited her along for the ride. She came on and never blinked, either. When Andy Segal was hired last October I didn't tell him we had problems, because I thought all of our problems had been solved. He's on the job six months, with a new baby at home, and we get this announcement. And he never blinked. Larry Selzle, our engineer, joined us last May and never blinked, either. They were there, rock solid.

What did we do to secure the audience that would later come to the rescue of the station? First of all, programming was important. David Giovannoni stated this objective a few years ago: significant programming for a significant audience. We've tried to formulate our programming to meet that standard. The programming has to be significant programming or we shouldn't be in this business. Period. And it has to serve an audience. David helped us in many ways to determine how we would achieve that at KUNC.

One of the things we did to stay in touch with the community was to send out an invoice at the end of each month to let people know the community calendar announcements we were airing. This was a direct order from John Burke: "You need to let people know the value of what you're doing." I hated the idea. It sounded like a business thing. Invoices? We shouldn't do that. Of course, there was a zero balance at the bottom of the invoice. But its value came home to me on Feb. 24th, when I was hosting Weekend Edition.And the Independent Booksellers of Northern Colorado were holding a book sale and donating 50 percent of the day's proceeds to the Friends of KUNC.

I got a call about 7:30 in the morning from a member of the Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department. He said they had collected books and wanted to know where to take them to help the station. I gave him the information and asked why he was doing this. He said, "Because, over the years, whenever we have had something go on in our community, you've told our community about it over your airwaves. It's time for us to return the favor."

Some public radio stations today will do public service announcements only when they're paid. I won't judge what happens at your stations, but I think there still needs to be room for you to do community service because it's the right thing to do, not because a check comes at the end of the month. You'll get paid in the end.

In the last 15 months, we have traveled more than 1,800 miles around our state doing site visits. In little places with 4,000 peope, we've had wonderful receptions with 70, 80 or 90 people showing up, and in our biggest cities, with tens of thousands population, we've had 8 or 14.

We told them we're willing to come and listen to what's happening in your community. I think that played a part in what worked for us.

It was critical that we all worked together. I'm bothered by how many stations I hear where there's this division, this grand canyon, that separates development from programming from engineering from general management.

That's wrong. We're all here to serve a listening audience. If we don't work together, we can't be successful. I don't care what your job is — you might be the marketing person, the program director, the general manager, the engineer, or the corporate support person, but if you don't know what's happening on your radio station, you're in the wrong business. You need to leave.

We at KUNC try to listen to each other. We try to meet together. We try to share ideas. We're not perfect, we don't do it all the time. But I think one of the things that worked for us, again during this 20-day period, was that everyone knew what everyone else was doing. It's critical for all of us to listen to our stations and be involved. Commercial broadcasters, for the greatest part, have abdicated radio as a community service. This creates an opportunity for us, but we can succeed only by staying focused on serving the listening audience.

The other day somebody gave me a file of old stuff including a copy of the Radio Code of Good Practices from the National Association of Broadcasters, circa 1964. I don't have time to read it, but go through the old files and find it. Our friends in commercial broadcasting, by and large, have forgotten what's in here.

This creates a huge opportunity for us. I think that's what happened at KUNC. A lot of our friends looked around — they found a radio station that still does public service announcements for the Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department, that puts local voices on the air, that tries as hard as we can to remember to say "please" and "thank you" when we're fundraising on the air, that tries to serve the local community as best we can. People said so much of the media are simply about corporate profits, joint operating agreements, takeovers, overnight changes. They got mad as hell and said, "Let's not take it anymore." And they raised $2 million and created Community Radio for Northern Colorado.

It's been a pleasure to be here to visit with you. I'm sorry I can't stay, but sometime between 6 and 10 o'clock tonight we throw the switch from our new studios. Tomorrow, KUNC leaves the University of Northern Colorado campus and moves into its new offices. And we look forward to continuing to serve the community that has nurtured us and supported us. And part of that community is here in this room. I thank you very, very much for the opportunity to say so.

In 27 years at KUNC, Neil Best worked his way up from Saturday night music host to station manager in 1992.


. To Current's home page
. Earlier news: KUNC keeps its independence, March 2001.
. Outside link: The station's website.

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