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Not flashy, KBDI thrives

Release Date: 07/09/05
Author: Dusty Saunders


Kirby McClure offers a sly smile when asked about the good ol' days at KBDI-Channel 12.

Like the time when moths ate into the wiring of the secondhand transmitter on Squaw Mountain, knocking the station off the air for several hours.

Or the long hours employees and volunteers spent in a cramped, uncomfortable studio and office - a converted Quonset hut in a Broomfield industrial area, next to a garage and karate studio at West 116th Avenue and Pierce Street.

McClure, Channel 12's program manager, offers another wry smile. "Maybe those days weren't so good after all."

McClure is the Channel 12 employee with the most longevity, starting shortly after the station went on air in February 1980. He, along with several other veteran employees, could spend hours talking about the early days when Channel 12 was, to use a well-seasoned bromide, a shoestring operation.

The station struggled mightily for several years because it was a community-operated public TV station - not funded by a state legislature, college or university.

Kim Johnson, vice president of broadcast operations, recalls that in the '80s Channel 12 once used an old-fashioned meat thermometer to determine how hot the transmitter was getting.

Licensed in 1979 to serve the Front Range, there were times when Channel 12's signal never made it past the front porches of residents of Broomfield and Boulder.

The station, in those early years, was off the air as much as it was on. Appropriately, reruns of The Twilight Zone were among the first programs aired.

It was the late '90s before Channel 12 began broadcasting with what is considered state-of- the-art analog equipment. And compared to rival TV outlets, Channel 12's on-air look still doesn't display a flashy style. The station always has been more concerned with content.

Legal problems almost made Channel 12 a stillborn electronic entity. Rival KRMA-Channel 6 pursued a variety of legal maneuvers to keep the station off the air, claiming Channel 12 would be duplicating public television services while competing for the donor dollars.

Also, John Schwartz, one of the station's initial founders, was in hot water with the Federal Communications Commission because of previous financial dealings with a community station in the Pittsburgh area.

Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Channel 12, with studio and offices at the Five Points Media Center, has survived and thrived because it airs local programming not found regularly on Channel 6 or the commercial stations.

Some refer to Channel 12 as a secondary public TV station, because Channel 6 provides viewers with the core of the PBS schedule. Will "Wick" Rowland, who took over as president and general manger in 1999, bristles at the word "secondary."

He prefers alternative, noting the station is filled with programs that "differentiate."

"We're out of the mainstream because, by agreement, we carry only 25 percent of the core PBS schedule on a delay basis," says Rowland, former dean of the University of Colorado Journalism School.

"We're not in direct competition with Channel 6 for national programming. Obviously we're competitive for viewers and dollars. But our mission is to provide shows not found regularly on Denver television - programming about local issues that will create discussion, even controversy."

Under Ted Krichels, Rowland's predecessor, Channel 12 was one of the country's first public stations to produce programs about gay rights, abuse of minorities, gun control, First Amendment issues and other controversial subjects.

Weekly series such as Colorado Inside Out and Colorado Inside Out Live provide forums for discussion on major local issues.

Channel 12 has gradually moved into the political arena, with Aaron Harber moderating ongoing debates featuring candidates and issues. Even in the political "off-season," Harber's schedule tackles major political hot topics.

And Channel 12's lineup belies the theory that public television caters only to a liberal audience. It's safe to say that Jon Caldara (Independent Thinking) and Reggie Rivers (Drawing the Line) are not cut from the same political cloth.

Viewers searching for a different national and international news perspective find BBC News at 5 a.m., 6:30 and 10 p.m. daily.

Rowland, aware that funding for public television is in a crisis mode, still looks toward the future.

"One goal is to air a daily newscast dealing with important local issues. And I'd like more regular programming about art and culture - particularly with a local perspective. Denver should have a regular series like Austin City Limits, which reflects the musical culture of our area.

"We'd be the station to do it, since much of our early live programming dealt with local music. That's part of our heritage."

There's a touch of irony regarding Rowland's leadership position at Channel 12. In 1979 he was director of long-range planning for PBS in Washington, D.C.

"I read in a broadcasting magazine about a colorful group of individuals who were attempting to put on a locally oriented, alternative station in Colorado," Rowland recalls.

"I thought at the time, 'That will never work.' "

CELEBRATING  25

KBDI-Channel 12, celebrating its 25th anniversary, has a variety of special programming planned to display coverage that is the station's trademark. Among the highlights:

  • Colorado Inside Out (8 p.m. Friday): Host Peter Boyles and the regular panel provide a "historical" discussion about the important issues of July 1980.
  • After Joaquin (9 p.m. July 20): A documentary that examines the Crusade for Justice, the life of Corky Gonzales and his role in the Chicano movement in Denver.
  • Museum, Museum (7 p.m. July 27): The first episode of this arts series will examine the life and times of Vance Kirkland and his Denver museum.
  • Stories of Elyria (8 p.m. Aug. 3): A look at the Northwest Denver community that's rich in cultural history but facing an uncertain future.
  • Beyond the Shelter Door (9:30 p.m. Aug 3.): Survivors of domestic abuse discuss their lives as they leave the shelters that have helped them survive desperate situations.

Dusty Saunders is the broadcasting critic for the Rocky Mountain News. This column is reprinted courtesy of the Rocky Mountain News.

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