One of Kyle Cunningham’s goals as general manager of 91.5 KRCC is to stay out of the office as much as possible.
“I got into this business because I loved the people that were a part of it,” Cunningham said. “I hear from people who say, ‘I literally never turn the radio off — it’s just KRCC all the time.’ When you’re sitting behind a microphone or recording a spot, it’s really easy to lose track of the fact that people are listening, and they rely on this.”
Cunningham joined KRCC, Colorado College’s NPR-member station, as membership manager in 2016. In January, he began serving as the station’s interim general manager, a title that became permanent in September.
Cunningham has a bachelor’s degree in English from Oklahoma State University. He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife Abigail and their three dogs.
He talked with the Business Journal this week about the vital role public radio can play in rural communities.
What led you to public radio?
While I was [at Oklahoma State], my cousin actually had a job at KOSU and she was on her way out and put my name in the hat as somebody who might be able to help out. … I sort of just fell in love with it over the years. … Public radio was not really something I had considered as a career option necessarily, but when I graduated with my degree in English, I didn’t really know what was next. I looked around and thought, ‘Oh wow, this is really cool and I’m somewhat good at it — I think I’ll stick with this.’
I was enamored with the idea that the service we were providing at the radio station was something that was supported by the community in a big way. It was around the time grassroots political funding was the hot topic of the day, and I was looking around at public radio and was like, ‘Oh, well, we’re doing this, except for a media organization.’ I just thought that was really cool, and I’ve never stopped thinking that it’s pretty cool.
What are your responsibilities as general manager?
I’ve got my hands in a lot of different things — the day-to-day operations of the station, talking with our news team [and] production team, just making sure that we’re headed in the right direction as far as our strategic priorities. I’m the chief fundraiser as well. I wear a lot of different hats around here.
… That was the thing that most attracted me about the position. Of course, being able to serve the community as a membership manager is a lot of fun and very rewarding, but the idea that I could really be involved in steering the ship and serving the community in a greater capacity, I thought, was just too good an opportunity to pass up.
Does the public radio industry look different in Colorado than it did in Oklahoma?
Actually, KRCC has a lot of similarities to the station that I came from. KOSU was based out of Oklahoma City and Stillwater and had a lot of outlying coverage areas that are more rural. At KRCC, our biggest population centers that we serve are in Colorado Springs and Pueblo, and then Buena Vista and Salida, but we have a lot of outlying areas. … I think it’s always a challenge to make sure your coverage is reflective of the region that you’re serving. I think we do a pretty good job of it, but it’s something we’re always asking ourselves.
… Right now, we’ve got a team of three news people. … When we’re at full strength, we have a team of four. With those people trying to cover this broad area, it can sometimes be a challenge, but I think it’s a need — especially for some of our outlying communities that maybe don’t have a lot of local news. … We’re constantly asking ourselves questions about our coverage: ‘Is this reflective of the region that we serve, or is it reflective of one particular area?’ I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to have a story that just comes out of Colorado Springs, but certainly those are questions we’re asking ourselves a lot.
Talk about the role public radio can play in the community.
… We like to say that we are answerable to the community that we serve. We’re a nonprofit news source and we’re very proud of the fact that over half of our operating budget comes from members. I think that that makes us well positioned to really serve the communities that we reside in.
… I was talking with somebody the other day about how news coverage sometimes can be very reactionary — everything’s breaking, everything’s on fire, just hitting you every single day. … I like to say that our coverage doesn’t tell you what to think. It tells you what the facts are, and we trust you to be smart enough to figure out what your opinions are. I think public media, and specifically public radio, is uniquely equipped to tell stories of individual people, and I think you’ll find on our air that you hear stories that you probably wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to.
… One of our mandates is to educate, and I think that our programming does a good job of educating people about the issues that you should care about. I think it’s extremely important that media originate in the communities that it purports to serve, so I think it’s amazing that Colorado Springs and southern Colorado have a service like KRCC that originates in listeners’ own backyards.
With the reported decline in local news, how can public media fill the coverage gaps in rural communities?
… We’ve made a lot of changes at KRCC over the past three years or so. … We’ve tried to become more reflective of the region we serve. … Our Mountain West News Bureau is something that’s called a regional journalism collaborative, so we’ve partnered with a number of stations in states like Idaho, Utah and Nevada, and other stations in Colorado as well, to bring some of these issues of our region — like public lands and water conservation — to the national discourse. … I think we’ve made a lot of good investments over the past three years. We want to do more, but people have really stepped up and said, ‘Yes, this is what we want; this is what we need.’ We’ve seen that reflected in our fundraising numbers.
… It’s funny because when I was living in Oklahoma, that, to me, was flyover country. But I’ve heard people, especially recently, talking about the Mountain West as flyover country, and it never occurred to me until I moved out here and heard people talk about that, that it is. That’s something that’s real out here — people don’t feel as [involved] in the national news narrative, that their issues are not as important. … I think people have really embraced our Mountain West news coverage. … I think people are concerned about how those Mountain West issues feed into a national narrative. … That was such a good move for us to be a part of that collaborative.
What is your favorite part of the job?
Oh man. Without question, talking to people — I love it. In fact, it’s a goal of mine over the next year or so to not be in the office as much and be talking to the people that engage with our service, because it’s really easy to get involved in the nitty gritty of the day-to-day business, which could be frustrating and not as edifying.. … We’re people’s trusted voice in an era of some real scary, chaotic things that are happening. I’m not just talking about our national politics — in fact, I’m not talking about that at all. I’m talking about just things that happen in people’s lives. I think we’re that voice that is measured and objective.
… It charges me up to be able to talk to people that are so on fire for public radio in southern Colorado. … I just love the fact that there’s something here in this city that I love so much that is actually valuable to folks, and they really get attached to that. … Public radio listeners are people that are inquisitive, they’re generally very measured, they’re community-minded, they’re engaged, they’re educated. I’m never the smartest person in the room when I’m talking to a bunch of members. I always learn something. … I love the listeners. They’re without fail some of the best people you’ll ever meet.