APR launches efforts to better connect with, serve Aspenites

Maddie Vincent
The Aspen Times

As part of KAJX Aspen Public Radio’s efforts to cater more to its news-focused audience, the station has launched a few local journalism initiatives over the past three weeks, on top of adding more national and international news offerings to its schedule.

But as highlighted in “Letters to the Editor” submitted to The Aspen Times over the past three weeks since APR launched its 2020 schedule in response to listenership trends (see story page A1), some locals are confused as to why the public radio station is now mostly airing national and international content, with some programs on the schedule two times in one day.

According to Tammy Terwelp, executive director of APR, local survey data shows many of the NPR programming aired on the KAJX station ranks most popular among local listeners, with the majority listing “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” as program favorites — a trend common across most NPR stations, Terwelp said — and roughly 95% of listeners in 2017 saying they listen to APR for national news, nearly 90% for local news. Terwelp explained that data also shows APR listeners mostly tune into the station’s programming while in their cars, and that average station listening time is about 15 minutes, aligning with national radio listening trends. So, Terwelp said repeating some of the popular programming is a way to reach a broader audience at different times of the day and also serves as a cost-saving measure to help APR put more resources toward growing its local content, which station staff are working on.

“We can repeat programs and we don’t get charged more,” Terwelp said, also noting that repeating programming is a common practice across the country. “So by having a program repeat on Saturday evenings or on a weekday evening means that more money goes to local news service and that is what is key to me. I want to funnel as much money as possible into our local reporting, our events and serving the community here in the valley.”

Aspen Public Radio, which runs the KAJX and KCJX stations, is a nonprofit that has operated out of Aspen since 1983, according to tax documents accessed through GuideStar and Charity Navigator.

With support from one-time donors, station evergreen members and the city of Aspen, the most recent tax documents show APR received $1.3 million in revenue over 2018, including $729,288 in contributions, gifts and grants; $100,000 in government grants; and $353,364 in program service revenue. The city of Aspen also announced earlier this month that it was contributing $100,000 to APR in 2020, one of its largest nonprofit contributions of the year.

Tax documents also show the station reported $1.4 million in functional expenses in 2018, including $810,649 in employee salaries, compensation and other benefits, noting a $75,000 deficit for the year.

In the coming months, Terwelp said she and her relatively new staff — five of APR’s eight current employees were hired in 2019 — are dedicated to putting more money and resources toward local news, with a special focus on producing more local in-depth features potentially through more collaboration with other valley news organizations.

“Our budget is going to allow for four people in the newsroom and many of those positions are split positions,” Terwelp said, noting the station is looking to hire a news director in the coming months.

“Obviously there are really tough decisions to be made. … Given our size, I think we’re doing a good job reporting and we want to focus on producing more features.”

On Jan. 23, APR aired its first “Rocky Mountain Why?” feature, which explored the question “Is Aspen Mountain really Swiss cheese underneath due to mining tunnels?” The new series asks listeners to submit questions or curiosities they have about life in the Roaring Fork Valley, which APR reporters then dig into and report the answers to.

One day later, the station kicked off its “Tell Me More Tour” on Aspen Mountain, a community engagement initiative that encourages locals to share what news issues and aspects of Aspen life are important them, and what APR reporting can do to better serve the community with station staff. Since Jan. 24, station staff have spent time on the Sundeck and in the Merry-Go-Round restaurant at Aspen Highlands talking with locals, and plan to visit The Collective in Snowmass and Colorado Mountain College in Rifle in the coming months as well, according to the APR website.

But the station isn’t just reporting based off listener feedback and questions; it also is giving a voice to younger generations through its “Gen Z Tea” podcast, which is hosted by Aspen High School graduates Mariel Gorsuch and Jane Marolt, and produced by Eleanor Bennett.

From YouTube to politics, the APR podcast explores “everything social media when it comes to Generation Z.”

Over the summer, Gorsuch and Marolt worked with Bennett and Terwelp to hone in on their episode ideas, conduct interviews, write scripts and ultimately produce the three episodes of “Gen Z Tea,” with “tea” being slang for “the inside scoop.”

The whole project stemmed from Gorsuch meeting Terwelp at a local event in spring 2019 and asking her about interning with APR over the summer.

Gorsuch said Terwelp asked if she’d be interested in creating a podcast focused on stories from her generation instead, which she agreed to and brought Marolt on board for.

Both teens didn’t have previous radio or broadcast journalism experience, but felt it was important for them to report on their own generation and create a podcast “by teens, for teens.”

But on top of giving a voice to their peers, the 19-year-olds also hope the podcast gives older generations a better understanding of Generation Z and its nuanced relationship with technology and social media.

“I think there are a lot of misconceptions about how we use technology and social media,” Marolt said. “People assume we just stare at our phones for hours and we’re not ever doing anything productive, which in some cases is true, but there’s more to it. … There is technology out there that’s really beneficial and I don’t think people realize technology can be used in that way.”

Through creating “Gen Z Tea,” Marolt and Gorsuch said they’ve developed a newfound respect and appreciation for radio.

For Bennett, who does some contract work for APR, produced “Gen Z Tea,” and served as a guide for Marolt and Gorsuch through the podcast making process, the experience was challenging and eye-opening.

She said working with Marolt and Gorsuch on the “Gen Z Tea” podcast makes her want to work with younger people and hear more of what they have to say about the world around them.

“I just hope that any adults reading this article or any older generations reading this really listen to what young people have to say, whether it’s from this podcast or wherever,” Bennett said.

“I think we often just assume teens are looking at their phones and they don’t want to talk about the Me Too movement or whatever so we don’t engage them in those conversations, but the truth is they probably know more about these things than we do.”

On Friday, APR will host a “tea-time and chat” event at the Gorsuch Ski Cafe with the “Gen Z Tea” hosts. The station plans to host more community events moving forward, including a community discussion on mental health in March, and is continuing to promote its new journalism initiatives, all of which Terwelp said will help APR put out more consistently local content and add to the station’s mission.

“Ultimately we are here to provide the best service possible to the people in our area, to reflect the community back to themselves,” Terwelp said. “Public radio is so important and we live here and we want to bring issues to light that maybe aren’t being reported elsewhere.”

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